Vayeishev – Gone, But Not Forever

When Yaakov Avinu is shown his son Yosef’s blood-soaked coat, “All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted” (Beraishis, 37:35).

Quoting the Midrash Rabbah (84:20), Rashi explains that, under normal circumstances, there is a Divine decree that people will come to terms with the loss of someone they love. Life would be unbearable without the diminishment of the pain of such a loss (Rashi, Pesachim 54b).

But the Divinely ordained reality of consolation, the Midrash explains, is only operative when the person being mourned is in fact deceased. Hence, Yaakov’s inability to be comforted, as Yosef was still very much alive.

Intriguingly, there is another person who similarly could not be comforted. In fact, it is Yaakov’s wife, Rachel, centuries later, lamenting from heaven the exile of the Jewish people.

A cry is heard in Ramah

Wailing, bitter weeping

Rachel weeping for her children.

She refuses to be comforted

For her children, who are gone. (Yirmiyahu, 31:14)

There, too, her inability to be comforted, like her husband’s when shown Yosef’s coat, stemmed from the fact that she was lamenting a people who only seemingly “are gone,” but are in fact only temporarily lost but destined to be found.

As the navi continues, with Hashem telling Rachel: 

Restrain your voice from weeping,

Your eyes from shedding tears;

For there is a reward for your labor

declares Hashem.

They shall return from the enemy’s land. (ibid, 15)

Just as Yosef ends up being reunited with his father, so will all of Klal Yisrael “return to their borders” (ibid, 16). 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Myth of Mundanity

The thought experiment begins by asking us to ponder a world where the dead routinely rise from their graves but in which no grain or vegetation has ever grown. Long departed relatives routinely reappear and, presumably, funerals are au revoirs, not goodbyes. Food is procured exclusively from non-vegetative sources.

And the fantasy continues with the sudden appearance of a stranger who procures a seed, something never seen before in this bizarre universe, and plants it in the ground. The inhabitants look on curiously, regarding the act as no different from burying a stone, but are shocked when, several days later, a sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned. They are even more flabbergasted to witness its eventual development into a full-fledged plant, bearing fruit – and, even more astonishing – seeds of its own.

Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler painted the bizarre panorama, and, as it happens, the conjured scenario has pertinence to Chanukah.

The point Rav Dessler was making was the fundamental idea that there really is no inherent, objective difference between what we call nature and what we call miraculous.  We simply use the former word to refer to that to which we are well accustomed; and the latter, for things that we have never before experienced.  All there is, in the end, Rav Dessler concludes, is Hashem’s will, expressed most commonly in nature.

Yesh chachma bagoyim, “there is wisdom among the nations.” The celebrated essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson famously conveyed much the very same idea, when he wrote:

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”

The star-filled sky, Emerson asked us to realize, is seen as non-miraculous only –only – because it appears every night.

Famed physicist Paul Davies put the thought starkly and strikingly: “The very notion of physical law,” he wrote, “is a theological one.”

What does all that have to do with Chanukah?

The chag, of course, commemorates the Macabeeim’s routing of the Greek Seleucid fighters who sought to impose heathenism on the Jews in Eretz Yisrael. The Maccabeeim managed to rout their enemy, recover Yerushalayim and rededicate the defiled Beis Hamikdash.  Only one vial of tahor, undefiled, oil, though, for use in the menorah was discovered in the debris. It was enough to burn for only one day, yet, once kindled, lasted for a full eight, yielding Chanukah’s observance of eight nights of candle-lighting.

Why, the Beis Yosef famously asked, is Chanukah observed for eight days, when the miracle of the oil was really only evident over seven – since there was sufficient recovered oil for one day?

Many answers have been suggested. One, though, offered by, among others, Rav Dovid Feinstein, zt”l, is based on Rabbi Dessler’s (and Emerson’s, and Professor Davies’) contention.

Seven of Chanukah’s days, goes this approach, indeed commemorate the miracle that the menorah’s flames burned without fuel.  The eighth day, though, is a celebration unto itself, commemorating the fact – no less of a miracle to perceptive minds — that oil burns at all. It is an acknowledgment of the Divine essence of nature itself.

