Parshas Vayeira – The Will IS the Way

Inordinate attention is afforded the menu that Avraham Avinu offered the angels disguised as nomads whom he welcomed to his home: Water, fine-flour bread, cream and milk; and, according to the Gemara, the tongues of three calves, served with mustard (Bava Metzia, 86b). 

And yet, it was all a futile feast, as angels don’t eat, and the visitors only pretended to do so (teaching us the Talmudic equivalent of “When in Rome…” [ibid]).

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin points out that a similarly ineffectual effort ends the parsha too: The Akeidah, where Yitzchak is bound in preparation for his sacrifice at the hand of his father — something that not only didn’t take place but was never even considered by Hashem (Taanis 4a).

The bookend narratives, says Rav Zevin, teach us that it is the will that matters most. To be sure, actions are indispensable. But the intention motivating our behavior is what gives it its greatest value.

And, what’s more, as Rav Yitzchak Hutner notes, when the goal we imagine is not reached, the value of the will is undiminished. For we invoke and rely upon the merit of the Akeidah to this day, despite the fact that its intent, blessedly, never came to fruition.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Letter in the Wall Street Journal

A letter I wrote to the Wall St. Journal was published today, and is here.

It reads as follows:

Mr. Peretz Takes a Swipe at Orthodox Jews
In reviewing a book about the ‘othering’ of Jews, no less.
Oct. 10, 2021 3:04 pm ET

Irony has seldom been more glaring than in Martin Peretz’s claim, in his review of Dara Horn’s “People Love Dead Jews” (Bookshelf, Oct. 5), that “many of the ultraorthodox, the very pious, the canonical don’t think of me and mine as brothers and certainly don’t think of Jewish women like Ms. Horn as sisters.”

How dolefully humorous that my brother, Mr. Peretz, in reviewing a book by my sister, Ms. Horn, about how much of the world treats Jews as “others,” not only misinforms readers but engages in a particularly ugly “othering” of fellow Jews, those of us who hew to our—his, Ms. Horn’s and my—mutual religious heritage.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Agudath Israel of America
New York

80 Years Since Babi Yar

Wanton murder of Jews was a prominent feature of Ukrainian history from time immemorial. But the most infamous massacre of Jews on Ukrainian territory came in 1941, when the Nazis and their Ukrainian friends massacred nearly 34,000 Jews within two days, at the ravine known as Babi Yar.

Jewish history, though, is full not only of tragedies but of unexpected twists and turns. To read what I mean, please click here.

Parshas Lech Lecha – The Meaning of Magein

“I am a shield for you,” is the common translation of what Hashem told Avram after the war of the kings (Beraishis 15:1). And Rashi, referencing the Midrash (Midrash Rabbah, 44:4), explains that the assurance was that Avram would not be punished for having killed people during the war in which he rescued his nephew Lot.

But the word magein, as that Midrash makes clear (paraphrasing it as “chinam”), does not mean “shield” at all, but rather “for free.” It is a cognate of the Aramaic word for “without cost,” as in assia dimagein bimagein magein shaveh — “A doctor who heals for nothing is worth nothing” (Bava Kamma, 85a). The intention being that Avram has received a “free pass,” so to speak, for his actions; he has incurred no “debt” for what he had to do during the war. Any deaths he caused will take no toll on his heavenly account.

Which might be understood as a middah kineged middah, a befitting Divine response of chessed (the suppression of din, strict justice, the offering of something unearned) to the chessed that is Avraham’s middah, his defining characteristic.

Avraham helps others “for free”; Hashem exempts him from punishment “for free.”

The first brachah of the Amidah, “Avos,” mentions the three Jewish forefathers, but concludes “Magein Avraham.” And, fittingly with the above, the brachah references zocher chasdei avos, “Who remembers the chessed-acts of the forefathers.”

Avos is the only one of the Amidah’s brachos where concentrated intent is technically required even post-facto. And so, the meaning of “magein” matters. The word can indeed, of course, mean “shield.” But, perhaps, in the context of how it relates to Avraham, conceiving of it as meaning “treating with chessed” might be more to the point.

And it would thus be an understandable introduction to tefillah. We ask for many things throughout the Amidah. But we have to realize that olam chessed yibaneh (Tehillim 89:3), that whatever we receive, in the end, if only because we were given life “for free” to begin with, comes from Divine suppression of din.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Noach – Our (Temporarily) Un-Whole World

The word “toldos” introducing the “account” of Noach is spelled in a subtly different way than its first appearance in parshas Beraishis, where “eleh toldos hashamayim vi’ha’aretz” (Beraishis 2:4) concludes the account of the creation of the world. There, in its first usage, it is written malei, “full,” with two vavs, one after the tav and one after the daled.

Gershon Zev (William) Braude was a respected Jewish studies scholar who befriended me, a much younger man, when my family and I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, from, roughly, the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s.

He once asserted that there are 13 places in Tanach where the word toldos is used. Only in two of those places, he averred, is the word written malei: The first usage, in parshas Beraishis, and at the very end of sefer Rus (4:18), where the genealogy leading to the birth of David, the progenitor of mashiach, is recounted.

Thus, Gershon Zev Braude suggested, “wholeness,” or perfection of human history, existed at the creation of the world and will emerge again with the arrival of mashiach.

In the interim, though, as we all vividly sense, the world remains unfulfilled, imperfect, un-whole.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Beraishis – J’accuse, J’apprécie

Sometimes an unspoken “thank you” can be hidden within a sentence, even, perhaps, within an accusation.

Famously, Resh Lakish (Shabbos 87a) sees in Hashem’s reference to the luchos that Moshe shattered as he descended Har Sinai — asher shibarta, “that you broke” (Shemos 34:1) — a hint of approval for the act, by expanding the word asher, “that,” to y’yasher kochacha: “may your strength be true.” (Presumably, the exegesis is based on the fact that the simple prefix-letter shin could have stood in for the word asher.)

The same word asher (again, unnecessarily) occurs in a pivotal statement by Adam in parshas Beraishis. Accused by Hashem of eating from the forbidden tree, the first man blames his wife, saying, “The woman whom You gave to be with me gave me from the tree” (Beraishis 3:12). The word translated “whom” in that pasuk is asher.

Could there be some subtle acknowledgment of rightness, like Hashem’s of Moshe’s act, in Adam’s blaming of Chava? It’s interesting that, immediately after the punishments for the sin are recorded, Adam gives his wife a name, Chava, that reflects appreciation: “because she has become the mother of all life” (Beraishis 3:20).

Adam, moreover, for his blaming reaction, is called a kafui tova, “one who covers over a good thing” (Avoda Zara 5b).  But “covering over” a good implies knowledge that it is indeed good. 

There are indeed times when an assignment of blame is wrapped around a hidden kernel of valuing the blamed. A good amount of antisemitism reflects that fact. Some who accuse “the Jews” of nefarious plottings harbor an inner realization that Jews are in fact special. A child might rail against his mother for her cruelty in not giving him the treat he wants, but hidden in his anger — he wouldn’t demonstrate it against a stranger, after all —  is the recognition that she is… his mother, the one who loves him dearly.

Might that be true, too, in interpersonal relations? Might Adam have, amid his blaming of Chava, been acknowledging the immeasurable gift that she was to him? And might some of those who lob complaints against us be subtly communicating appreciation?

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

AOC’s Unconcern With Jewish Lives

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offered an apology last Friday, but it was the wrong one.

She had decided at the last minute to vote “present” instead of “no” on a resolution to provide  $1 billion in new funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. And then reportedly had a crying spell after which she expressed regret for not actively opposing the resolution.  

Her apology, instead, should have been for having even considered depriving Israel of the ability to protect innocent men, women and children from Hamas rockets.

The measure passed 420 to 9, but the handful of nay- or “present”- sayers showed some true and truly ugly colors. 

Back in 2018, I defended Representative Ocasio-Cortez when she was under fire for comments that were construed as insensitive to the memory of the Holocaust. And defended her again, when, with regard to Israel, she was lumped together on no evidence with Israel-hating, antisemitic trope-spewers Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.

I had hoped that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wouldn’t slip into the Tlaib and Omar mud pit and buy into the anti-Israel propaganda that has crazily come to be part of some progressives’ agenda (though not of responsible ones like the impressive Ritchie Torres).

Alas, my hopes were dashed.  

She has repeatedly referred to Israeli security measures as “apartheid,” an accusation that distinguished South African Judge Richard Goldstone, who was charged by the U.N. Human Rights Council to lead an investigation of Israel/Hamas hostilities in 2008-2009, dismissed as defamatory. “In Israel,” he wrote in The New York Times, “there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid.”

And, after this past May’s Hamas attack on Israel, after which the Jewish state dared to retaliate by destroying terrorist bases and tunnels (and taking precautions to protect noncombatants that are unparalleled in any other military), Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez blasted Israel for its “disproportionate” response, since there were more casualties, overwhelmingly terrorists, in Gaza than, thankfully, in Israel.

All that was emetic enough.  Now the congresswoman is weepily apologizing for not voting to deprive Israel of an entirely defensive weapon.  The Iron Dome system doesn’t threaten people; it destroys rockets aimed at people. And it has done so repeatedly, saving countless Israeli citizens’ lives. If ever there was a no-brainer when it comes to legitimate military assistance, this was it.

The problem is that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has brains, plenty of them. Her opposition to a measure that can only save innocent lives must come from somewhere other than intelligence. Such irrationality is a regularly observed characteristic of antisemites.

I cannot know if the hearts of  Ms. Ocasio-Cortez or the others who didn’t vote to approve the funding in fact harbor visceral hatred for Jews. But what I can know, based on their votes, is that they have something less than concern for Jewish lives.