The Time Known as Shovavim
The author of Beer Hetev cites the words of the Arizal concerning Shovavim, the period of time that extends from Parsha Shemot to Parsha Mishpatim: These are days favorable for Tikkun, spiritual awakening, repentance, and increasing our faith in G-d. (See also Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 685:2).
We may in fact ask why these days carry such importance. The month of Elul is also quite favorable for Teshuvah, and the approach of Yom Kippur literally makes people quake. What do these days of Shovavim possess, days in which no one fasts or refrains from speaking, that does not exist during the month of Elul?
We must first of all praise G-d, Who filled the Sages and Prophets of Israel with wisdom, intelligence, and insight. They are the ones who marvelously divided the Torah into weekly sections. Moses transcribed the Torah from the mouth of G-d with such perfection that each of its letters can be interpreted in a thousand ways. The Talmud recounts that Rabbi Akiva suggested a multitude of Halachot for each of the tagim (“crowns”) over the letters (Menachot 29b). The Mishnah advocates that we repeatedly review the Torah, for everything is in it (Perkei Avoth 5:21). The Torah – the secret of secrets – alludes to everything. Happy is the one who can perceive this! Happy is the one who “does not deviate…right or left” (Deuteronomy 17:11) from the Torah.
Moses commanded us to read sections of the Torah on Saturdays and festivals (Yerushalmi Megillah 4:1), and Ezra commanded us to read them on Mondays and Thursdays, as well as on Saturday afternoon (ibid., Bava Kama 82a). A difficult question arises: Are we not obligated to constantly study Torah, as it is written: “This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth; rather you should contemplate it day and night” (Joshua 1:8); “You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way…” (Deuteronomy 6:7); “If not for My covenant [the Torah], I would not have appointed days and nights, the decrees of heaven and earth” (Jeremiah 33:25)? The verse, “If you follow My decrees” (Leviticus 26:3) means, “That you should labor in [studying] Torah” (Torat Kohanim ibid.).
Why should we not be content with reading the Torah, for example, only once per year? Why, moreover, must seven people ascend to the Torah on Shabbat (Megillah 21a)? Why not six or eight? Finally, why did the Holy One, blessed be He, command us to remember for our entire lives, both day and night, the exodus from Egypt (Berachot 12b)? Could we not simply recall this during the holiday of Passover, or once per month for example?
Before providing answers to all these questions, let us cite an important passage from the Zohar: “Woe to him who believes that the holy Torah recounts everyday stories. The entire Torah is an assembly of awesome secrets” (Zohar I:10b; II:82b; III:152b). Furthermore, “Each of its letters guides man in his life. They are pearls that illuminate his path” (Zohar III:202a). Thus the greater spiritual level we reach, the more sound advice we need, for each piece of advice given to man is only valid for the time it is given (not for the high level he has reached). It is therefore appropriate to diligently engage in Torah study in order to know what advice to accept.
If we refrain from studying Torah – if we do not serve G-d as we should – this signals that the advice we have received was not sound enough to wage war against the evil inclination, and that we are susceptible of being defeated by it. This is because the yetzer hara (evil inclination) only aims at making a man sin, at weakening him, and at subjecting him to hardships in order to dissuade him from studying Torah, reciting prayers, and performing mitzvot. It is even capable of making him deny G-d.
It is therefore not enough to be filled with faith, to recite prayers, to give to charity, to listen to Torah lectures, and to perform good deeds. We are required to diligently engage in Torah study. We will then receive heavenly assistance that will enable us to perform mitzvot with greater fervor and eliminate all traces of the evil inclination. Our victory in mastering ourselves will earn us reward both in this world and the World to Come.
Our Sages therefore commanded us to publicly read sections of the Torah because there are Jews who study Torah at home without understanding it, their only goal being to fulfill the mitzvah of Torah study. Now, as we have seen, it is only more than fitting that we propose original Torah ideas, that we learn why we perform a given mitzvah, and that we understand it to perfection. With respect to this, the Talmud advises us to constantly revise our studies (Sanhedrin 99a).
Torah study instills us with the character strength of our Patriarchs, who managed to eliminate their evil inclination to such a degree that they became “the Chariot of the Divine Presence” (Zohar I:213b). They reached such a level solely by their diligent study of Torah. When they desired to rest a little from their tasks, misfortunes came down upon them. Such was the case, for example, with our Patriarch Jacob (Bereshith Rabba 84:3). Shalvah (“rest”), which has the same numerical value (341) as ashem (“guilty”), leads the evil inclination to find a small opening through which to seep into a person’s heart and render him guilty.
The Sages therefore established the reading of the Torah sections on Mondays and Thursdays, as well as during Mincha of Shabbat, to order that we may be fully instilled with it and discover new Torah insights.
