Iyar is the month after Nissan and the Exodus. Talk about a hard act to follow!
Iyar is referred to as the month of radiance or budding, "ziv" in Hebrew. There are several reasons for this, and the more we look at the events that took place in this month, the more we will understand its unique power.
Reading the Letter
Regardless of where you stand politically, there is something about receiving a personal letter from the president of the United States on White House stationery. It is doubtful that you would yawn, relegate the letter to the pile of junk mail and forget about it. You'd open it up and read it very carefully. And if you found the language ambiguous or florid, you'd make every effort to understand each word, even if it meant enlisting the aid your friend's brother-in-law who speaks fluent diplomatese. You are fully aware of the power that lies behind every word of the president.
The affect of the Exodus and everything that preceded it was that the Jewish people had a glimpse of God's love for us, His power, and His majesty. We were ready to read His letter, so to speak, which in this context means receiving His word, the Torah. When we reached Mara on Rosh Chodesh Iyar (which incidentally fell out on Shabbos the year of the Exodus), we were ready to hear the King's word.
In order to prepare us, two things had to happen. The first was experiential; the second intellectual.
When the Jews arrived at Mara, they discovered that the only accessible water was bitter. Moshe was instructed to throw a tree into the water, which miraculously made the water sweet. Already fully aware that God controls nature from the miracles that were still fresh in our memories, what did experiencing yet another miracle add to our repertoire?
The way we experience life itself is often bitter, but it does not have to remain so. With God's help, there is sweetness.
This miracle demonstrated the concept that the way we experience life itself (which is symbolized by water, the source of all physical nurture) is often bitter, but it does not have to remain so. With God's help, there is sweetness.
There is a vast difference between hopelessness and bitterness. The voice of despair tells us, "You have no value, your life is shattered. Go to sleep, have a chocolate, and enjoy oblivion."
The voice of bitterness is completely different. It tells us, "You don't have to put up with this silently. Spit out the tainted flavor your life has taken. Meet the challenge in front of you. Get moving."
When we allow ourselves to feel the bitterness that life so often dishes out, we sometimes are stuck. We want change, but we don't know how to bring it about. What the Jews saw that day in Mara (which means "bitter") was that the first step is to take the primordial tree of knowledge of good and evil and throw it into the water. What this means in non-mystic language is that we must realize that there are choices to be made, and it is up to us to choose uncontaminated by our subjectivity or emotional agendas.
How do we know that our choices are right? After all, we humans can read good into the worst evil, and have done so many times. We also can look at choices that are pure and real, and reframe them as wrong or worse if they don't fit into our plans.
In order to provide us with more than a sealed letter, God let us know that the information is at hand, and presented us with a taste of what the Torah would be like even before it was given, so that we could savor some of its sweetness. At Mara, God presented us with three mitzvot, commandments, each one encapsulating an entire category of Jewish law. According to the Maharal of Prague, the famous medieval Talmudist and mystic, each category relates to one of three aspects of who we are: the physical, the intellectual, and the spiritual.
THE THREE COMPONENTS
"Chukim" are mitzvot that relate to our physical identity. Their message is that everything physical has a spiritual source, and we can find meaning and eternity in physical reality instead of banality and decline. The key is letting God take us beyond our view of reality. We are locked into seeing everything through the prism of time and space, which means that we never really get beyond the physical package that houses spiritual reality.
In Mara, we received our first Chok (singular of chukim) -- the arcane ritual of the red heifer. It is arguably the most cryptic of all of the commandments in the entire Torah. It was given as a sample of many other commandments (such as the kosher laws) that are not easily interpreted. This of course doesn't mean that they have no purpose other than eliciting obedience to God (which would certainly be valid enough). What it does mean is that we are willing to let go of our need to force everything into a little box called 'My Mind,' or reject it outright.
By moving beyond our limited information base, we can uplift who we are physically.
"Aidot" are commandments that commemorate events. Our emotions and spiritual awareness are based on memory, and aidot offer us the possibility of acquiring memories that have spiritual meaning. Shabbos was given to us at Mara. From that point onward we have the opportunity to teach ourselves that we are God's creations, and that we have inherent value. We are not alone in this regard. Every other person we meet is an expression of Divine will. When we live this message out week after week, everything changes. We discover within us the emotional fortitude to deal with life in a world in which everything has purpose.
