Parshas Shemini – And That Could Make All the Difference

Even those of us with limited exposure to farm animals can easily differentiate between a cow and a donkey. Which leads Rashi to explain that when the Torah refers to our need to differentiate between the meat permitted for us Jews to consume and that which is prohibited, it means distinguishing between things like “a trachea [of a permitted animal] that has been cut exactly halfway across [which doesn’t satisfy the requirements of shechita] and one that has been more-than-half cut.”

A rather fine distinction, of course, a matter of a millimeter or less. 

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zt”l, sees it as a template for judgments to be made throughout our lives.  There is a mere hairsbreadth’s difference between holiness and its opposite, he notes in his sefer LaTorah V’lamoadim. He cites the Talmudic account of Rabi Meir’s recollection of Rabi Yishmael’s words upon hearing that Rabi Meir was a sofer. “My son, be very careful in your work… for if you omit a mere letter or add one [which, in certain cases could radically change the meaning of a word], you could destroy the entire world.”

Similarly, Rav Zevin notes, we are enjoined to see ourselves as if we are half-worthy and half-unworthy; and Rabi Elazar ben Rabi Shimon adds that the world itself can be dependent on its merits outweighing – even by a single mitzvah – its demerits.  And so, with each decision we make, we should imagine that only choosing correctly will preserve the world.

Even a mere momentary thought can be that crucial element, he adds, since a marriage effected by a man who betroths a woman “on the condition that I am a completely righteous person,” but whose subsequent actions indicate otherwise, requires a divorce to be dissolved.  Because, as the Gemara says, “perhaps he had a thought of repentance” when he betrothed the woman on the condition.

The words of Robert Frost, in his famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” come to mind.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

We often make decisions in our daily lives without considering that our choices could be potentially life-changing, even earth-shattering.” But, in fact, any of them could be.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Tzav – The Illness that was Egypt

The korban todah, or “thanksgiving” offering described in the parsha (Vayikra 7:12), according to the Gemara (Brachos 54b), citing Tehillim 107, is the proper response to one of four categories of danger (though other situations may well be incorporated within them) from which one has emerged safely: 1) going to sea, 2) travelling in a desert, 3) enduring a serious illness and 4) being confined to prison. Those categories are based on Tehillim 107.

Both interestingly and timely is the fact that the Jewish national thanksgiving which is Pesach involves all of those categories. A sea had to be crossed, a desert, subsequently, had to be travelled, Egypt is described as having been a virtual prison, from which no one had previously escaped, and the Jewish people are described as having sunk to the lowest spiritual level in Egypt — a sickness of the national soul — necessitating their immediate exodus from the spiritually decrepit land. 

But something is strange here. The korban todah, unique among offerings, requires as an accompaniment four groups of flour-offerings. And, equally unique, one of those groups must be chametz, leavened. (Other flour offerings, aside from Shavuos’ shtei halachem, are not permitted to leaven.)

And on Pesach, of course, chametz is forbidden not only to consume but even to own.

If Pesach is a national parallel of an individual’s korban todah, why would the latter include something that is anathema to the former?

What occurs is that the “illness” that a korban todah offerer survived was a physical one, whereas the national malady we experienced in Egypt was entirely spiritual.  The inclusion of chametz in the todah-offering might reflect the fact that the danger was to bodies (chametz being associated with physical desires); the dearth of it on Pesach, the fact that the danger was entirely to our souls. (The Alshich, in fact, identifies each of the four flour-offerings with one of the todah- obligating escaped dangers, and associates “enduring illness” with the chametz offering.)

Soon enough, we will be celebrating Hashem’s rescue of our ancestors from the illness that was Egypt, when we recount the happening at our Pesach seder tables and declare our thanksgiving in Hallel, with not a crumb of chametz to be found.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Karpas Conundrum

Questions, questions everywhere.  At the Seder, that is.

There are the proverbial Four, of course, but they lead to a torrent of new queries.  Like why those questions are themselves never directly answered in the Haggadah.  And why they (and so much else in the Haggadah) are “four”?  And why they must be asked even of oneself, if no one else is present.  Not to mention scores of others on the oddities of the Haggadah’s text.  As the old jokes have it, we Jews seem to respond to questions with only more.

Why the Haggadah is so question-saturated is an easy one.  Because the Seder revolves around the next generation.  It is the communication of the saga of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt to our children, and thus cannot be undertaken in a merely recitative manner.  “Questions and Answers” is a most basic teaching tool, as are singing, number games, and alphabetical acrostics, all elements found in the ancient pedagogic perfection we call the Haggadah.  So none of those educational aids should surprise us.