In this way we will reflect upon the miracles that Hashem performed for our Patriarchs. We will meditate upon Creation, the ten plagues of Egypt, and the death of four-fifths of the Children of Israel who refused to leave Egypt (Tanhuma Beshalach 1). We will also think about faith in G-d and in His servant Moses, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the miracles that occurred there (Mechilta, Shemot 15b), the war of Amalek that was caused by a decline in Torah study (Bechorot 5b), the giving of the Torah, and so on. From this we will draw the strength necessary to fight the evil inclination and defeat it.
If the Torah established the number of people who ascend to read it on Shabbat at seven, it was for us to draw strength and instill ourselves with divine assistance during the six days of the week, as well as to fight the evil inclination. The number seven represents Shabbat, a time when all the forces of evil flee and we can dominate the evil inclination. This is because Shabbat represents the summit of purity, holiness, and Torah study (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabba 1). Hence one who diligently engages in Torah study (just as one who simply listens to it or reads it without understanding) can achieve lofty spiritual levels. Such people will enjoy a foretaste of the World to Come, for as the Talmud teaches, “the awe of Torah seizes even ordinary individuals” (Yerushalmi Demai 4:1). The one who uses this holy day to deepen his Torah understanding will rejoice both in this world and the World to Come, and the effects of this study will protect him during the six days of the week.
The eighth person who ascends to the Torah (maftir) embodies extremely lofty spiritual levels (see Kohelet Rabba 11:5). As we have seen, the number eight is above the count of the weekly cycle, above nature. The one who has attained the perfection of Shabbat can merit the World to Come, and come Saturday night it is very difficult for him to part from the extra soul he received on Shabbat (Betzah 16a).
This period of time, called Shovavim, is thus very important because on it we read the weekly Torah sections that deal with the descent of the Children of Israel into Egypt, the decree against all the Hebrew male infants, the cries of the Children of Israel in their terrible servitude, the exceptional devotion of the wise women Shifrah and Puah (Jochebed and Miriam), as well as their reward: Batim (houses) of Priests, Levites, and royalty (Sotah 11b). We also read of Batiah (“daughter of G-d”), who saved Moses from the waters of the Nile. The text mentions batim (in the plural), alluding to many Batiah (who saved Moses) – many batim because Moses was equal to the entirety (batim) of Israel (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:64). Batiah is sent to save each individual Jew, and Moses (who was saved by her) saved the Jewish people with the Torah.
These weekly Torah sections also mention the sin of forbidden speech (which has so greatly prolonged our exile), the revelation of G-d amidst the burning bush (specifically there in order to demonstrate to the Children of Israel that G-d was “with him in distress” – Psalms 91:15), the exodus from Egypt after the ten plagues, the descent of the manna, the giving of the Torah, and the glorification of G-d’s Name among the nations.
The Shovavim appreciably strengthen our Torah study, our faith, and our confidence in G-d. They help us in reciting our prayers with a maximum of fervor and they hasten the redemption, instilling us with all kinds of virtues. The last parsha of this period, Mishpatim, teaches us that to attain these virtues and arrive at performing all the mitzvot and mishpatim (ordinances), it is necessary to diligently engage in Torah study (Pasha Yitro) in order to perform the divine precepts to perfection (Parsha Mishpatim).
It is not enough to be filled with sincere faith in G-d and perform good deeds. Of primary importance is the constant and regular study of Torah. Diligent Torah study enables us to carefully put G-d’s commandments into practice (Deuteronomy 5:1), for “not study but practice is the essential thing” (Perkei Avoth 1:17). The study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot finally enable us to triumph over the evil inclination at all times.
Other than these important subjects, the weekly Torah sections that we read during this period of Shovavim deal with all the holidays, as well as the mitzvah of Tefillin, Shabbat, and circumcision, which is equal to all the divine precepts (Zohar II:89a).
Amalek, who waged war against Israel, alludes to Haman (Purim) and the Greeks (Chanukah), who tried to spiritually exterminate the Jews. The exodus from Egypt alludes to Passover and also leads to it. The giving of the Torah (the Ten Commandments) alludes to Shavuot. The plague of darkness, during which time four-fifths of the Children of Israel perished, alludes to the destruction of the Temple, which was brought about by baseless hatred and forbidden speech (Yoma 9b).
There are 50 days of Teshuvah that separate the exodus from the giving of the Torah. This period aims at rectifying the 49 degrees of impurity into which the Children of Israel had sunk. They correspond to the 50 days that elapse from the first day of Elul until Shemini Atzeret, and they include Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hashanah Rabba, and Simchat Torah. During these days we repent of our wicked deeds. Even Tu B’Shevat, which is a type of Rosh Hashanah, occurs during the time of Shovavim. Thus all the holidays are represented in it.
During these days we are given divine help for the rest of the year, and our faith in G-d and Torah study are strengthened. The recollection of the exodus from Egypt during this time of Shovavim sanctifies all the days of the year.