The last category is Mishpatim, laws of justice. At Mara God gave us the laws of honoring our parents (according to another opinion, the mishpatim were laws of how to set up a fair system of judgment). These laws sit well with us intellectually. After all, no one wants to be tried in a kangaroo court, or find himself or herself abandoned by children that they raised with love and devotion. What the Torah adds is the specifics that move the laws beyond random platitudes fueled by good intentions by giving them flesh and blood details. A judge may not favor the poor any more than he favors the rich in order to even things out according to his own arbitrary understanding of the case. A child must speak to a parent respectfully even if they think that their parent is speaking nonsense.
These three categories redefine us as people and gave us the inner readiness to read the King's letter.
These three categories redefine us as people. We needed this as a prelude to receiving the Torah. It gave us inner readiness to read the King's letter. This is radiance! This is how a bud opens! Once the sun begins to rise and a flower begins to bloom, there is no going back. A transformation has occurred. For this reason God told the Jews who left Egypt that if they obey the laws that He set forth, they will never suffer the diseases that God used as a weapon against the Egyptians. What this means is that we will never again be Egyptian in any sense of the word.
The fate of the Jews and the fate of the Egyptians are not entwined. They had no ability to discover any form of challenge or meaning in their illnesses. For them, everything "just happened because it happened" and the meaning is beyond human interpretation. For the Jew, the world is an ongoing creation in which there is challenge, potential, and hidden compassion even in the midst of serious illness. In the prophetic era it was even possible for any one of us to go to a prophet and ask him to reveal the reason that we are suffering. We would then be able to focus our energies on rectifying the source of the illness, rather than addressing all of our resources to its external manifestations.
Iyar was the month in which God promised that our illness would not be random. In fact the word Iyar in Hebrew is an acronym for the phrase Ani Hashem Rophecha, which means, "I am God, your Healer." It is a month that is especially auspicious for all forms of healing.
The manna that fell from heaven and sustained the Jews in the desert for 40 years began to fall on the 15th of Iyar. This food had two remarkable properties; spiritually it forged awareness of the degree to which God is involved in our material sustenance. This was a necessary step to ready us to receive the Torah. We had to have the consciousness of the degree to which God is involved in our lives, and the degree to which our deeds affect our fate. It caused our latent love and trust in God to be actualized by our day-to-day reliance upon Him for our food. Physically it was perfect food; it caused no illnesses. This, too, led us to blossom as a people.
The 18th of Iyar is the 33rd day of the Omer. What is the Omer? The Torah commands us to count the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot (although of course we know the amount of days that elapsed) as a way of showing our anticipation of finally receiving "the letter." On Passover an offering of barley was made. This is significant because in the ancient world, barley was animal food. This symbolizes that while we were physically free when we left Egypt, we were not yet spiritually evolved.
On Shavuot the offering was wheat, from which bread is made. We had evolved and were now ready to receive the Torah.
Many years later, a plague struck Rabbi Akiva's students during this period. 24,000 died, creating a vacuum that could have led to the entire oral tradition being lost. But Rabbi Akiva had the fortitude to begin all over again with a core of five students. The plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer, which is celebrated because, in effect, it meant that the message, the letter, would never be forgotten.
One of the five students that Rabbi Akiva taught was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In spite of extreme persecution by the Romans (which necessitated Rabbi Shimon hiding in a cave in the Galilee for 13 years) Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai became one of Judaism's brightest lights. He wrote the Zohar, which literally means the Book of Splendor, which is the backbone of Jewish mystic writings. The illumination that he shed upon the hidden aspects of Torah is compared to Moshe's role in transmitting the revealed parts of Torah.
The anniversary of his death is Lag B'Omer. It too is a day of radiance and blossoming. He promised his students that he would pray for those who visit his tomb in Meron on the anniversary of his death, and join him in what he called his holiday.
The person we are on the day of our death is the ultimate self-statement.
Most of us would associate celebration with a birthday, rather than the day someone died. Being born isn't much of an achievement. The person we are on the day of our death is the ultimate self-statement. The righteous ascend higher and higher each year, as their deeds have greater and greater impact on the world that they left behind. For this reason there is a huge religious folk festival in Meron every year. Last year's attendance broke the quarter of a million mark. If you ask people what it's about, you will hear many answers. Some are there to pray. Some to celebrate, but they are all sure of one thing; the Jewish people are still in bloom.
The mazal/sign of Iyar is Taurus, an ox eating grass. This is a symbol of an animal of great strength (in fact the ox is the strongest of the domesticated animals) eating, growing and progressing.
Have a great Iyar!