Karpas, though, should.

Because karpas, the vegetable dipped in saltwater at the start of the Seder, is truly baffling.  Although it is the subject of one of the Big Four questions, it not only does not have an answer; it seems that it cannot have one.

For the Talmud itself asks why we do it, and answers, “So that the children will notice and ask what it is for.”

At which point, presumably, we are to respond, “So that you will ask, dear children!”

To which they may be expected to respond, “All right, now we’re asking.”  And so forth.

Karpas seems to be the verbal equivalent of one of those Escher lithographs where figures march steadily but futilely up strange stairs only to again reach their starting point below.  Why we do it is an inherently unanswerable question.

Some insight, though, may be available by considering yet another unanswerable question, perhaps the most fundamental one imaginable: Why we are here.

The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) recounts that the students of Shammai and those of Hillel spent two and a half years arguing the question of whether “it would have been better for humankind not to have been created.”

And, intriguingly, they came to conclude that man would have been better off uncreated, and added only that now that we humans find ourselves here, we must strive to examine and improve our actions.

The famed 19th century Torah-giant Rabbi Yisroel Salanter addressed the meaning of the argument and its result.  Needless to say, he explained, the students of Shammai and Hillel were not sitting in judgment on their Creator.  What they were in truth arguing about was whether mankind, with its limited purview, can possibly hope to comprehend the fact that G-d deemed it worthwhile for humankind to exist.

And they concluded that we cannot.  We are unable to fathom what good the Creator saw in providing one of his creations free will.  It is surely better that mankind is here, but why cannot be known.

After all (they likely noted), free will makes sin inevitable.  And humans, in fact, seem entirely prone to bad behavior.

Past history and current events alike evidence man’s choosing evil over good at almost every turn.  We humans are eminently self-centered, and precious few of our thoughts concern how we might be better givers, not takers, better servants of the Divine.

What has this to do with karpas?

Perhaps nothing.  But perhaps much.

Because disobedience of G-d, the very definition of sin, has its roots in the first man and woman’s act of independence.  And one of the results of their choice was a change in the fundamental relationship they (and we) had (and have) with the earth on which we depend.

“Thorns and thistles [the earth] shall bring forth for you,” was the pronouncement, “and you shall eat the grasses of the field.”

In, of all places, the sole Talmudic chapter that deals with the Seder, we find the following passage:

Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: “When G-d told Adam ‘and thorns and thistles…and you shall eat the grasses of the field,’ Adam’s eyes welled up with tears and he said, ‘Master of the Universe, am I and my donkey to eat from the same feed-bag?’  When G-d continued and said, ‘By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread’ [i.e. human food will be available for you, but only through hard work], Adam’s anguish was quieted.” (Pesachim 118a)

Could the meaning of Adam’s lament be that since humanity’s progenitor had proven through his insubordination the inevitability of humans choosing evil, man would seem to have been better off as merely another mindless, choiceless animal, a two-legged donkey?

Could that terrible thought be what brought tears to his eyes?

And, finally, could it be that the manifestation of the earth’s response to his sin, the lowly vegetation it will now naturally bear for him and which he is sentenced to eat – could that be… the karpas?  And the saltwater in which it is dipped, his tears and the sweat of the brow?

Could it be, in other words, that the question of why we dip karpas in saltwater is specifically constructed to be unanswerable precisely because it alludes to an unanswerable cosmic question?

What, though, is the memory of history’s first sin doing at the very onset of a festive gathering?

The key to the mystery may lie in remembering that the Seder is not only the start of Pesach but the beginning of a period that will culminate in the holiday of Shavuos.  The seven weeks between the first day of Pesach and Shavuos are in fact counted down (or, actually, up) with the “counting of the Omer” on each night of those forty-nine.

When Adam hears G-d’s pronouncement that his sin has relegated him to eating “the grasses of the field” like animals, yes, he cries, but he is reassured that he will still be able to eat bread, human food, albeit “by the sweat of your brow” – with hard work and effort.

On both Pesach and Shavuos, bread plays a prominent role.  On the former, we eat unleavened bread; on the latter, the day’s special Temple offering consists of two loaves of bread,  which – in stark contrast to most flour-offerings – must be allowed to rise and become chametz.

Leaven is a symbol of the inclination to sin (“What keeps us [from You, G-d]?” goes the confession of one talmudic personage, “the leaven in the dough”).  Perhaps, then, the period between Pesach and Shavuos, between the holiday of leaven-less bread and that of leavened bread, reflects our acclimation to the human propensity to sin.  It leads us to ponder that sin’s inevitability should not render us hopeless, but rather that our selfish desires are – somehow – a force that can be channeled for good, for service to G-d.

Shavuos, then, would be the celebration of our having accepted – even if not fully comprehended – the goodness inherent in our existence despite our inherent shortcomings.  It is, thus, the response, if not ultimate answer, to the unanswerable question of why we are here.  And so our bread on that day is purposefully leavened; it has absorbed and incorporated sin’s symbol.

What allows for the “redemption” of our propensity to sin?  The Torah, whose acceptance at Sinai is celebrated on Shavuot.  For the Torah is that which “sweetens” the inclination to sin and makes it palatable.  As a famous Midrash renders G-d’s words: “I have created an inclination to sin, and I have created the Torah as its sweetening spice.”

Our base desires, the source of our sinning, are not denied by the Torah, but rather guided by it.  We are not barred from enjoying any area of life, but shown, rather, how to do so, how to utilize every human power and desire in a directed and holy way.

Pesach, then, is the symbolic start of the process of growth.  It is the time to eat only pristine, unleavened food, to deny ourselves every sign of the inclination to sin, the better to be able, over the ensuing forty-nine days, to slowly absorb the powerful sin-inclination, to work on ourselves (by the sweat of our brows), and acclimate ourselves to what it represents … gradually, day by day, until Shavuos. 

Only then, having labored to attain that growth, may we – by the sweat of our brows – eat true, fully developed, leavened bread.  For, if we have labored on ourselves honestly and hard, we have learned to temper and manage our inclinations to sin with the laws and guidance of the Torah.

Pesach is thus a perfectly propitious time for a hint to the great unanswerable question of how man’s existence can be justified despite his sinful nature.  For it is on Pesach specifically that we begin to develop our ability to channel the human powers that, left unbridled, result in sin.

And so, at the Seder, as we dip the karpas in the saltwater, reenacting Adam’s sentence by eating a lowly vegetable, animal food, dampened with a reminder of his tears, his question should come to mind: “Am I and my donkey to eat from the same feed-bag?”

But so should something else.  Because the reminder of his tears – the saltwater – is a reminder no less of his hope, the sweat of his brow, the hard work that can lead us to become truly human, choosing, servants of G-d.  That hard labor is what justifies our existence; it is our astonishing privilege in this wondrous world.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayikra – A Most Meaningful Mineral

The word “sacrifices” used for korbanos, the mainstay topic of parshas Vayikra, is a misnomer. Korban doesn’t carry the meaning of “giving up something.” Its most accurate, if awkward, translation would be “bringer of closeness.”

How closeness is effected by korbanos may have to do, at least in a simple sense, with the hierarchy of creation noted in many Jewish sources, domeim, tzomei’ach, chai, medaber: “still” (mineral), “growing” (vegetation), “living” (animal) and “speaking” (human). 

By establishing the korban-bringer as subjugating and employing the lower realms (which are all represented in korbanos), he is placing himself closer to Hashem, in Whose image he was created.

Interestingly, the “still,” or mineral component of korbanos, is a necessary component of all korbanos, both animal and vegetable (i.e. menachos, or flour offerings): salt.   “On your every offering shall you offer salt” — Vayikra 2:13).

Rishonim like Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya, who assert that salt is a combination of water and fire may have based that description on the simple observation of the fact that salt can be obtained through saltwater and that salt can “burn” vegetation and skin. Or maybe the description is meant as symbolic and is part of a mystical mesorah.

But whatever the source of their assertion, they see salt as representing a combination of opposites, of antagonists, which informs the use in parshas Vayikra of the word bris, or “covenant,” in the pasuk quoted above, to refer to the mineral.

The Kli Yakar explains that the “covenant [of opposites]” that salt represents conveys the idea that Dualist philosophies like Manichaeism are false. Hashem is King over all; what may seem like irreconcilable opposites are all ultimately under His control. 

I find it intriguing that, in the paradigm of contemporary physics, salt is indeed a compound of two disparate (if not “opposite,” whatever that might mean in the periodic table) elements: sodium and chlorine.  Both are highly reactive. (Countless chemistry teachers got the attention of their students by dropping a piece of sodium into a container of water.) 

And each is invariably fatal if ingested. Both, in other words, are poisons.

And yet, the ionic compound that results from the two elements’ “covenant” is a mineral that is necessary for life, that flavors our food, that preserves perishables… and that must be part of every korban

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayakhel – Not All Donations Welcome

Sometimes money amassed through questionable means is donated to good causes like charities or educational institutions. Perhaps the donors’ subconscious, or even conscious, intent is to somehow render their ill-gotten gains “kosher” in some way.

The Zohar informs us of the folly of such thinking.

On Moshe’s exhortation near the beginning of parshas Vayakhel that the people donate materials for the construction of the Mishkan — “Take from yourselves a portion for Hashem…” (Shemos 35:5), the mystical text states:

“From yourselves” —  from what is [truly] yours, not from [what you have obtained from] usury and not from [what you have obtained from] theft.  Because if it is [obtained through unethical means, the giver] has no merit, but, on the contrary, woe to him, as he has come to recall his sin.”  

Not only would the Mishkan’s holiness have been compromised if any of the precious metals or fabrics used for its construction were besmirched by its donor’s bad behavior in obtaining it, but also, any donation of wrongly obtained material would be a reminder of the donor’s sin.

The same point is said to have been made, particularly pointedly and wittily, by the Kotzker Rebbe, on Chazal’s statement that, at Sinai, the people saw with their eyes what normally could only be heard with ears.  That way, allegedly said the Kotzker, there would be no way for anyone to hear the lo (“Thou shall not”) in lo signov — “Thou shall not steal” — as being spelled lamed-vav, meaning, “For Him, steal.”

It would seem that the notion of justifying economic crimes with virtuous use of ill-gotten gains is nothing new. It existed in the 19th century — and even in Biblical times.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

A Response From Our Son Menachem

A rejoinder to the posting below, “The Cat is a Hat,” was sent to me by our son Menachem Tzvi, who lives with his wife and three children in Lakewood, NJ and studies full-time in a kollel there (but who apparently uses his very limited “down time” to write not only perceptive divrei Torah but occasional doggerel).

While your poem was truly

a lesson in grammar,

It gave me a jolt-

made me stutter and stammer.

I am so shaken up-

yes it’s true, I’m afraid

The words that I read

left me shocked and dismayed.

The foremost offense

is the honor you gave

To a man who committed

injustice so grave.

He penned and he drew

racist words and depictions

Just to sow and to spread

xenophobic afflictions!

And then, as I read

my surprise was fantastic

I was simply befuddled

My flabber was gastic!

Humans, you said

deserve phrases and words

that could not apply

to apes, mammals and birds!

And if that’s not enough

you implied with great ease

that he’s are for men

and that women are she’s!

And on that note I add

that I quite was amused

with how all of your rules

leave us dumb and confused!

For what shall we say

to potatoes with limbs-

especially now

they are not hers or hims?

Should we use the word “who”

Or perhaps just a “that”?

And what, who or whom

Is the cat in the hat?

But alas, now I fear

that none of this matters

with our basic core values

thus shredded, in tatters.

The Cat is a That

In belated honor of Theodore Geisel’s birthday yesterday, I offer you a piece I wrote, under a pseudonym, for Ami Magazine years ago, about a grammatical gripe, but in homage to the good “Doctor”:

It’s too much overheard

And too much to endure.

Many words are misused

And misplaced; that’s for sure.

But there are words so simple, so common, so plain

That confusing them causes us terrible pain.

They grate on the ear, they bother the head,

They set teeth on edge, and up make us fed.

A THING is a THING, and a person is not.

He’s a man, that is, or a woman or tot.

A thing is a thing, like a cat (or a hat)

And the right word to use for such things is, well, “that.”

So it’s: “The hat that was sat upon ran out of luck.”

Or, likewise, the “cat that challenged a truck.”

You would never refer to a hat as a “who.”

Or a cat for that matter, or a cow… or a moo.

“Who” is reserved for beings quite human,

Not for feelings or furniture, cabbage or cumin.

Even elephantine Horton who heard a clear who

Does not himself merit one, as do I and do you.

For an animal or object, “who” is atrocious.

“Who” is for you, reader, adult or precocious.

So please, no more “the person that came to my house”

Or “the lady that screamed when she spotted a mouse.”

No more “neighbors we hear that are going on vacation”

Or “children that come from Haiti are Haitian.”

No more “Zaidy, that is with computers a novice.”

