Naso – Kosher Favoritism

To some, chumros, or stringencies beyond what halacha requires, are always laudable. But in the Vidui Rabbeinu Nissim, recited on Yom Kippur Katan, we confess, amid actual sins, that “What You declared pure I declared impure… what You permitted I forbade…” 

So what makes a chumra proper?

I suggest it’s the intent. If a chumra is motivated by love of Hashem, it is praiseworthy. If motivated by neurosis or by a “holier than thou” or other self-serving attitude, it is worthy only of repentance. 

The Gemara (Brachos 20b) recounts a conversation between Hashem and angels. The latter protest that, although Moshe declared that Hashem does not show nesias panim, special favor (Devarim 10:17), in Birchas Cohanim, in our parsha, it states Yisa Hashem panav eilecha – “May Hashem show you special favor…” (Bamidbar 6:26).

Hashem’s response: “How can I not show Klal Yisrael favor when, despite the requirement of satiation for reciting Birchas Hamazon, they do so even after eating a mere olive or egg’s volume?”

How does that address the complaint? And what right do we even have to say Birchas Hamazon if we’re not satiated? I think what is being conveyed is that Klal Yisrael, out of love for Hashem, considers itself satiated even with a meager portion of food – a “chumra,” so to speak, a venture beyond the norm – which in turn merits a parallel “beyond the norm” on Hashem’s part, in His showing us special favor. 

I wonder if that may be why, in the bracha the cohanim make before Birchas Cohanim, the word “bi’ahava,” “with love,” is appended. Could it be because love is what merits it and love is what it expresses?

And I wonder further if a hint to that word’s being added to the bracha lies in the unnecessary letter vav in the word emor (ibid 6:23), “Say,” that introduces Birchas Cohanim. For vav means something that bonds two things (Shemos 27:10) – and the letter itself, used throughout the Torah, meaning “and,” bonds the word before and the one after it. 

And Birchas Cohanim bespeaks a bond, a bond of love.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Bamidbar – High Security

The census of the Levi’im differs from that of the other shevatim, in that the latter counted only males 20 years of age or older while the former included even 30-day-old babies.

The inclusion of even infants in the Levi’im count is particularly striking, considering that the role of those counted is “mishmeres mishkan ha’eidus” – the guarding, or protection, of the sanctuary. A baby can’t protect anyone; he himself needs protection.

The most compelling explanation, offered by, among others, the Avnei Azel (Alexander Zushia Friedman, the author of the Ma’ayana Shel Torah compendium), is that the guarding here is not born of physical strength. The very existence of viable Levi’im is itself what offers protection. The security is sourced in the spiritual.

In Rabbi Friedman’s (loosely translated) words: “It is a common mistake that some make by assuming that the interests of the Jewish nation can be protected through martial and political means. Only the holiness and spiritual power of the guardians can actually offer protection… ‘If Hashem will not guard the city, for nought does the guard stand vigil’ (Tehillim 127:1)”

Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, the Rosh Hayeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, recently penned a heartfelt, elegiac essay about the security failures that allowed the tragedy of October 7 to happen, and how the future fate of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael (and everywhere) is dependent on the nation’s embracing its role as Hashem’s chosen people. 

Based on the warnings and lamentations of the nevi’im, Rav Feldman  imagines Hashem saying: “I… decided to wake you up with a powerful shock. I wanted you to realize that hitherto you were successful in your wars and in building up My land, not because of your cleverness or your army, but because I watched over you and granted you success. I wanted you to see that when I removed my support for you for a moment, your cleverness disappeared and your army fell to pieces.”

The essay shocked some in its straightforwardness. Stark truths are often shocking. But the Rosh Yeshiva’s rumination should not have surprised anyone. It was only the echo of Dovid Hamelech’s declaration above, and of the implication of the fact that even a baby among the Levi’im can be a conduit of Divine protection.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Bombs Away

Has President Biden, as his arms delay and words of warning were described in some media, “abandoned” Israel? Or is he still the stalwart defender of Israel’s right to destroy her declared mortal enemy that he declared himself to be in the wake of the October 7 massacre?

My thoughts are here.

Bechukosai – Embracing Simplicity

While there are various Midrashic comments on what “chukos” – the embrace of which leads to the overflowing blessings described at the start of the parsha – refers to, the simple meaning of the word is “ decrees”, i.e., laws that may not be consonant with, or may even defy, human reason.

The blessings describe a utopian world, and so there must be ultimate significance to their being dependent on our acceptance of such reason-defying laws.

And, indeed, the essence of dedication to the Divine lies in unquestioning obedience, in the recognition that Hashem’s directives must override our personal, philosophical or practical concerns. That was what Avraham was ready to accept at the akeida, and what his descendents accepted when they followed Moshe into a barren and unforgiving desert.

That unquestioning trust of Divine will is called temimus, “pure simplicity” – in the phrase’s most sublime sense.

As Rava told a heretic who ridiculed his self-harming alacrity: “We Jews act with simple purity, as it says [in Mishlei 11:3], ‘The simplicity [tumas] of the upright will guide them’. ”  (Shabbos 88b).

The Shem MiShmuel notes that the “seven weeks” that are counted from Pesach to Shavuos are pointedly called sheva Shabbasos temimos – “seven perfect weeks.” He sees in the word temimos a hint to the mindset they are meant to cultivate: one of temimus, the bending of our intellects and hearts to Divine will. And that is, in fact, central to what we celebrate at the denouement of sefiras ha’omer, Shavuos. 

Because, at Mattan Torah, which we celebrate on that holiday, our forebears’ unanimous declaration was: “Naaseh v’nishma” – “We will do and we will hear!” That is to say, we accept the Torah’s laws even amid a lack of “hearing,” of understanding.

Even the laws of the Torah that we feel we can understand, that seem entirely just and proper, are to be observed, in the end, because they are… laws of the Torah. So, even when we return a lost object or compensate someone for damage we have caused him, we do so, ultimately, not because it is “just” in our estimation but rather because Hashem has declared it so.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Behar – The Torah’s Take on a Stitch in Time

Folk maxims reflect truths, which is why the Talmud often invokes such aphorisms with the introduction“kidi’amri inshi” – “as people are wont to say.”

One valuable truth is the subject of two English sayings that don’t have a Talmudic aphorism-cognate. The truth, though, is telegraphed by the Torah itself, in one word, in parshas Behar.

“A stitch in time saves nine” and “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” both communicate the fact that a modest effort expended in a timely manner can prevent the need for a much greater effort down the line.

In the Torah, that message lies in the word “vihechezakta” – “and you should strengthen” in the pasuk “Should you brother become impoverished and his means falter near you, you should strengthen him, be he a stranger or resident…” (Vayikra 25:35). 

Rashi notes that “stranger” refers to a non-Jew who has forsworn idolatry. And goes on to quote the Sifra: “Do not leave him by himself so that he comes down in the world until he finally falls altogether, when it will be hard to raise him. Rather, uphold him from the first moment of the failure of his means.” 

The illustration provided is a donkey whose load is tottering. Rushing to straighten it is easy and will prevent the need to strain to lift it off the ground should it fall.

It’s an important, if straightforward, truth: Helping someone in even a small way early in a financial decline can prevent the need for a greater lift from a deeper poverty into which he may otherwise fall.

It can even save his life, as the pasuk continues, “And he will live with you.” 

What I find interesting is that the English aphorisms are simple wise advice to an individual, about protecting himself from harm.

In the Torah, the truth is indicated in a word about protecting someone else.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Emor – Living in Our Own Worlds

Any “blemish” on a list of congenital or acquired conditions prevents service in the Mishkan or Beis Hamikdash (Vayikra  21:17-24). And there are dozens of other non-listed disqualifying blemishes (see Rashi, ibid 21, and Baal HaTurim there).

That a physical malformation or injury should prevent a kohein from performing certain services is a chok, something not subject to human understanding.

Rav Mechel Twerski notes that a kohein who, due to a physical blemish, is disqualified from Bais Hamikdosh service is being signaled that his destiny, his assignment in life, is to bring the special qualities of a kohein to a non-Beis Hamikdosh role.

The idea that limitations are pointers to the roles we are meant to play is, as I noted three years ago, elsewhere in parshas Emor, in the account of the mekalel, the blasphemer.

Rashi, quoting Rabi Levi in a Midrash, elaborates on the words “And he went out” (Vayikra, 24:10) that “He went out of his world.” His world. Each of us, that might mean, has his or her own world, a unique assignment to be recognized and embraced. 

A second Midrash Rashi cites about the phrase “And he went out” is that the blasphemer had just left the court of Moshe, where he had lost his case. He had claimed that, as his mother was Jewish (although his father was an Egyptian), he was entitled to a portion of land in the area of his mother’s tribe, Dan. The ruling, however, was that, while he was a member of the Jewish people, he – uniquely, among the people – owned no portion of the land.

That left him with two options: Either to accept that fate, and recognize that it was “his world” – a personal situation that somehow positioned him for a particular, singular role to play in society.  Or to angrily reject the ruling.  He chose the second path, to put it mildly.  Thus he “left” not only the court but his world. He abandoned his life assignment.

All who see their life circumstances as “unfair” face a similar choice. The key to true success in life is to seize one’s individual, unique circumstance, no matter how limiting or painful or puzzling it may seem, recognizing that it is his or her “own world” – what makes them special.  And then, after ascertaining what that specialness might be demanding, getting down to work.

 © 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Kedoshim – Looking Out for #1… and #2… and #3…

Ultimate concern for oneself is ingrained in our essences. There is a striking Midrash on the pasuk “For my father and mother have abandoned me, and Hashem has gathered me in” (Tehillim 27:10).   Dovid Hamelech, says the Midrash, was stating that his parents’ focus at his conception was on their personal relationship; it was about themselves, not him. In that sense, explains the Midrash, they “abandoned” him.

But consider: Dovid’s father was Yishai – one of the four people who Chazal tell us (Shabbos 55b) “died by the counsel of the nachash,” the serpent in Gan Eden.  In other words, he was personally without sin.  And yet he is being described as, in some way, selfish?

It seems clear that ultimate self-concern is part and parcel of being human. So no one can actually love another quite the same way he loves himself.

Nor can loving one’s fellow like himself mean that one must give each person he meets half of his possessions. That would render him penniless in short shrift.

R’ Meshullam Gross, in his sefer Nachalas Tzvi, notes that the wording of the imperative to love others like oneself uses the word lirei’acha (literally, “to one’s fellow”) rather than the simpler es rei’acha, echoing the wording of the commandment to “not covet… all that is to your fellow” in the Aseres Hadibros (Shemos 20:14).

Thus, he suggests, the imperative here is to consider the possessions – and honor, and concerns… – of one’s fellow as dear to you as if they were yours. In other words, love the fact that your fellow has what he has and deserves what he deserves – as much as you love what you have and feel you deserve.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran