Parshas V’zos Habracha – Spacewarps

A Roman emperor, according to a Midrashic account (Sifri, Devarim 357), sent two army units to find Moshe Rabbeinu’s burial site. When they stood above it on a hill, they saw it below. When they descended the hill, they saw it above them.

“So, they split up, half above and half below; those above saw it when they looked down, and those below saw it when they looked up.” But neither group could reach the grave.

Which reflects the Torah’s text “No one knows his burial place to this day” (Devarim 34:6).

The space warping recalls that of the aron in which Moshe’s luchos lay.

Rabi Levi (Yoma 21a) notes a mesorah that “the place of the aron is not included in the measurement” – that the kodesh hakadashim measured twenty amos by twenty amos, yet a beraisa states that there were ten amos of space on either side of the aron.

It was there, to be sure, but took up no space.

And Moshe’s grave exists but flips in and out of space.

The idea that space is a given, and cannot be interrupted or bent in any way, was the dominant scientific assumption… until Einstein. Today we know that space, like time, is not a simple unchangeable grid. It can be warped, even torn. And the fact that the assigned place of the Law and the final resting place of the G-d-sent human Lawgiver don’t “fit” space as we know it may mean to telegraph the truth that the Torah, while it was given us in our cozy, seemingly three- (or four, counting time) dimensional universe, encompasses it but exists outside it.

It’s a fitting thought as we transition to the beginning of the Torah, where the first pasuk states that “heaven and earth” were brought into being. Or, as a modern astrophysicist might put it, that space and time themselves came to be, expanding from an unknowable singularity into what we call our universe.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Rabbi Amnon’s Tongue

A frisson of fright is sent up the spine of every sensitive Jew when Unesaneh Tokef is intoned on the Yomim Nora’im. Because of the image it conjures of the Dayan uMochiach, the One “Who judges and proves and knows and bears witness; Who writes and seals, counts and calculates, Who remembers all that was forgotten,” opening the Sefer Hazichronos in which “the signature of every man” is inscribed and which “will read itself.”

And because of the scene it paints of the“great shofar” sounding, followed by a “quiet, faint voice”; as the angels themselves are seized by “a trembling and terror” as they declare: “Behold, it is the Day of Judgment.”

The shudder is intensified by the tefillah’s soul-piercing reminder about the coming year—“who will live and who will die… who will be undisturbed, and who in turmoil,” who “will be laid low, and who raised high.”

And by the haunting melody to which it is traditionally sung.

And, finally, by our recollection of the tradition we have of the tefillah’s origin.
A certain Rabbi Amnon, who lived in the 11th century, the account goes, was pressured by the Archbishop of Mainz to convert to Christianity. Rabbi Amnon refused repeatedly, but on one occasion he asked for three days’ time to consider the offer, a stalling tactic he immediately regretted, as he realized he had given the priest hope that his Jewish subject might abandon his ancestral faith.

When Rabbi Amnon didn’t visit the clergyman at the end of the three days, he was forcibly taken to him and again refused the demand of the priest, who had Rabbi Amnon’s fingers and toes amputated one by one, pausing before each drop of the sword to allow the Jew to change his mind. He didn’t, and was returned to his home, along with his amputated limbs.

On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried, along with his body parts, into the shul, and, before Kedushah, asked the chazan to pause. The silence was then broken by the tortured rav’s intonation of Unesaneh Tokef, after which he died.

Several days later, the leader of the Mainz Jewish community, Kalonymus ben Meshulam (who would later perish in the Worms Massacre), had a dream in which Rabbi Amnon taught him the words of the tefillah.

The account is attributed to the famous 13th century halachic work Ohr Zarua, written by Rav Yitzchok ben Moshe of Vienna. Reading the actual text one year led me to a detail I hadn’t realized before.

When Rabbi Amnon was brought before the archbishop, the rav told the clergyman that he wanted to be punished—not for refusing the Christian’s urging to convert but rather for giving the impression that he had even considered such a thing. “Cut out my tongue,” he told the archbishop. The clergyman, however, refused that request. He saw Rabbi Amnon’s sin as his refusal to come as he had promised, hence he chose his own punishment for the rav, the one that was meted out.

And so the priest, while he cruelly and grievously tortured the Jew, left his victim’s tongue in place.

“The voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esav,” said Yitzchak Avinu (Bereishis, 27:22). The use of weaponry, held by hands, is the province of Esav. Yaakov’s power lies in his tongue—in his words, his prayers.

There, I realized, was a point I had always missed. Rabbi Amnon, denied the excision of his tongue he had requested, went on to use it well—to compose the Unesaneh Tokef that marks a most poignant moment in the Musafim of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The part of his body he regretted having misused he ended up using powerfully, inspiring countless Jews over the generations since—to, as per the tefillah’s final declaration, use their own words, along with teshuvah and tzedakah, to be ma’avir any ro’a hagezeirah.

Gmar chasimah tovah.

Parshas Haazinu — Not Bad but Best

A man once visited the saintly Chafetz Chaim and the sage asked him how things were going for him. The visitor responded, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt if they were a bit better.”

“How can you know it wouldn’t hurt?” was the Chafetz Chaim’s immediate response. “Hashem knows what is best for you better than you do. And whether or not you think he has given you the best for you, He has.” 

That idea is one of the explanations of “The Rock, perfect is His work; all His paths are justice” (Devarim 32:4).

There are things entirely unknown to us — “more things in heaven and Earth” as Shakespeare had Hamlet tell Horatio, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Sometimes adversity is punishment in this world for our benefit in the next; sometimes it is a temporary pain that will lead to a greater gain; sometimes it is the yield of mystical calculi involving previous histories of our souls.

But it is always, whether we think it so or not, for our betterment.

The Chafetz Chaim was known to tell people not to employ the word “bad” about their travails, to opt instead for the word “bitter.”

Because, he explained, medicine is often bitter, but it’s not bad; it is best. 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Driving Like It’s Rosh Hashanah

Some Jews attend shul only on the Yamim Nora’aim or for a yahrtzeit. They “compartmentalize” their Judaism. It’s called on only for special occasions. And yet, as always, there’s more to be gained by not looking at others but rather inward. Our Orthodox world, after all, “knows from” compartmentalization too.

A similar compartmentalization is evident in a more observant Jew who, while he would never dream of eating food lacking a good hechsher, might nevertheless act in his business dealings, or his home life, or behind the wheel in less Torah-observant ways.

It seems part of the human condition to, while knowing Hashem and His Torah are real, relegate their presence to one’s “religious” life, not one’s mundane day-to-day living.

Some of us don’t always pause and think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or pronounce every word clearly and distinctly). We allow our observances and davening to sometimes fade into rote. I’m writing here to myself, but some readers may be able to relate.

Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Days of Repentance, is suffused with the concept of Malchus, “Kingship.” The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and the concept of malchiyus is prominent in the days’ Mussaf tefillah. What, though, has kingship to do with repentance?

By definition, a king has a kingdom, over which he exerts his rules. There is little escaping even a mortal monarch’s reach, and none of his subjects dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case of not a king but the King.

Kingship and compartmentalization are diametric, incompatible ideas. If Hashem is to be our Ruler, then there are no places and no times when He can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is our yearly opportunity to try to bring our lives more in line with that ideal. To better comprehend, in other words, that Hashem is as manifest when we are sitting behind a desk, driving, cooking or sending kids off to school as He is when we are reciting Shemoneh Esrei, as present on a nondescript December morning as He is during the Yamim Nora’im.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayeilech

Prepared to Not Progress

Children brought to shul need to be controlled by their parents, of course. They mustn’t be permitted to disturb those gathered there to daven. But, at least from an age when they can be effectively controlled, they should be brought.

Ah, but won’t controlling them perforce prevent their parents from focusing fully on their tefillos?

Too bad. That’s part of a parent’s job, being hindered.

The mitzvah of Hakhel, described in parshas Vayeilech, entails, in the time of the Beis HaMidkash, the gathering, during the first year of the Shmitta cycle, on the first day of chol hamoed Sukkos, of all the nation’s “men, women and children” (Devarim 31:12).

The men, Rashi quotes Massechta Chagiga (3a), in order to study (from the portions of the Torah the king reads); the women, to absorb the words; and the children… “to give reward to those who brought them.”

Seems rather circular. Bring them because it’s a mitzvah to bring them?

It is said in the name of R’ Nosson Adler (the first rebbe of the Chasam Sofer), and also of the Baal Shem Tov, that the meaning of the Gemara is that the parents’ reward is for bringing their children even though controlling them makes their fathers’ and mothers’ learning and listening difficult.

Chinuch, training children, in other words, is important enough to require parents’ discomfiture and loss of personal, even spiritual, opportunity.

The Amora R’ Yochanan (Chagigah 15b) said, based on a pasuk in Malachi, that only if a rebbe is similar to an angel of Hashem should one “seek Torah from his mouth.”

R’ Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz, the “Hafla’ah” (and, interestingly, another rebbe of the Chasam Sofer), suggests that, since angels are described (Zecharia 3:7) as “omdim,” “standers,” implying changelessness, R’ Yochanan means to say that a rebbe has to be prepared to not progress personally, if that is the toll of his dedication to his students.

And parents, of course, are the ultimate rabbaim, the most influential molders of their children. They must be prepared to be hindered in their personal progress for the sake of their young.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Nitzavim – The Role of Failure

Reflecting the time of year when we read Nitzavim, before the “Days of Awe,” the parshah’s major themes are sin and repentance.

And while much of Nitzavim concerns potential punishments for sin, there is also an undercurrent of assurance, of the possibility of teshuvah, repentance. “And you will return to Hashem, your G-d” (Devarim 30:2).

Even the parshah’s first words imply the power of teshuvah. Moshe addresses the Jews as nitzavim hayom, “standing upright today” (29:9), despite the fact that “much did you anger” Hashem over the years of wandering the desert, “yet He did not destroy you” (Rashi 29: 12).

Essential to teshuvah is charatah, regret of the sin. But charatah means just that, regret, wishing one had not sinned. It does not mean despondence, which can actually impede teshuvah.

Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin from 1940 into the 1970s, once wrote a letter to a student who had shared his anguish and depression over personal spiritual failures.

What makes life meaningful, the Rosh Yeshiva responded, is not basking in one’s “good inclination” but rather engaging, repeatedly, no matter the setbacks, in the battle against our inclination to sin.

“Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up,” (Mishlei, 24:16) wrote Shlomo Hamelech. That, wrote Rav Hutner, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to get up again.” What it really means, he explains, is that it is precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles — including the failures — are inherent to the achievement of eventual, ultimate success.

One of the melachos of Shabbos is mocheik, or “erasing,” the sister-melachah of “writing.” And the melachos are derived from what was necessary during the construction of the mishkan.

Erasing, Rashi (Shabbos, 73a) explains, was necessary because mistakes would be made when marking the mishkan’s beams with letters indicating their placement. But only actions intrinsic to the construction of the mishkan are melachos. Apparently, mistakes were part of the process.

It’s much more than what Big Bird taught, that “everyone makes mistakes.” It’s that everyone needs to make mistakes.

Civil engineering professor Henry Petroski captured that truth in the title of one of his books: “To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.” Initial failures, he asserts, are what drive tasks to perfection.

The same is true in life. Teshuvah is accomplished with regret, not despondency.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran