Mailman Vs. Ghost of TWA

I hope that a decades-old Supreme Court decision in favor of an airline will be able to join another airline’s worthless stock certificate on my Wall of Has-Beens.

To read about that decision and the reason for my hope, please click here:

Tzav – The Challenge of Change

The shalsheles cantillation, expressed in a long, wavering series of notes, occurs only four times in the Torah. 

In three, the “wavering” may reflect a wavering of will. In Beraishis 19:16, Lot, about to leave S’dom, hesitates to forgo its wealth and pleasures; indeed, the shalsheles is on the word “And he hesitated.”

In Beraishis 24:12, Eliezer is beginning his prayer to Hashem to find the right wife for Yitzchak; the shalsheles is on the word “And he said.” He had wanted Yitzchak to marry his daughter, so, again, there is some hesitation at a crucial point, when he needs to abandon that hope and focus on the future.

Yosef, in  Beraishis 39:8, is facing an internal conflict too, as he summons all his personal fortitude to resist the blandishments of Potifar’s wife. The shalsheles there is on the word meaning “and he refused.”

In our parsha, though, the shalsheles (Vayikra 8:23) is on the word meaning “And he slaughtered,” referring to the ram sacrifice that was part of the investiture ceremony installing Aharon and his sons into the kehunah. What wavering or hesitations is here?

For the previous seven days, though, Moshe had played the role of kohein. Might the shalsheles indicate Moshe’s being conflicted over being “deposed” from the kehunah

I find that unlikely. The “most humble of all men” (Bamidbar 12:3) would be above so self-centered a feeling. 

What occurs is that any wavering on Moshe’s part may simply have been born of the challenge every human has while facing a change of role. It’s discomposing to suddenly be thrust in a new direction. 

Life is full of changes, many of them unsought and discombobulating. When we feel a shalsheles in our lives, though, we need, as Moshe did, to recover from the jar and do what we must to accept the change.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayikra — Hierarchy and Holiness

Animal sacrifices begin not only the parsha and the sefer of Vayikra but the world as we know it. Because Noach was commanded to take extra animals of certain species on the ark for the purpose of offering them as korbonos

Interestingly, it was Noach who was the first person permitted to eat animals; before the flood, vegetarianism was the Divine order. That might have bearing on understanding what a korbon is.

The hierarchy of creation noted in many Jewish sources are: domeim, tzomei’ach, chai, medaber: “still” (mineral), “growing” (vegetation), “living” (animal) and “speaking” (human). It was a hierarchy innately understood by early humans.

At least until the generation of the flood, when the Torah refers to the people as basar, “flesh” (Beraishis 6:3, 6:13). That reflected the fact that men mated with animals (Rashi, Beraishis 6:2, based on Beraishis Rabba 26). Society had devolved to the point where it considered all “flesh” to be essentially the same, that saw humans as simply evolved beasts.

It is conceivable that the permission to consume animal flesh was intended to re-establish the hierarchical distinction between “living” and “speaking” beings.

If so, perhaps a message that lay, and lies, in the concept of an animal sacrifice is that we humans are a momentous and qualitative step above the animal world, that we can kill and eat animals, and are meant to rise above the animalistic elements of our nature, which misled the generation of the flood to equate the animal and human spheres.

And our position at the pinnacle of nature forces us to recognize our proximity to what is above us. Which would well fit the meaning of the word korbon, which does not mean “sacrifice.” It is from the word karov, “near.” And is best rendered, if awkwardly, as “bringer of closeness.” Closeness to Hashem. A korbon reminds us that we are above animals, hence closer to the Divine.

Which may be why Rabi Yehudah HaNasi states that an am ha’aretz, a person oblivious to his calling to holiness, is “forbidden to eat meat ”(Pesachim, 49b). It would be, in a way, cannibalism.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayak’hel — Tough Love

The kruvim, three-dimensional depictions of two winged childlike beings, a male and female, formed from the gold of the kappores, the cover of the aron, are described as “facing one another” (Shemos 37:9).

The Gemara (Bava Basra, 99a) notes that in Divrei Hayamim II, the pasuk describes them as facing toward the kodoshim (3:13), and explains – on the presumption that the kruvim represent Hashem and Klal Yisrael – that the kruvim were animated, facing one another “when the Jewish people do the will of Hashem,” and outward when they do not. 

Which makes an account of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash particularly strange. In Yoma 54b, the Gemara describes how the enemy entered the Bayis and saw the kruvim (or a depiction of them) entwined “like a man and his beloved.” They mocked what they could only see as a pornographic icon in the Jews’ holiest place. 

The obvious question: Why, at a time when the Jews had apparently not been doing Hashem’s will – after all, the Beis Hamikdash was being razed! – were the kruvim not only not facing away from one another but embracing?

A moving answer is related in the name of the Maggid of Mezritch. He notes that halacha requires a husband to express his love for his wife before embarking on a long trip. Hashem, thus, was demonstrating his love for His people when He was about to “leave” them for a long period of exile.

I wonder, though, if there may be another message in the puzzling image of the entwined kruvim: That, just as a truly responsible parent facing a need to punish his child does so with anguish and out of pure love, so was Hashem “pained” and “loving” toward His people when they required punishment.

Yes, when the Jews were not doing His will, the kruvim faced away from one another. But, afterward, at the time of their necessary punishment, there was only pure love. And, if so, wherever they may be today, the kruvim are still in embrace.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Ki Sisa – Reasonable but Wrong

Our ancestors’ devotion, so soon after the revelation at Har Sinai, to a physical object, the egel hazahav, the golden calf, is rightly and remarkably confounding. Obviously, like so many of the Torah’s narratives, behind the simple Written Law account lies information necessary for a true understanding of things. 

Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, in his Mei Marom, offers a tantalizing thought with regard to the calf-worshiping. He suggests that the people, on the sublime level approaching prophecy that they had attained after Hashem’s revelation, perceived something shocking but true: that Hashem will speak to them in the future from something physical, something in fact made of gold. 

The truth of that perception lay in the kruvim that were part of the kapores covering the aron in the holiest part of the Mishkan.  From a point between those golden representations of children, Hashem would one day speak to Moshe (Bamidbar 7:89).

Like every actual prophecy, though (see Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 7:3), the vision required accurate interpretation. And, faced with the egel, which Chazal tell us emerged miraculously from the gold thrown into a fire, and what they felt was Moshe’s tardiness in returning from the top of the mountain, the people surmised that the egel was the golden object that would host Hashem’s future communication. 

There is a lesson there for all of us far from the level of perception of our Sinai ancestors. We often assume that what we see is to be interpreted a certain way, and that our position or actions should be based on that interpretation. Often we are right. But often, wrong. The law of unintended consequences can wreak much havoc.

Consider Sefer Esther. Imagine the Shushanites’ interpretation of Mordechai’s stubborn refusal to honor Haman with a bow to him. It was reasonable for them to conclude from that sight that Mordechai was endangering the Jews rather than subtly paving the path toward their rescue from mortal danger.

Reasonable, but wrong.

We, too, need to respect the interpretation of events and the required response that experienced elders counsel. And sometimes that requires, if not ignoring what we see, at least understanding that its implications may not be what we think.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tetzaveh – Making a Living and Making Light

Most agricultural oils are produced from seeds. The olive is one of the few fruits that produce oil. And olive oil plays a major role in the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash.

It is a component of menachos, the flour-offerings that are required in a number of situations and consigned in part to the mizbe’ach, with the remainder, in most cases, consumed by kohanim.

And, of course, olive oil is the fuel the Torah requires for the menorah that stands in the kodoshim, the penultimate holiest place in the Ohel Mo’ed and Beis HaMikdash.

Which purpose opens parshas Titzaveh, where “pure olive oil derived from thorough crushing” is to serve “to illuminate” (Shemos 27:20).

Rashi comments that such purity is only required for the oil used in the menorah, but that which is used for menachos needn’t be of that highest quality.

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin sees menachos as representing physical nourishment and the menorah’s light as representing mind nourishment, “illumination” in its nonliteral sense.

Many unhealthy substances in food can be tolerated by bodies, he notes. But foreign, untrue ideas are a more subtle, and hence more dangerous, threat to minds.

Moreover, he continues, efforts are needed to attain both our physical and spiritual sustenances. Our “daily bread” requires labor, and grasping Torah truths is earned only through mental work (“If someone says… ‘I didn’t labor but attained [Torah]’ – don’t believe him” [Megilla 6b]).

But, says Rav Zevin, there is a difference in those respective efforts. When it comes to physical sustenance, we are enjoined to labor only to the extent that yields us our needs; we are not justified in making “earning a living” some sort of high sacrament and giving it our “all.” When it comes to ascertaining truth, however, to studying Torah, we must apply our entire selves, our “hearts and souls,” to the task.

And that, he contends, is what is telegraphed by the acceptability of second-tier purity oil for menachos, but only perfectly pure oil for the menorah. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran