This week begins the period of Shovevim, the six-week period named after the acronym of the six Torah portions from the week of Shemot to and including the week of Mishpatim.
This word appears in Jeremiah 3:22, which begins: “Shuvu banim shovavim – Return o’ mischief makers.”
The period in which these portions are read typically falls around Tevet-Shevat in the Hebrew calendar (corresponding to January-February).
Among Chasidim, this period is one of teshuvah, fasting, and selichot. And the Jewish Kabbalistic-ethical works talk about this period being one of teshuvah and introspection.
What is going on in the parshiyot of Shemot, Va’eirah, Bo and B’shalach? What is the story behind the story? What is the larger cosmic drama that is being played out?
There are two major characters, Moshe and Pharaoh. And according to the Baal Shem Tov, each of the two main characters represents a different perspective. Moshe represents and is identified with knowledge of Hashem; and Pharaoh, a symbol for Egypt, represents the lack of knowledge of Hashem.
Why is this the time of year in which we now find ourselves one of teshuvah and introspection? Because just as in this period the Jews are leaving Mitzrayim, their physical and spiritual exile led by Moshe Rabbeinu, in order to acquire knowledge of Hashem, so too, as we read these parshiyot, we are asked to relive the experiences of our forefathers of leaving Egypt.
So what is our modern day Galut Mitzrayim? Egypt, as characterized by Pharaoh, is a place without knowledge of Hashem, without awareness of God. While the Jews in Egypt may have intellectually known about Hashem from their ancestors, they only called out to Him once their suffering became unbearable. So too, in the dead of winter, when the days are short and the nights are long and cold, we experience a world that appears to be without Hashem, without God’s presence tangibly in our lives. And the challenge of these parshiyot, of Shovevim, is to leave our personal exile and bring Hashem into our lives – to be our own Moshe Rabbeinu by bringing awareness of God into our lives, just as Moshe did for Bnei Yisrael in Egypt.
If the winter season with its cold, short days is an apt metaphor for the disappearance of God’s presence from our lives, sunlight, is an equally appropriate metaphor for the obvious presence of God, for His warmth and light, in our lives. It is with the spring, and the holiday of springtime, Pesach, the holiday of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, that the symbolic absence of God ends and the presence of Hashem becomes tangible in our lives once again.
So, today, how do we free ourselves from our own personal spiritual exile? Well, let’s look at the parshiyot of Shovevim. If this period was all about leaving Egypt it would be called Shovev. Because, after Parshat Beshalach, after Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Jews are no longer enslaved to Pharaoh. But it is called Shovevim and includes Yitro and Mishpatim. At the end of Mishpatim the Jewish people accept the Torah. And that is where they say Naaseh Ve-nishmah.
Bnei Yisrael choosing to accept the Torah is the end of their physical and spiritual exile. So too whenever we make a choice, a conscious decision, in our own small part, we are bring awareness of Hashem into our lives. How do we implement each priceless morsel of advice? The only way is to pray for it.
Nothing is as conducive to changing a person for the better as personal prayer. Even if a person has extensive knowledge, he isn’t always able to implement what he knows and live by it. But by praying to implement what he has learned, a person more deeply internalizes what his brain knows. Once the knowledge has penetrated the heart, a person can “wholeheartedly” live by it. Nothing is as effective as personal prayer to internalize a concept.
So through our praying and talking to G-d on a personal level as one would talk to a friend on the phone, we can attain our desire to do good and become closer to Hashems awareness in our lives and be that much closer to the full redemption in our time. And by spring time we too will merit the exile from Egypt and all it entails in our days, please G-d. Amen!