Or “Zeldy that’s coming to visit on Shabbos”

It’s WHO in such cases, since a person’s a person

Our use of English must improve and not worsen.

If we aim not to seem entirely dumb.

It’s “Who” for those of opposable thumb

Excepting simians, of course, that’s quite certain;

Monkeys get “that,” like a lampshade or curtain.

But we humans are different; get this down pat!

We take a “WHO”—And that is just that.

Ki Sisa – Of Idols and Ideals

Describing our ancestors’ worshipping of the egel hazahav, the golden calf, the Torah relates that “Early next day, the people offered up olos [burnt offerings] and shelamim [peace sacrifices], they sat down to eat and drink, and then arose litzachek [to enjoy themselves]” (Shemos 32:6).

The legendary Novardhoker Maggid, Rav Yaakov Galinsky, zt”l, would comment in the name of an “early master” that the order of the happenings in that pasuk is significant, and has broad historical pertinence.

The egel hazahav, he explained, was the first veering of the Jewish people away from Hashem, the first Jewish pursuit of a foreign-to-Torah ideal, one that bordered on idolatry. But it is an unfortunate prototype for other such ideal-idolatries in subsequent times.

Many a social movement has been birthed or eagerly embraced by Jews. And each began with with a lofty ideal, a figurative olah, a sacrifice entirely consumed on the altar, signifying selfless devotion.

With the passage of time, though, the heady days of every “ism”’s youth give way to a more jaded, or at least “realistic,” approach, signified by shelamim, a sacrifice where the supplicant is able to enjoy some of the meat. The high ideal, of course, is still heralded as paramount, the flag of altruism still flies, but there is an expectation of some “return on the investment” in the cause.

And then come the final stages, when the loftiness of the movement’s revolutionary goal deteriorates into “eating and drinking” — where self-interest and a “what’s in it for me?” mentality reigns — and, ultimately, a litzachek frame of mind, when materialism and lust become the society’s entire foci.

The golden calf was the first worshipped ism, but it was far from the last.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Tetzaveh – Redolence and Relationship

After the Torah prescribes the details of the various vessels attendant to the mishkan (tabernacle), of the construction of the mishkan itself, of the mizbeach (altar), of the daily lighting of the menorah, of the bigdei kehuna (kohein vestments), of the procedure of the miluim (inaugural sacrifices) and of the tamid (the two daily sacrifices), it circles back at the very end of our parshah to something that would seem to have belonged at the beginning of the mishkan-description: the mizbeach haketores — the golden incense-altar in the kodesh, the “Holies” part of the mishkan.

It is clearly a singular  entity. Not only in its placement, directly facing the Holy of Holies (in fact, the final pasuk of the parshah calls the incense altar itself a kodesh kodashim, [“holy of holies”]), but in the fact that its main purpose is for a pure aroma-offering.

While animal and flour offerings are described as producing a rei’ach nicho’ach, an “aroma of contentment,” only on the golden altar is the offering itself one of pure fragrance, the ketores.

The sense of smell is special too. It is ethereal, ill-understood by science (theories of how brains can distinguish among many thousands of odors have come and gone, with no final clarity to date) and evocative of strong emotions. Think, on the one hand, of baking bread or lilacs blooming; and, on the other, of sewage or skunks. And evocative, too, of memories — Proust’s tea and madeleine comprise literature’s most famous example of olfactory-related sensory experience, but we’ve all had similar experiences.

There’s a seeming paradox to smell. It is exquisitely sensitive, even in humans. And yet, it requires proximity to the odor-generator. One can see stars at a distance of thousands of light years, and hear a rumble of thunder from lightning that has struck miles away. But one cannot smell something unless it is relatively close.

But in truth there is no paradox there. Because our eyes and ears are perceiving only generated waves of light or sound; our noses are ingesting actual pieces of what we smell — microscopic ones, to be sure, but actual pieces all the same.

Odors, moreover, take a direct route to the limbic system, the deepest part of the brain. 

Smell thus entails the penetration of the odor-source into the organ that makes us… us. As such, the ketores might symbolize relationship of the closest sort. The word “korban,” so often translated as “sacrifice,” in reality means “closeness-causing.”

And so, the ketores may be the ultimate korban.  In fact, the word ketores itself, whose simple meaning is “burning” or “smoking,” in Aramaic can mean “bond.”

And on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the holiest man of the people, the Kohein Gadol, brings an offering in the holiest place on earth, the Kodesh HaKodashim. 

That korban, the only one ever offered there, is ketores.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran