Ha’azinu – The Secret, Unveiled

Although I appreciate most humor, even jokes about Jews, I have always found comedian Alan King’s wry summary of Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” profoundly unfunny.

Not that we Jews don’t deserve a bit of mockery for our… enthusiasm… regarding things culinary. But the “They tried to kill us” introduction is too painfully true to be even part of a bon mot. Whether the “they” tried to kill us spiritually or physically, from ancient times in Egypt and Babylonia and Persia and Greece and the Roman Empire and the Crusades to more recent history including the Holocaust and Soviet Communism, there have been just so many they’s.

Mark Twain famously observed in 1898 – even before the the USSR and the Holocaust – that “Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of…

“He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.

“The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

The secret is Hashem, of course, and the merit of our forefathers. And our eternal survival is encapsulated in the parsha, in the words “I will exhaust my arrows” (Devarim 32:23). Which the Midrash, cited by Rashi, expands upon: “My arrows will come to an end but they [Klal Yisrael] will not.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayeilech – No, No, No, It Ain’t Me

A time will come, the Torah warns, when Hashem, as a result of Klal Yisrael’s actions, will seem to “abandon them and hide My countenance from them” and “many evils and troubles will befall them” (Devarim 31:17).

And “on that day,” the people will say: “Surely it is because Hashem is not in our midst that these evils have found us” (ibid).

That common translation, however, isn’t literal. What the pasuk really says is “because my Hashem is not in my midst that these evils have found me.”

The straightforward understanding of that expression of anguish is that Hashem’s “hidden face” will cause the Jewish people to doubt His love for them. The singular possessives and object would then simply be personifications of a collective feeling of abandonment.

But the use of the singular may point to a source of behavior that can lead to the “many evils and troubles,” a singularly personal attitude: Jewish individuals – as individuals – imagining that Hashem, although He is “my Hashem,” isn’t truly in me.

That, in other words, there isn’t within me inherent holiness and the attendant ability to unlock it.

And, indeed, Torah-study and mitzvos, so many Jews think, just aren’t them. They’re fine and doable, but for others.

For rabbis.

“Orthodox” ones.

And the delusion that we don’t have momentous potential isn’t limited to Jews estranged from their religious heritage. Dedicated observant Jews are vulnerable, too, to feelings of despondency born of feeling “unholy,” incapable of what they may know the Torah asks of them, but feel just “isn’t them.”

None of us, though, is “unholy.” Hashem took the trouble, so to speak, to grant each of us existence, and that means His plan includes us as essential players, capable of holiness.

Each and every single one of us.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Jews’ Jews

We’re so used to the phrase, we don’t think about what it means.

I speak of “Ultra Orthodox,” the common description of Jews who, like Jews since Sinai, consider Torah divine, halachah sacrosanct and the Jewish mission imperative.

What does “ultra” bring to mind in, say, politics? Does “ultra-conservative” conjure an image of a judicious, reasonable Mike Pence or of a racist, antisemitic Pat Buchanan? Would you invest money into an “ultra-risky” venture? What does it mean when a racing competition is called an “ultra-marathon”? 

In all those cases, “ultra” implies something extreme, something abnormal. No, world, we’re not freaks. We’re observant Jews, Orthodox Jews. If distinguishing adjectives are indicated, invent them to describe other Jews.

It’s widely and properly accepted in our country that racial, ethnic and religious groups have the right to determine how they wish others to refer to them. “Negro” has been replaced with “African-American”; “Oriental,” with “Asian-Americans.” But “ultra” seems to stick to journalistic and public discourse like mud. And, unlike “Negro” and “Oriental,” the term is inherently pejorative. 

Examples abound of subtle disdain for traditional Orthodox Jews. Like how, when we dare to buy homes in new neighborhoods, we are portrayed as invaders. Neighborhoods change. That’s life. And are we bringing crime, drugs and gangs with us – or increasing the worth of current homeowners’ properties?

Then there’s how we vote in “blocs.” Creepy word, that, redolent of things like “Communist bloc” or “Arab bloc.”

Other identifiable groups’ members also tend to vote in tandem. There’s the “black vote” and the “Hispanic vote.” Why are only we “ultras” a “bloc”? 

Astoundingly, the New York Times, in its recent hit piece on chassidishe yeshivos, sees nefariousness even in yeshivos encouraging parents to vote. The promotion of a civic duty is somehow suspect? That there are candidates favored by yeshiva communities is unethical? Doesn’t the Times regularly offer lists of its own endorsements to its “talmidim,” the readers who respect it as much as, lihavdil, a Satmar chasid respects his Rebbe? 

We make no apologies for taking our civic responsibility and legitimate self-interests seriously. Or for voting in higher-than-average proportions. We embrace certain values and goals, and seek to promote them at the ballot box. Pardon, but isn’t that how the American democratic process is supposed to work?

And why is focus placed upon us almost exclusively when a member of our community has done something wrong (or even been accused of such)? Where is coverage in the general Jewish media and non-Jewish media of our community’s abundant and incredibly positive endeavors and accomplishments? 

And then there are the stories that gleefully manufacture guilt out of idealism.

Like the aforementioned New York Times’ recent hit piece, which spent part of the paper’s front page and four additional full ones disparaging the chassidishe community, cherry-picking data and haphazardly generalizing. The journalistic jeremiad’s headline, implying financial chicanery, read: “Failing Schools, Public Funds.” 

The largest, most striking, of the accompanying photographs shows a  chassidishe boy with a look of fear on his face. The intent may have been to imply that he fears his hopeless future or an abusive teacher. More likely, it was the result of the photographer’s sticking a large camera in the boy’s face.

The incredibly negative piece accused yeshivos of – shudder – “censoring” texts. As if a private school, in line with parents’ expectations, has no right to edit material that Times reporters may find innocent but might be seen differently by actual students’ parents.

There are larger issues here. Like parental autonomy over children’s education. And the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion; we consider intensive Jewish education, after all, to be nothing less than a religious requirement.

But a diatribe in the guise of journalism constitutes a singular ugliness. And fits the pernicious pattern.

The writers of the recent Times offering, by their surnames, are likely Jews. And the paper’s publisher has Jewish roots. None of them can be accused of antipathy toward Jews.

As a whole, that is.

But there is clear disparagement here, aimed, as in so many instances, by some Jews against some other Jews. 


Monitoring media and public discourse has been part of my job at the Agudah for nearly 30 years. I long ago came to realize that haredi Jews have become “the Jews’ Jews.”

© 2022 Ami Magazine

NItzavim – The Holy Land Has a Name

“Hashem… will return and gather you in from all the peoples to which [He] has scattered you… and He will bring you to the land that your forefathers possessed and you shall possess it…” (Devarim 30: 3-5).

“The land.” 

Eretz Yisrael isn’t its name. It is our description of the fact that it was bequeathed to Klal Yisrael. 

But it did have a name: Cna’an. We don’t call it that anymore, but that was its name, and presumably has some meaning. And its meaning must be meaningful.

In his sefer Nachalas Tzvi, Rabbi Meshulam Fayish Tzvi Gross (who had a weekly chavrusa in Kabbalah with Rav Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn and whose sefarim had haskamos from some of the greatest Gedolim of his time; and who, as Herman Gross, patented several inventions) ventures an answer.

He sees the name rooted in the Hebrew noun hachna’ah, “deference” or “submission.” While other lands, he explains, are overseen by malachim – divine middlemen, not Hashem Himself – Eretz Yisrael is different; hence the palace of the King demands a special degree of hachna’ah.

He cites the fact that the phrase “me’od me’od” is used both to refer to the goodness of the land (Bamidbar 14:7) and to the degree to which we are to feel shfal ruach, lowly (Ravi Levitas in Pirkei Avos, 4:4).

What occurs to me as well is the idea that, when in possession of Eretz Yisrael, we Jews are to be constantly cognizant that it is a yerushah, a bequeathal, to us from Hashem. And that, even when we rightly tell the world that the land is divinely meant for us, we must ourselves always fully and humbly remember that it isn’t our political or military power that maintains our possession of the Holy Land, but Hashem’s kindness in having allowed us to return to it. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Ki Savo – Discarding Despondence

The horrors of the tochacha, the parsha’s description of what Klal Yisrael will endure should it drift from heeding the Torah, left our ancestors dejected. As Rashi writes at the beginning of parshas Nitzavim (Devarim 29:9), when they heard the 98 curses in our parshah, in addition to the 48 in parshas Bichukosai, “their faces paled” and they said, “who can possibly persevere through this?”

Significantly, in the yearly Torah reading cycle, these parashos coincide with Elul’s march toward the Yimei Hadin. And despondence this time of year is a seasonal affliction.

We, too, can feel dejected as Rosh Hashanah comes close, as we will be judged on things that we repented for last year but may need to do the same once again.

But feeling despondent is counterproductive.

The late comedian Mitch Hedberg would deadpan: “I used to do drugs.” And then, after a short pause, add: “I still do. But I used to, too.”

The line may have been a throw-away absurdity. But I think he was describing how he had once (perhaps more than once) quit drugs, only to come to re-embrace them.  When he was clean, he “used to do drugs”; now, off the wagon, he does them again.

Many of us can relate, having resolved each year to improve in some of the very same ways we had resolved to improve the year before.  We “used to” do things that we currently do too.

In a famous letter, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, told a despondent student to realize that one can “lose battles but win wars,” that what makes life meaningful is not beatific basking in the sublime company of one’s accomplishments but rather in one’s dynamic struggles.

Shlomo Hamelech’s maxim that “Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up” (Mishlei, 24:16), Rav Hutner continues, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to gets up again” but, rather, that it is only and through repeated falls that a person achieves.  The struggles – even the failures – are inherent elements of what can, with determination and perseverance, become an ultimate victory.

Facing our mistakes squarely, and feeling the regret that is the bedrock of repentance, is essential. But it carries a risk: despondence born of battles lost.  But the war is not over.  We must pick ourselves up.  Again.  And, if need be, again.

And, as to the curses in the parsha, as Moshe reassured the people (see Rashi, Devarim 29:9), despite all the past and possible future failures, “You are still standing.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Repulsive Raid Reaction

Think you’re smart? Well, let’s see. Can you spot the pattern in these quotes from public servants and other personalities about the FBI raid on former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club and the seizing of government documents therefrom? 

Here goes:

Florida Senator Rick Scott: “The way our federal government has gone, it’s like what we have thought about the Gestapo…”

Arizona Representative Paul Gosar: “I will support a complete dismantling and elimination of the Democrat brown shirts known as the FBI.”

Florida Congressional candidate Lavern Spicer: “Biden’s FBI is no better than Hitler’s Gestapo…” 

California Representative Mike Garcia: “This is literally tyranny of a majority right now that is acting more like a Third Reich than they are the United States…”

Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert: “Gestapo [expletive deleted].”

Former deputy assistant to the former president Sebastian Gorka: “A hatchet job that is Gestapo Stasi tactics.”

Former Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon: “[The FBI], the jackbooted American Gestapo, essentially kicked down the doors at Mar-a-Lago.”

Newsmax TV host and columnist Benny Johnson: “We live under a morally repugnant Gestapo regime.” 

Member of the former president’s legal team Rudy Giuliani: “Big stormtroopers coming in and breaking down his apartment and breaking down his office.” 

You did it! Congratulations! (Well, Mr. Gorka at least added the communist “Stasi” to his Nazi reference.)

Whatever one might feel about the FBI raid on Mr. Trump’s club and residence, though, whether one feels it was a responsible and necessary enforcement of the law or an unwarranted persecution of a reviled enemy, one thing it wasn’t was the equivalent on any level of the Nazis’ brutal treatment and terrorization of Jews and others before and during the Second World War. 

There can be no denying that Mr. Trump is deeply disliked by Democrats, or that he has been subject to an inordinate number of investigations, including two impeachments. And no denying that insinuations that he intended to sell state secrets to highest-bidder foreign entities are wild and pernicious speculations.

But no denying, either, that, after a judge weighed evidence and issued a search warrant, 33 boxes of documents belonging to the government, including some 100 highly classified ones, were found in the former president’s Florida home. Even after Mr. Trump’s lawyers claimed that all such material had been returned to the National Archives.

And no denying that no one tortured or beat Mr. Trump (at least not literally) and no one seized him and sent him to a concentration camp. And that Mar-a-Lago isn’t quite the Frank family secret annex.

As one social media commentator, Tim Byers, responding on Twitter to Ms. Spicer, put it: “Yep. Retrieving stolen classified documents is exactly like executing millions of Jews. Congratulations, you nailed the comparison.”

Invoking Nazi nomenclature isn’t even limited to supporters of the former president. The man who bested him in the 2020 election, President Biden, recently decried the “extreme MAGA philosophy” to a group of donors, and went on, gingerly but strikingly, to say: “It’s not just Trump. It’s the entire philosophy… It’s like semi-fascism.”

Okay, not all fascists are Nazis, and the Nazis weren’t exactly “semi” anything. But still.

There may actually be something positive to note – at least for the incurably starry-eyed among us – about all the Third Reich comparisons. Namely, that those seeking to utterly vilify their opponents, grasping for the very worst insult they can find, end up choosing Third Reich-flavored slurs. 

But the bottom line, for the sake of history if nothing else, has to be that such overheated rhetoric insults the memory of those who suffered things immeasurably worse than a legally justified pursuit of evidence in the investigation of a crime – or a politically motivated attempt to harass a loathed enemy – whatever your preferred description.

With fewer human links than ever to the events of 1933-1945 in Europe and increasing attempts by true enemies of truth to deny essential facts about those years, it is especially urgent these days to not cheapen words and phrases like “Gestapo,” “storm troopers” and “fascism.” 

Because they all have meanings, all-too-real ones.

Ki Seitzei – Principal Parenting Pitfall

A rather stark contradiction seems to lie in how Chazal describe the judgment meted out to a ben sorer u’moreh, the boy who, at the tender age of 13, demonstrates indulgences and worse, and how they treat Yishmael.

The former is judged al sheim sofo, based on what his “end” will likely be: a murderous mugger (Devarim 21:18). The latter, although his descendants will prove to be cruel tormenters of his half-brother Yitzchak’s descendants, is judged “ba’asher hu shom”: where he is at the current moment (Beraishis 21:17).

Granted, the case of a ben sorer u’moreh is virtually impossible to happen, given Chazal’s requirements for prosecution (see Sanhedrin 71a), and, according to Rabi Yehudah, indeed never did. But the explanation of the boy’s irredeemability is at least intended as a lesson, and still clashes fundamentally with the allowance Yishmael is given to become a better person (and, presumably, influence his progeny to follow him in that).

The Mizrachi and Rav Shlomo Zevin address the problem by noting that the ben sorer u’moreh has already himself acted in an ugly manner, whereas Yishmael’s cruel descendants lay generations in the future.

But that ignores the fact that Chazal describe Yishmael himself as having already demonstrated bad behavior, including, according to one opinion, shooting arrows at his half-brother (Rashi, Beraishis 21:9).

What occurs is the possibility that such behavior is only bad when unbridled. One can pull the yetzer hara into the beis medrash (Kiddushin, 30b), channeling it to good effect. And the urge to “violence” can be expressed in milchamta shel Torah, the “warring” of arguments between Torah scholars, lisheim Shomayim.

But, by contrast, the mire of materialism – virtual addiction to luxuries – has no redeeming value. And the young boy sufficiently sunken in it is hopeless.

Which, if true, offers a vital lesson to parents: Be less alarmed by a child’s propensity to bad behavior and violence than to his growing addiction to luxuries. And be very careful not to create, cultivate or feed that fixation.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran