Parshas Balak – Invitation to Murder

Were a donkey to suddenly develop the power of speech and address me, I would, I’m quite sure, be flabbergasted.

Faced with just such an asinine address, though, Bil’am isn’t struck silent and doesn’t collapse in shock. In fact, he seems entirely unfazed, and simply reacts to his donkey’s protest — “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?” — by responding “Because you mocked me!” (Bamidbar 22:28-29). 

What occurs to me as a possible explanation of his nonchalance is that he had become so oblivious to the difference between animals and humans — and indeed related to his beast as a partner in life — that the shock factor simply wasn’t there. True, the donkey had never spoken before, but maybe the animal simply hadn’t had anything to say until then.

The view of man as a mere fur-less ape is evident, too, at the end of the parsha, where the idolatry of Ba’al Pe’or celebrates the base physical functions that humans and lower creatures share in common. 

The idea that humans are a mere subset of the animal kingdom has been taken by celebrated “ethicist” Peter Singer to its logical conclusion. Human infants, he has said, are “neither rational nor self-conscious,” and so, “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.”

Equating humans and animals, which is common in our times as well as in ancient ones, isn’t just a means of legitimating debauchery. 

It is nothing less, when truly internalized, than a prelude to murder.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Cowardice Or Wisdom?

That any sane person could castigate Israel for her response last month to Hamas missiles is astounding.  

Hamas, after all, has sent booby-trapped party balloons across the border into Israeli towns in an effort to kill Jewish children, and began the recent war by aiming its rockets at civilians, rejoicing at every Israeli casualty. The Israel Defense Forces, by powerful contrast and as usual, sent messages by texts, phone calls and leaflets warning civilians to evacuate premises housing terrorists or weapons caches before bombing the buildings.

Astounding, but not surprising, of course. We’re still in galus, after all, and where Jews are concerned, common sense often goes missing.

Israel’s reaction to the recent attack on her, moreover, was widely called “disproportionate.” But that judgment presupposes that her goal was punishment. It wasn’t. 

The Hamas rockets were merely a pretext for Israel to undertake something more important than teaching terrorists a lesson. They were an opportunity to destroy as much of the murderers’ weapons and tunnels as possible, to prevent further attacks on Israeli civilians in the near future. To speak of “proportionality” in such a mission is incoherent.

Hamas, moreover, started the recent war on a pretext of its own, invoking police actions on Har Habayis and a reclamation of Jewish property in Yerushalayim’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood as the reasons for their attack. But those were just convenient excuses. The terrorists’ true aim, as always, was just to kill or maim as many Jews as possible. 

So both Hamas and Israel seized chances to do what each already wanted to do: the former, to kill innocents; the latter, to protect them.

But the fact that good and evil here are easily identifiable begs an uncomfortable question: Could Hamas have been — or might it in the future be — deterred from attacking (and, after Israel’s understandable reaction, garnering the support of Israeli Arabs, mendacious media and credulous Congresspeople) by depriving it of pretexts?

The hashkafah that is part of my chinuch has it that the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael is a brachah, but not one that changes the harsh reality of galus.

And so, while some Jews, swelling with pride born of Israel’s accomplishments, feel that the Jewish state needn’t pay regard to other nations’ wrongheaded stances, to me, a true understanding of the meaning, challenge and mandate of galus counsels, at least to a degree, deference to the Arabs and the umos ha’olam.

Such concern for so often hostile others is seen by some as weakness or abandonment of Eretz Yisrael. But it is nothing of the sort. It is a simple recognition of reality, and a rejection of the attitude of “kochi v’otzem yadi asah li es hachayil hazeh.”

To be sure, Israel has not only the right but the responsibility to do what is necessary to protect her citizens. But it can’t be ignored that there are actions that go beyond that, and which, even when entirely justified by law and reason, may not be justified by wisdom. 

Several weeks before the first rockets were launched from Gaza last month, Israeli police reportedly entered the mosque on Har Habayis and cut the cables to loudspeakers that broadcast Muslim prayers. It was Yom Hazikaron and the move was intended to allow Israel’s president to make a speech at the Kosel. It was also, though, the first day of Ramadan. Was the pre-emptive move justified? Perhaps, yes. Wise? Perhaps not.

Likewise, Jews with claims to homes in neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah have every right, both ethically and by law, to reclaim their land. Is their claim justified? Absolutely. Wise? Arguable.

Last month, to its credit, the Israeli government, at the last minute, just before Yom Yerushalayim — when Jewish nationalists traditionally march through the Muslim Quarter and ascend Har Habayis — barred Jews from entering the compound, and rescheduled the march; and the Israeli Supreme Court postponed its hearing in the Sheikh Jarrah eviction case. But it was too late. Arab passions were in a state of frenzy by then, and Hamas took advantage of the anger and made its murderous move.

On Tuesday, the rescheduled march took place. Thousands of Israelis carrying flags assembled at Sha’ar Shechem, singing “Am Yisrael Chai,” before marching through the Old City.

“Take a good look at our flag. Live and suffer,” one marcher shouted in Hebrew through a megaphone at Arab merchants on the other side of police barriers. There was a catcall of “Death to Arabs!”

We are approaching the weeks of the Jewish year when we directly acknowledge, and bemoan, the fact that we’re still in galus.

And, in that state of yet-unfulfilled history, the Israeli government and nationalist Israelis would do well to reflect on the fact that Mashiach has not yet arrived, and that, while there is often a need to act militarily in defense of the populace, in political and social realms, restraint, respect and measured compromises might reflect not cowardice but wisdom.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Chukas – Snake Eyes

The bizarre image (Bamidbar 21:9) of our ancestors gazing at a graven image — a copper representation of a snake — to end a snake-plague born of their complaining about the mon, is contextualized by a Mishneh in Rosh Hashana (29a):

“Did the snake kill, or did the snake preserve life? Rather, when the Jewish people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed, but if not, they were necrotized [by the venom].”

Which raises the obvious question: Why not eliminate the middlesnake and just look heavenward?

Rabbeinu Bachya calls attention to the word used to introduce the (real) snakes in the account: hanechashim (Bamidbar 21:6). Not “snakes” but “the snakes.”  The definite article, he says, refers to the fact that these were the same reptiles that, elsewhere in the Torah (Devarim 8:15) are described as having been ever-present in the desert our ancestors wandered. 

Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch expands on that observation, explaining that gazing at the copper snake was meant to sensitize the people to the constancy and ubiquitousness of snakes around them — and to the realization that when the snakes hadn’t been plaguing them until then it was because of Hashem’s protection.

As Abba Binyamin taught (Berachos 6a), “If the eye were given permission to see, no person would be able to withstand [the sight of the multitude of] the demons [that surround  him].”

We moderns can easily — particularly as we emerge from a pandemic — appreciate the idea that danger — as potentially lethal as snakes and yet undetectable by our eyes — is all around us.  And that every day that the immune systems Hashem gave us function and we don’t succumb to the myriad ever-present infectious dangers that surround us, we should look heavenward in thanks.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Korach – Humility: The Mark of Leadership

Few contrasts are as striking as the one between Moshe, the “most humble of all men,” who had to be drafted by Hashem to lead the Jewish people, and Korach, who was consumed with a desire for a leadership role.

And, like deceitful populists over ensuing millennia, Korach insisted that he was merely standing up for the masses, advocating for their democratic rights. Who needs a mezuzah (i.e. a leader) if the house is filled with holy books (i.e. the magnificent masses)?

Many contemporary leaders, some more shamelessly than others, advanced their aspirations in Korach-fashion, lusting for power while claiming to be championing the people. (A rare exception was Dwight Eisenhower, the only American president who had to be drafted to run for that office.)

In the authentic Jewish religious world, true leaders are always drafted — that is to say, “elected” not by campaigns and misleading claims but rather by unsought public acclaim. I have been privileged to have spent time in the vicinities of several, and was deeply affected by their selflessness and modesty. My rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, was one; see https://www.rabbiavishafran.com/mr-to-us/. His yahrtzeit is Shiva Asar B’Tamuz.

And, just like Moshe was accused of sins he didn’t commit, so are Gedolim today sometimes attacked for imagined misdeeds. And not only by people lacking any relationship to Torah, but even some who are meticulously observant. 

Ohn ben Peles, the Midrash recounts, a confederate of Korach’s, was saved from the latter’s fate by Mrs. Ohn. After plying her husband with enough wine to put him to sleep, she sat outside their tent and uncovered her hair. So when Korach’s supporters came to fetch her husband and saw the immodest woman, religious folks that they were, they turned on their righteous heels and left. 

Even religious people can fall victim to would-be-dictators’ lies. 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Kristof’s Casuistry

To fine-tune Nicholas Kristof’s imaginary scenario (NYT Opinion, June 3):

Were British Columbia intent on killing Americans and dispossessing our country’s population, and had weapons that could reach Washington and New York, and, after the U.S. prevented war-grade material to reach the province (without impeding humanitarian aid), the Canadian province launched 4000 missiles at Seattle and San Francisco, I think most of us would be in favor of doing anything necessary to degrade its ability to do more of the same.

Parshas Shelach – Of Walls and Weakness

“Any lie in which a little truth is not stated at the start cannot be maintained in the end.” That is Rashi’s comment, based on Sotah, 35a, about the report of the spies who returned from reconnoitering Kenaan. They told Moshe Rabbeinu that “we came to the land to which you sent us, and indeed it is flowing with milk and honey” (Bamidbar, 13:27).

But not only was the report of the land’s bounty true, so was, at least on the surface, everything else the meraglim reported. Yes, they described the fearsome inhabitants of the land, the “men of stature,” and the burials of many of the land’s inhabitants. That negativity constituted dibah, evil speech, as the Torah itself says – as Chazal put it, lashon hara. But where was the untruth, the lie?

Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, z”l, in his sefer Mei Marom on Chumash, suggests a compelling answer.

The Midrash Tanchuma, brought by Rashi on the words “hechazak hu harafeh” (“Are they strong or weak?”) says that Moshe gave the spies a sign: “If they live in open cities [it is a sign that] they are strong, since they rely on their might. And if they live in fortified cities [it is a sign that] they are weak.” (ibid, 13:18)

And yet, notes Rav Charlop, the spies reported that “the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are very greatly fortified” (3:28). A self-contradiction, since if the inhabitants were indeed mighty, as per Moshe’s sign, they would not have needed to fortify their cities. And if their cities were fortified, that meant the people were feeble. There, the Mei Marom suggests, lies the lie. One or the other contention must be false.

Because, the bottom line is that building high walls is a sign not of strength but of weakness.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Galus and Gastronomy

Some people, like pollster James Zogby, see Israeli offerings of hummus and babaganoush as a form of  “cultural genocide.”  And cookbook author Reem Kassis says that the marketing of hummus as an Israeli food makes her feel that she doesn’t exist.

I can’t say whether hummus was originally an Arab or Israeli delicacy, only that I enjoy it with a bit of olive oil and paprika on a pita. But I have what to say about Jewish cuisine and what it teaches us.  You can read what here.