Which poignantly echoes the Gemara’s account of how the daughter of Rabi Chanina ben Dosa realized shortly before Shabbos that she had accidentally poured vinegar instead of oil into the Shabbos lamps, and began to panic.  Rabi Chanina, who vividly perceived divinity in all and, the Talmud recounts, as a result often merited what most people would call miracles, reassured her.  “The One Who commanded oil to burn,” he said, “can command vinegar to burn.”

Which, in that case, is precisely, the Gemara recounts, what happened. Vinegar doesn’t usually burn, of course, unless it’s Rabbi Chanina’s. But the fact that oil burns, for all of us, remains a miracle, if a common one.

Sifrei nistar portray the small Chanukah flames as leaking spiritual enlightenment into the world. Perhaps the realization of the miraculous hidden in the mundane is part of what we are meant to gain from the lights.

Heading into the dismal darkness of what some coarse folks might think of as a “G-d-forsaken” deep winter, the Chanukah lights remind us that nothing, not even nature, is ever forsaken by G-d, nothing devoid of divinity.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

A “Certain Sect of People”

People sometimes ask me if writing a letter to the editor of a major newspaper is worth the trouble, considering that having one’s letter chosen for publication is a long shot. I reply that it’s still worthwhile, because the paper knows that, for every letter it gets that takes a particular stand, there are likely hundreds of readers who share the letter-writer’s view but didn’t bother to write.

To compare apples to, well, rotten ones, something similar is true when it comes to antisemitic screeds. Like 45-year-old Nick Colella’s during a Planning Board public hearing in the Rockland County town of Haverstraw, north of Ramapo.

The topic of the hearing was a request for a variance to convert a single-family residence into a shul. The owners want to build an addition and second floor to the home and add 27 off-street parking spaces.

At the podium, Mr. Colella took the opportunity to assert that some of his neighbors don’t put away their garbage cans for days and weeks because they “are too lazy to take it in because their maid didn’t pick it up, right?” Scattered applause ensued.

Then, eliding the fact that most of the neighborhood lacks sidewalks, he complained about a “certain sect of people” who he said “tend to walk in the street, and nobody is wearing any reflective gear.” And then explained, “So if I run one of them over, and of course I’m going back over them again, right?”

Once the video of the repulsive comment circulated, public officials were quick to condemn it. New York Governor Kathy Hochul tweeted: “Antisemitism, like all forms of hate, is horrifying and unacceptable. Everyone has the right to walk down the street without fear. New York, we are better than this.”

Ramapo Town Supervisor Michael Specht and State Sen. James Skoufis denounced the remark. And Rockland County Executive Ed Day, who has himself been accused of unfairly characterizing some of the county’s Orthodox Jewish residents and institutions, called the tirade “beyond disgusting… utterly ignorant and hateful,” condemning it “in no uncertain terms.”

Local authorities are looking into bringing charges against the shameless speaker, and New York Attorney General Letitia James offered her assistance in the matter.

All of which is reassuring and laudable. But what remains, in the end, is the likelihood that for every racist or antisemite sufficiently simpleminded to announce his hatreds publicly, there are likely many more who quietly embrace similar vile sentiments.

As Rabbi Shragi Greenbaum, the Agudah’s Rockland Office director, put it to a reporter: “What remains of concern… is how many Rockland County residents harbor similar feelings to those of the speaker at the planning board but aren’t foolish enough to proclaim them publicly.”

How many congratulatory calls, one wonders, did Mr. Colella get that night? I imagine if you asked him, he’d happily tell you.

There are people in whom antisemitism is ingrained. They are part of society and, like people who don’t shower, they just have to be tolerated (at least to an extent). And then there are non-Jews who sincerely like Jews. But the broadest penumbra of the non-Jewish population has no inherent animus or love for us, but can easily be pulled in either direction.

As Rabbi Greenbaum continued: “It’s important for neighbors — Jewish and non-Jewish — to introduce themselves to one another and to better get to know the needs and sensitivities of those outside their social circles.”

I like to call identifiably Orthodox Jews “walking Jewish billboards.” We project — intentionally or not — the image of Torah fealty to others who may well form their opinion of Jews based on how they perceive us.

And showing others that menschlichkeit is fundamental to Yiddishkeit is not hard. With the growth, baruch Hashem, of our communities and our expansion into new areas, opportunities to make good impressions are ubiquitous.

Things as simple as yielding to others in traffic or holding a door open for the person behind one can make all the difference. So can a simple smile and “good morning.” 

Unfortunately, though, nothing is likely to change the Colellas of the world.

(c) 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Loud Loutishness: Decibels Aren’t Arguments

Anyone with the unfortunate habit of listening to talk shows may have noticed the inverse relationship between loudness and logic.  Or as Leonardo da Vinci is said to have said, “Where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge.”

It’s true in daily life too. Some people seem to imagine that decibels are arguments, that screaming angrily is a good-enough stand-in for persuasion — even for facts.

Last week, across the big pond to the east, the Israeli ambassador to Great Britain, Tzipi Hotovely, after speaking and taking questions at the renowned London School of Economics, was set upon by a screaming crowd of Arab and Muslim students. Egged on by social media to “smash her car window,” members of the mob loudly shouted slogans, curses, “shame on you” and other rational arguments.

Security officers and bodyguards bundled the ambassador into a car while police clashed with the shouting mob. 

(British Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted that she was “disgusted by the treatment of the Israeli Ambassador.” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Nadhim Zahawi, Secretary of State for Education, expressed similar reactions.)

The mob’s screaming was a stark contrast to the sort of reasoned give-and-take that had just taken place inside the building. And further evidence of the loudness/logic inverse relationship.

Because the screamers, at least the smarter ones, likely know, deep down, that Israel does not, as they chant, target civilians when responding to Hamas terror attacks or seek to oppress its Arab citizens. So all that’s left to “make their case” is yelling.

But beneath the baseless charges of baby killing and subjugation lies a broader, equally baseless charge made by many anti-Israel “activists” (if slander can be described as activism).

That larger untruth is the very “Palestinian narrative,” the contention that the Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael was a colonial venture, the displacement of a native population by foreign usurpers.

It makes for a great shout, and shouted it is, at rallies and protests around the world, often encapsulated as “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free!” (Translation: “Kill or expel Jews from the land.”)

And shouting is the only way to promote the narrative, the only means of allowing it to obscure the facts of history.

To be sure, Arabs have lived in Eretz Yisrael for centuries, but the land has never been Judenrein. Jews were a presence in the land since Yehoshua’s time, even after the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash and the expulsion of most of Klal Yisrael from their land. 

And, of course, millions upon millions of Jews have, over the centuries since 70 C.E., prayed thrice daily for divine mercy to allow them to return — return — to their land — their land.

What’s more, the Arab presence in 1948 Palestine was anything but indigenous. Many who call themselves native “Palestinians” are in truth descended from successive waves of people who came to the area from other places. 

Like Egypt, the source of successive waves of immigrants at the end of the 18th century, fleeing famine and government oppression at home.

The 19th century saw Arab immigration to Eretz Yisrael from Algeria and what is now Jordan. Bosnian Muslims, too, came in significant numbers.

Later on, after Jews began returning to the land, opportunities drew even more Arab immigrants. As Britain’s Peel Report noted in 1937, “The Arab population shows a remarkable increase ….. partly due to the import of Jewish capital into Palestine and other factors associated with the growth of the [Jewish] National Home…” 

So, when Israel declared its statehood in 1948, there was a sizable Arab population in Eretz Yisrael. And the desires and aspirations of that population and its descendants in the land should not be ignored. But many, if not most, were not native to the land. And the forebears of Jews, if millennia matter, were.

Arabs residing in the country or the West Bank or Gaza could realize their hopes for better lives, if only they acknowledged those truths. Then, good-faith, civil discussion could ensue.

It is an unlikely development, I admit, but one thing is certain: Shouting is no replacement for talking.

© 2021 Ami Magazine

Vayeishev – Gone, But Not Forever

When Yaakov Avinu is shown his son Yosef’s blood-soaked coat, “All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted” (Beraishis, 37:35).

Quoting the Midrash Rabbah (84:20), Rashi explains that, under normal circumstances, there is a Divine decree that people will come to terms with the loss of someone they love. Life would be unbearable without the diminishment of the pain of such a loss (Rashi, Pesachim 54b).

But the Divinely ordained reality of consolation, the Midrash explains, is only operative when the person being mourned is in fact deceased. Hence, Yaakov’s inability to be comforted, as Yosef was still very much alive.

Intriguingly, there is another person who similarly could not be comforted. In fact, it is Yaakov’s wife, Rachel, centuries later, lamenting from heaven the exile of the Jewish people.

A cry is heard in Ramah

Wailing, bitter weeping

Rachel weeping for her children.

She refuses to be comforted

For her children, who are gone. (Yirmiyahu, 31:14)

There, too, her inability to be comforted, like her husband’s when shown Yosef’s coat, stemmed from the fact that she was lamenting a people who only seemingly “are gone,” but are in fact only temporarily lost but destined to be found.

As the navi continues, with Hashem telling Rachel: 

Restrain your voice from weeping,

Your eyes from shedding tears;

For there is a reward for your labor

declares Hashem.

They shall return from the enemy’s land. (ibid, 15)

Just as Yosef ends up being reunited with his father, so will all of Klal Yisrael “return to their borders” (ibid, 16). 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayishlach – A Poisonous Prescription

Number one on my list of brilliant people’s brilliantly wrongheaded ideas is something that the late British polymath/physician/comedian Jonathan Miller once said:

“I feel that the Jew must constantly re-adventure and re-venture himself into assimilation… I just think it’s the nobler thing to do, unless in fact you happen to be a believer in Orthodoxy, in which case there are self-evident reasons to keep [apart]. But if it’s done for the sole purpose of making sure that in the future you’ll be able to say the prayers for the dead when the holocaust is finally inflicted again, then I think it is a damnable device.”

Coming of age shortly after the European Jewish Holocaust, Dr. Miller might have ruminated a bit on the fact that the horror was unleashed from the country with most assimilated Jewish population on earth at the time. That most German Jews were indistinguishable from their Christian fellow-citizens didn’t prevent the Nazis from going generations back to find Jewish ancestries. In fact, in the eyes of great Jewish thinkers, just the opposite is true: when we seek to assimilate, we will be rudely reminded that we are, and must always be, different. 

When Yaakov meets his brother Esav, the latter kisses him on his neck. Whether that kiss was originally intended as a vicious bite, as one Midrash has it, or represented a momentary interruption of hatred by a sincere pang of kinship, as Rashi cites, Esav remains the progenitor of those who harbor animus for Yaakov’s progeny, the Jews.

And Yaakov, invited by his brother to accompany him forward, politely declines, making excuses for why the two must go their own ways.

That self-isolation of Jews reflects what the Torah later, through the mouth of Bil’am, states, that the Jews are destined to be an am livadad yishkon, “A nation that will dwell in solitude” (Bamidbar 23:9).

Jews are to respect and interact in good will with all peoples, but are also intended to remain, in a fundamental way, separate. We are not to absorb societal ideals that are antithetical to the Torah’s; we are to marry only other Jews; we are to maintain our Jewish observances, even if they may set us apart from others. We are not to assimilate – to dissolve into larger society.

Dr. Miller’s prescription is poison.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayeitzei – Haters Gonna Hope

In a short, biting comment, the Chasam Sofer makes a trenchant observation about antisemites, whom he sees as following in the footsteps of Lavan, Yaakov Avinu’s father-in-law.

When, after being tricked into working for Lavan for 14 years (and then forced to work another six to earn flocks of his own) and being constantly taken advantage of, Yaakov suggests a deal, asking for only the sheep and goats that are patterned a certain way.  

“Any among the goats that is not speckled or spotted,” Yaakov tells his father-in-law, “or among the sheep that are not brownish, if in my possession, is stolen.” (Beraishis, 30:33).

Lavan responds, in happy acceptance of the seemingly lopsided deal: Lu yehi kidvarecha — “If only it will be as you say.”

The Chasam Sofer sees those words as referring not only to the deal but to the specific phrase that immediately precedes them: “if in my possession is stolen.” He reads the “if only” as a wistful hope that, indeed, Yaakov will be found with sheep and goats to which he isn’t entitled.

That, the Chasam Sofer explains, reflects the mindset of all throughout history who hate Yaakov’s descendents. They salivate at the prospect that a Jew might do something dishonest, so that they can shout the fact from the rooftops and share their animus.

Occasionally, a Jew is found guilty of dishonesty. As a great man once said, “Lavan unfortunately, is part of our yichus too.” But no one thinks of generalizing from an Italian or British or Catholic or Hindu wrongdoer to his entire nationality, ethnicity or religion. 

It’s only Jews that some pine to see disgraced, today as always.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tony Baloney

“After prosecution, the chair, the gallows, or lethal injection?” was the question posed on a Facebook page featuring an image of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director Dr. Anthony (“Tony”) Fauci superimposed over a noose.

It wasn’t the page of some intoxicated pajama-clad couch potato but the official Congressional campaign page of Wyoming State Senator Anthony Bouchard.

Over in Kentucky, General Assembly Representative Regina Huff tweeted a photo of mass murderer cult leader Jim Jones next to one of Dr. Fauci.

The Fauci-as-fiend motif has gained momentum — after more than fifty years of the doctor’s lauded service to every president since Ronald Reagan and his receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush — beginning the moment he first dared, during the early days of the pandemic, to contradict virus-related statements and prognoses made by former president Trump. 

But, of late, the vilification has built to a fevered pitch. 

On social media, the latest big Fauci story was an old one, about how, in the 1980s, he sponsored clinical drug research in which minority children were supposedly targeted for trials, ripped away from their families and in some cases died as a result of the trials.

Days earlier, there was “Beaglegate,” the accusation by an animal rights group that the NIAID funded a project that allowed a lab in Tunisia to “drug beagles and lock their heads in mesh cages filled with hungry sandflies, so that the insects could eat them alive.”

On the Senate floor, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, when not busy delaying a Senate vote on a bill to expedite Iron Dome funding for Israel, has been shouting at Dr. Fauci, calling him a liar (and asking the Justice Department to investigate him) for denying to Congress that the National Institutes of Health funded “gain of function” experiments — research exploring how viruses can become more virulent or lethal — at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.    

These days, there is more interest in fingering foes than in ferreting facts, but, for anyone interested in the latter, here goes.

The 1980s trials involved HIV-infected foster children and sought effective therapies to prevent that virus from resulting in AIDS. A BBC documentary at the time reported accusations made by a fringe figure as fact. The Beeb later apologized for the documentary, admitting that it hadn’t properly investigated the claims referenced above, which a 2009 investigation found were not true.

As to the beagles, the NIH did indeed partially fund research on dogs conducted at the University of Georgia to test the efficacy of a potential vaccine for lymphatic filariasis, a parasitic disease. A university spokesperson indicated that the testing was necessary and that all humane standards set by applicable agencies were adhered to. The dogs were infected with the parasite through injection, not by being exposed to flies — and were certainly not “bitten to death by” them.

The issue of “gain of function” research, though, that has consumed Senator Paul and assorted talk show bloviators is a real one. Credentialed experts are divided over whether the use of the funding at issue in fact meets the definition of that phrase, so the senator and doctor will likely continue to spar over the charge of the latter’s “lie.” 

But, biological semantics aside, the entire “gain of function” issue arose only because of the assertion that the Covid-19 virus was caused by the NIH-funded experiments.

Now, it is entirely plausible that the virus emerged not from Chinese animal markets but from a China-directed lab experiment gone awry (or, horrific to consider, but consider we must) the intentional unleashing of a new virus.

But the naturally occurring coronaviruses that were studied under the NIH grant, analysis of genomic data proves conclusively, “could not possibly have caused the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins. “Any claims to the contrary,” he added, “are demonstrably false.”

As psychologists and life readily affirm, in times of distress, some people  experience an intense urge to find someone to blame and vilify. When that quest yields fabricated accusations, unfair depictions and imputations of malevolence, it might smell familiar to history-conscious Jews. 

So, Dr. Fauci: 1) Thank you for your service, and 2) Welcome to the club.