Gaffe Track

It’s become increasingly common for some observers to question President Biden’s mental acuity. A recent struggle the president had with pronouncing a word brought an inordinate amount of criticism.

My take on the hand-wringing (and worse) can be read here.

Behar – Don’t Serve Servants

“They are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt” (Vayikra 25:55).

Although the Talmud’s comment on the phrase “They are My servants” – “but not the servants of servants” (Bava Kamma 116b) – has a technical, halachic meaning, it also hints at a broader one.

In other words, not only does it say that a Jew cannot own another Jew, it also signals that Jews are not to indenture themselves to causes other than the Jewish mandate. Not to a political party, social cause or personality. A Jew’s exclusive ultimate role is to be a servant of Hashem.

Because the freedom we were divinely granted from Egyptian bondage was not what many consider “freedom” – libertinism, the loss of all fetters. It was a passage from being “servants to servants” – to Egyptians and Egyptian mores – to becoming servants of Hashem. As Moshe, in Hashem’s name, ordered Pharaoh: “Let my people go so that they may serve Me” (Shemos 9:1).  

The Hebrew word for freedom, cherus, the Mishna (Avos, 6:2) notes, can be vowelled to render charus, “etched,” as the Aseres Hadibros were on the luchos.  “The only free person,” the Mishna concludes, “is the one immersed in Torah.”

True freedom doesn’t mean being retired and moneyed, lying on a beach with sunshine on one’s face and a cold beer within reach, without a care or beckoning task. 

In the words of Iyov, “Man is born to toil” (5:7).  True freedom, counterintuitively, comes from hard work.  Applying ourselves to a higher purpose liberates us from the limitations of our inner Egypts, and is what can bring true meaning to our lives.

Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

“I have on my table a violin string. It is free to move in any direction I like. If I twist one end, it responds; it is free.

“But it is not free to sing. So I take it and fix it into my violin. I bind it, and when it is bound, it is free for the first time to sing.”

A timely metaphor, as we progress from Pesach, the holiday of our release from bondage, to Shavuos, the day we entered servitude to the Divine. And when, like on Pesach, we will sing the words of Hallel.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Take Two – Pesach Sheini’s Special Significance to My Family

“Second Passover,” or Pesach Sheini, a minor Jewish holiday, is anything but minor in my family. It was on that Jewish date, which, in 1945, fell on April 27 (and this year, falls on May 15), that my late father-in-law, the late Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, was liberated by American forces from Kaufering, part of the concentration camp complex known as Dachau.

In biblical times, Pesach Sheini, coming a month after Pesach, was a day on which Jews who were unable for various reasons to bring the korban Pesach, or paschal sacrifice, on Pesach had another opportunity to do so, and to eat its meat along with matzos (unleavened bread), and bitter herbs. For my father-in-law, it became a symbol of his own “second chance” — at life. His happy one as a child in the Polish city of Lodz had been rudely interrupted by the Nazis on September 8, 1939.

Mr. Cohen became a teenage inmate of several concentration camps. On Pesach Sheini in 1945, he and a friend, Yossel Carmel, lay in Kaufering, in a corpse-filled pit, where they had been cast by their captors, who thought them dead.

Over recent days, there had been rumors that the camp’s commanders had been ordered to murder all the prisoners, to deprive the advancing Allied armies of living witnesses to their work. 

The friends’ fear, though, was leavened by hope, born of the sound of explosions in the distance. “We prayed,” he later wrote, that “the thunderous explosions would go on forever.” The pair, he recalled, “eventually fell asleep to the beautiful sound of the bombs.”  

The only moving things in the camp were shuffling, emaciated “musselmen,” the “walking skeletons” who had been rendered senseless by starvation and trauma. And so the pair wondered if, perhaps, the camp guards had abandoned the premises. Alas, though, the S.S. returned, bringing along prisoners from other parts of the camp complex, who were kicked toward waiting wagons and, quite literally, thrown onto them.

But, when no one was looking, the two inmates managed to climb down from where they had been cast and found new refuge in a nearby latrine.  “Our stomachs,” he recalled, “were convulsing.” 

Eventually the wagons left, and the two young men crept back into their cellblock, posing again, not unconvincingly, as corpses. 

Then they smelled smoke. Peeking out from their hiding place, the young men saw flames everywhere. Running outside, the newly resurrected pair saw German soldiers watching a barracks burn, thankfully with their backs toward them. There were piles of true corpses all around, and the two quickly threw themselves on the nearest one that wasn’t aflame.

My future father-in-law thought it was the end, and wanted to recite the “final confession” that Jewish liturgy suggests for one who is dying. But his friend reminded him of an aphorism the Talmud ascribes to Dovid Hamelech, King David, that “Even with a sharp sword against his neck, one should never despair of Divine mercy.”   

And that mercy, at least for them, arrived.  Every few minutes, bombs whistled overhead, followed by fearsome explosions. The earth shook, but each blast shot shrapnel of hope into their hearts. The Germans now really seemed gone for good. 

Dodging the flames and smoldering ruins, the pair ran to the only building still intact, the camp kitchen.  There they found a few others who had also successfully hidden from the Nazi mop-up operation.

And they discovered a sack of flour. They mixed it with water, fired up the oven and baked flatbreads. My father-in-law, who, throughout his captivity, had kept careful note of the passing of time on the Jewish calendar, knew it was Pesach Sheini. And the breads became their matzos. No bitter herbs were necessary.

The door flew open and another inmate rushed in breathlessly, finally shouting: “The Americans are here!”

A convoy of jeeps roared through the camp. American soldiers approached the barracks, some, Mr. Cohen recalled, with tears streaming down their faces at the sight of the piles of blackened, smoldering skeletons. 

“Along with the American soldiers,” he wrote, “we all wept.” 

And then he recited the Jewish blessing of gratitude to God for “having kept us alive and able to reach this day.”

Eventually, Mr. Cohen made his way to France, where he cared for and taught Jewish war orphans; and then to Switzerland, where he met and married my dear mother-in-law, may she be well. The couple emigrated to Toronto and raised five children. For decades thereafter, each Second Passover, he and others who had been liberated from Kaufering that day, along with other camps’ survivors, would arrange a special meal of thanksgivingin Toronto or New York, during which they shared memories and gratitude to God.

As the years progressed, however, sadly but inevitably, fewer and fewer of the survivors were in attendance. And, like his friend Mr. Carmel, Mr. Cohen is no longer with us.

But his wife, and my wife and her siblings, along with scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, spread across several states, Canada and Israel, gather in groups, in person or virtually, every Pesach Sheini to recall his ordeals and his liberation, the “second life” we are so grateful he was granted by God.

Many are survivors today, of hateful violence, again against Jews in Israel, as well as other people in places like Sudan, Myanmar, Yemen, Europe and Ukraine. Despair is a natural reaction to witnessing such evil. But those who, like my father-in-law — and my own father, who spent the war years in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia — persevered and created new post-trauma lives show that pasts needn’t cripple futures.

That, like in the case of Pesach Sheini, we can be graced with second chances.

Emor – Crime and Punishment

The first of the Torah’s two cases of imprisonment– that of the mekalel, the blasphemer, is in the parshah (Vayikra, 24:12). The second is in parshas Shelach (Bamidbar 15:34), regarding the mekoshesh eitzim, the Shabbos wood-gatherer.

It is noteworthy that in both cases, the imprisonment of the violator is not a punishment but rather a temporary restraint until a Divine verdict is obtained.

Longtime societal norms become parts of our default assumptions, and so, the contention that sentencing a criminal to jail is an appropriate punishment for a serious crime is seldom questioned.

In the Torah, though, it isn’t. Punitive prescriptions for intentional crimes take the form either of monetary compensation or of corporal punishment – flogging or execution.

American prisons are not only overpopulated (upward of 2 million people), overcrowded, expensive and rife with violence and abuse but also serve as fertile environments for some criminals to hone their skills and “network” with one another. 

An idea that seems impolite to raise but is worth considering all the same is whether corporal punishment might serve as a more effective response and deterrent to crime than incarceration.

Flogging wouldn’t likely fly these days. But carefully regulated but painful experiences, like, for instance, tasing (which is currently acceptable for disabling threats), perhaps combined with requiring post-punishment location anklets, might be an option to consider.

Under current norms, purposely inflicting pain is labeled torture and considered contemptable. But long-term imprisonment is torturous and contemptable in its own right. 

As in so many other realms, here, too, the Torah might be an illuminative guide to larger society. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

A Lesson About Living

At 14 years of age, my mother assumed that “sitting shiva,” the Jewish week-long observance of mourning for a close relative, was just part of the regular Jewish year-cycle.

That was because, after immigrating as a young child with her parents and maternal grandmother to Baltimore from a shtetl in Poland not long before World War II, within three years she lost her grandmother, her 20-year-old brother, who took suddenly ill and died while studying in a New York yeshiva, and then, shortly thereafter, her father, who perished, they said, of a broken heart. He was 48.

I never met my mother’s father, who served as a respected rabbi of a small Baltimore synagogue; I was born some 16 years after his death. But a photograph of him, dark-eyed, long-bearded and in rabbinic cap and garb, looks down at me from within a cherry-wood frame over the desk where I write.

After his death, his widow, a quiet, calm and determined woman, finding herself suddenly on her own, summoned the energy to open a small Jewish bookstore, and the strength to make it a small success.

My mother’s mother was successful, too, with the help of a Brooklyn rabbi, in finding a suitable husband for her daughter.

He was also a Polish immigrant, a yeshiva boy who had spent the war years in a Siberian work camp, courtesy of the Soviet Union. Essentially penniless, he courted my mother by quietly singing songs to her in his sweet voice as they rode the subways in New York where she had a secretarial job.

Like his bride’s father, he became the rabbi of a congregation, but in his case, happily, serving it for more than a half-century. My mother, though, was his partner in full, befriending and counselling the shul’s congregants, and running its youth program. My parents had three children, a girl and then two boys. I am the older boy, though I haven’t been a boy for more than 50 years.

My mother’s only other sibling, a brother, was studying in a Baltimore yeshiva when the U.S. entered World War II. He left the study hall to join the military and, after serving honorably in the South Pacific, returned to Baltimore and married. He and his wife, though, were childless.

And so it was my mother alone who was left to carry on her parents’ line.

I often marvel at how, throughout my youth, her young experience of repeated loss never registered on her face or in her demeanor.  It never occurred to me that she had had so wrenching a childhood; it was only long into my own adulthood that I heard her mention, en passant, her mistaken notion that shiva was just part of the Jewish year

It became obvious to me in adulthood that my mother didn’t want to burden her own children with the pain she had borne in her younger days. She was constantly upbeat, optimistic, nurturing and encouraging. Everything anyone could ask for in a mother. And it was real. She didn’t muffle the sadness of her youth; she overcame it.

Today, surveying a world so rife with anger at fate, so full of self-centered gripes about slights and harms, real or imagined, I regularly conjure the image of my mother. And the knowledge of what her youth was like, and how she transcended the personal tragedies she endured at a tender age, how she never allowed self-pity to embitter her, how her sights were only on joys of the present and hopes for the future, not on the hardships of the past.

And, as it happens, her hopes were realized. Although she died more than thirty years ago when she was only 65, she lived to see many grandchildren. And were she alive today, she could smile at triple-digit progeny, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of them living vibrant Jewish lives.

And I am quite sure that the very last thing she would be thinking about was her fourteenth year.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Kedoshim – Skin in a Zero-Sum Game

Although, in the end, all tattooing is forbidden by halachah, one opinion in the Mishna (Rabi Shimon ben Yehudah in Rabi Shimon’s name) sees the prohibition as referring specifically to tattooing the name of an idolatry. The pasuk can be read as hinting to that approach: “And a tattoo you shall not place upon yourselves – I am Hashem” (Vayikra, 19:28) – as if to say “Nothing else is.” The contest, so to speak, is zero-sum.

And the Rambam, in fact, places the prohibition in his “Laws of Idolatry.” 

So it would seem reasonable, if seeking some message in the tattoo prohibition, to imagine that it might be a negation of designating something, anything, other than Hashem as an ultimate object of dedication.

And, in fact, tattooing is, at least in many cultures, not a mere “decorative” practice but rather a demonstration of devotion – whether to “Mom,” “Jane,” “Jim” or “Semper Fi.”

Or to any less-than-holy ideal, no matter how worthy. What to an idolater is his deity’s name or symbol is, to a contemporary potential tattoo-ee, any of the broad assortment of “isms” – socialism, capitalism, Zionism, environmentalism… that are popular at any given time. Rav Elchonon Wasserman indeed referred to isms as the idolatries of the current historical era.

And so, what the Torah is forbidding may be understood as inscribing one’s utter dedication to any such concept. In fact, the Hebrew for “upon yourselves” can be read just as easily as “in yourselves”; and Rav Hirsch contrasts the use of that word with the “in your flesh” language used regarding making mourning-cuts.

Political isms are still popular these days, but the most widespread ism of the nonce, I suspect, is the one beginning with the word “material.” Not easily depicted in a tattoo, perhaps, but it’s a most consuming (pun intended) idolatry all the same. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Acharei Mos – “No. You Do ME”

“Propriety” was apparently a theme of the Sadducees, or Tziddukim, one of the camps of Jews during the Second Temple period that rejected the the Torah’s “Oral Law,” the key to understanding the true meaning of the Written one. The former, of course, reveals things like that “An eye for an eye” means monetary compensation, and that “totafos” means what we call tefillin.

And so, the Tziddukim rejected the Oral Law’s direction that “Sabbath” in the phrase “from the day after the Sabbath,” directing the beginning of the Omer-counting period, means the first day of Pesach. They felt, they explained, that having two days in a row of rest and festivity – Shabbos and Shavuos, the fiftieth day of the count – would be a nice and proper thing.

And they advocated, too, a change in the Yom Kippur service described in the parsha, at the very crescendo of the day, when the Kohein Gadol entered the Kodesh Hakadashim. The Oral Law prescribes that the incense offered there be lit only after the Kohen Gadol entered the room. The Tziddukim contended that it be lit beforehand. While they offered Written Law support for their position, their true motivation, the Talmud explains, was the “propriety” of doing things differently. 

“Does one bring raw food to a mortal king,” they argued, “and only then cook it before him? No! One brings it in hot and steaming!”

The placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems most appropriate” – above the received truths of the mesorah is the antithesis of Torah, whose foundation is not “you do you” but “you do Me.” 

Our very peoplehood was forged by our forebears’ unanimous, unifying declaration at Sinai: “Naaseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will hear!” – “We will accept the Torah’s laws,” in other words, even amid a lack of ‘hearing,’ or understanding, even  if we think we have a better idea.”

Naaseh v’nishma” stands in stark contrast to society’s fixation on not only having things but having them “our way,” and to Jewish groups that want to bring Torah “in line” with contemporary sensibilities.

But from Avraham Avinu’s “ten trials” to 21st century America, Judaism has never been about comfort, enjoyment or personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter emerges from a holiness-centered life). It has been about Torah and mitzvos – about accepting them not only when they sit well with us but even – in fact, especially – when they don’t.

With apologies to JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson (Jewish mother’s maiden name: Annis Chaikin), Judaism is not about what we’d like Hakadosh Baruch Hu to do for us, but rather about what we are privileged to do for Him.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Klal Yisrael’s Second Marriage

It’s intriguing. Three words are used to refer to Yetzias Mitzrayim (yetziah, geirush and shilu’ach; see, for examples, Shemos, 20:2, 11:1 and 8:17).

And they are the very same words used as well to refer to… divorce (see Devarim 24:2, 24:1 and Vayikra 21:7). 

The metaphor seemingly hinted at by that fact is that Klal Yisrael became “divorced” from Mitzrayim, to which it had been, in a way, “married,” a reflection of our descent there to the 49th level of spiritual squalor. 

But the apparent “divorce” of Klal Yisroel from Mitzrayim is followed by a new metaphorical matrimony. Because that is the pointed imagery of the event that, mere weeks later, followed Yetzias Mitzrayim: ma’amad Har Sinai.

Not only does Rashi relate the Torah’s first description of a betrothal – Rivka’s – to that event (Beraishis 24:22), associating the two bracelets given her by Eliezer on Yitzchok’s behalf as symbols of the two luchos, and their ten geras’ weight to the aseres hadibros. And not only does the navi Hoshea (2:21, 22) describe Mattan Torah in terms of betrothal (vi’airastich li…, familiar to men as the pesukim customarily recited when wrapping tefillin on our fingers – and to women, from actually studying Nevi’im).

But our own chasunos themselves hearken back to Har Sinai: The chuppah, say various seforim hakedoshim, recalls the mountain, which Chazal describe as being held over our ancestors’ heads; the candles traditionally borne by the parents of the chosson and kallah are to remind us of the lightning at the revelation; the breaking of the glass, of the breaking of the luchos.

In fact, the bircas eirusin itself, the essential blessing that accompanies a marriage, seems as well to refer almost explicitly to the revelation at Har Sinai. “Blessed are You, Hashem, … Who betrothed His nation Yisroel through chuppah and kiddushin” – “al yidei” meaning precisely what it always does (“through the means of”) and “mekadesh” meaning “betroth,” rather than “made holy” like “mekadesh haShabbos”).

The metaphor is particularly poignant when one considers the sole reference to divorce in the Torah.

It is in Devarim (24, 2) and mentions divorce only in the context of the prohibition for a [female] divorcee, subsequently remarried, to return to her first husband. The only other “prohibition of return” in the Torah, strikingly, is the one forbidding Jews to return to Mitzrayim (Shmos 14:13, Devorim, 17:16). Like the woman described in Devarim, we cannot return, ever, to our first “husband.”

More striking still is the light thereby shed on the confounding Gemara on the first daf of massechta Sotah. 

The Gemara poses a contradiction. One citation has marriage-matches determined by Divine decree, at the conception of each partner; another makes matches dependent on the choices made by the individuals – “lifi ma’asov” – “according to his merits.”

The Gemara’s resolution is that the divine decree determines“first marriages” and the merit-based dynamic refers to second ones.

The implications, if intended as such regarding individuals, are, to say the least, unclear. But the import of the Gemara’s answer on the “national” level – at least in light of the Mitzrayim/Har Sinai marriage-metaphor – provide a startling possibility.

Because Klal Yisroel’s first “marriage,” to Mitzrayim, was indeed divinely decreed, foretold to Avrohom Avinu at the Bris Bein Habesorim (Bereishis 15:13): “For strangers will your children be in a land not theirs, and [its people] will work and afflict them for four hundred years.”

And Klal Yisroel’s “second marriage,” its true and permanent one, was the result of the choice Hashem made – and our ancestors made, by refusing to change their clothing, language and names even when still in the grasp of Mitzri society and culture – and their willingness to follow Moshe into a dangerous desert. And, ultimately, when they said “Na’aseh vinishma,” after which they received their priceless wedding ring under the mountain-chuppah of Har Sinai.


And  a fascinating coup de grâce: The Gemara in Sotah referenced above describes the challenge of finding the proper mates. Doing so, says Rabbah bar bar Ḥana in Rabi Yoḥanan’s name, is kasheh k’krias Yam Suf – “as difficult as the splitting of the Sea.”

© 2022 Ami Magazine