R. Shimon Bar Yochai and his son R. Elazar hid in a cave from the Romans. “A miracle occurred and a carob-tree with a water well were created for them. They would strip their garments and sit up to their necks in sand. The whole day they studied; when it was time for prayers they robed, covered themselves and prayed. [After prayers] they disrobed again, so that [their clothes] should not wear out. This is how they lived for twelve years in the cave. Then Elijah [the Prophet] came and stood at the entrance of the cave and called out, “Who will inform the son of Yochai that the emperor is dead and his decree was annulled? So [R. Shimon and his son] emerged. When they saw a man ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed in surprise, ‘Do people [actually] forsake the eternal life and engage in a temporal life?!’ Whatever the [two men] cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up. Thereupon a Heavenly Voice came forth and cried out, ‘Did you emerge to destroy My world: Return to your cave!’ So they returned and lived there [another] twelve months, saying, ‘The punishment of the wicked in hell is [limited to] twelve months.’ A Heavenly Voice came forth [again] and said, ‘Go forth from your cave!’ and they left. Whatever R. Elazar destroyed, R. Shimon healed, wherupon R. Shimon said to R. Elazar, ‘My son! You and I are sufficient for the world.’ On the eve of Shabbos before sunset they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. What are these for?’ they asked him. ‘They are in honor of Shabbos,’ he replied. ‘But one [bundle] should suffice you’? The man answered, One is for ‘Remember [the day of Shabbos]’ (Shemos 20:8) and one for ‘Observe [the day of Shabbos] (Devarim 5:12).’ R. Shimon said to R. Elazar, ‘See how precious the commandments are to Israel?’ And their minds were at ease” (Shabbos 33b).
Food is sustenance for the body and smell is sustenance for the soul, and the rule is that by sustaining the body, the soul’s sustenance gets weaker. Asks Reb Nosson (Hilchos Ma’achlei Akum 2), if eating weakens the soul, how can we ever be allowed to eat? He answers that the Jews uplift and sanctify their eating with purity and holiness. And the source they draw from, the essence of all holy and fixed eating, is Shabbos. On Shabbos, our eating is sustenance for the soul. And even our eating during the week needs to draw from that holy eating. “This is the essence of all of our work, during the six days of the week”. says Reb Nosson. “We’re trying to select the good from the bad”.
The twelves tribes correspond to the twelve months. The past month of Tishrei, which was stacked with Holidays is represented by Ephraim, Joseph’s son, who, as the younger of two sons, was standing on Jacob‘s left for his blessing but prophetically received Jacob’s right hand, because he was destined to be the greater of the two boys.
This month of Cheshvan, which has no holidays, is represented by Menashe. Menashe was the son who would be a master of living in the mundane world and uplifting it. Just as his father, Joseph, was able to remain steadfast and loyal to God as a young man in a foreign land, so too Menashe represents the excellence of raising the sparks of everyday life. This is why there are no holidays in Menashe’s month. It’s just a series of weekdays followed by Shabbos, again and again. Because after the holy month of Tishrei, when we stored away provisions of spirituality for the year, we need to enter Cheshvan, in action mode with an ability to interface with everyday life and find the space to uplift it.
When the brothers first came down to Egypt and didn’t realize that Joseph was the evil minister who was accusing them to be spies, Reuben said to them, in Ancient Hebrew, that this calamity was all happening to them because they sold Joseph. He didn’t suspect that Joseph would be listening in, because there was an interpreter between them. Rashi says that the interpreter was Menashe. This makes perfect sense; that he would be the one to understand all languages and uplift them. Ephraim was studying while Menashe was in the field, uplifting the sparks.
This avodah of Menashe is what Reb Nosson says is “the essence of all of our work, during the six days of the week. We’re trying to select the good from the bad”. We want to bring Shabbos into the week.
I think this is a novel way to understand the selection of the Talmud that I quoted above. R. Shimon and his son were struggling with the balance of Ephraim and Menashe. When they were in the cave, they were in the world of Ephraim, only studying and connecting to the divine, in a cocoon of holiness and miracles. When they exited the cave the first time, they still couldn’t fathom how someone could ‘forsake the eternal life and engage in a temporal life’. But then, when they emerged the second time they saw the old man running with the two bundles of myrtles. Myrtles have a sweet smell, which is the soul’s sustenance. They asked him what the myrtles are for? And he said ‘They are in honor of Shabbos. But what about shabbos? Both aspects. Not just having a holy Shabbos on Shabbos itself, but bringing the Shabbos into the week as well, as he said, ‘One was for ‘Remember the day of Shabbos’. Now the great sages realized that eating food, and sustaining the body, doesn’t necessarily weaken the soul, if one draws Shabbos into the week. So “their minds were at ease”. If our minds’ are connected to the Divine, then even during the routine of the weekday, we can draw down from holiness. That’s the avodah of Menashe and the avodah of this special month. May we merit to uplift the six days of the week with the holiness of Shabbos. Amen!