Shavuos – Happy Anniversary

In contrast to Pesach’s matzos and Sukkos’ sukkos and arba minim, Shavuos is unique among the Shalosh Regalim for its lack of any positive ritual-commandment.

That may have to do with the holiday’s association with Mattan Torah.

Because that experience involved no particular action; it was, in a sense, the very essence of passivity, the acceptance of Hashem’s Torah and His will. Hashem was the actor; our ancestors’ response was to receive, to submit to the Creator.

Mattan Torah is famously compared by various Midrashim to a wedding, with Hashem the groom and His people the bride. (Many chasunah minhagim reflect that metaphor: the chuppah recalls the mountain held over the Jews’ heads; the candles, the lightning; the breaking of the glass, the shattering of the luchos.)

And just as a Jewish marriage is legally effected in the kallah’s simple choice to accept the wedding ring or other gift the groom offers, so did Klal Yisrael at Har Sinai create its eternal bond with the Creator by accepting His gift of gifts.

And so, a positive, active mitzvah for the day would arguably be in dissonance with the day’s central theme of receptivity.

Shavuos’ identification with our collective identity as a symbolic bride, moreover, may well have something to do, too, with the fact that the holiday’s hero is… a heroine: Rus, whose story not only concerns her own wholehearted acceptance of the Torah but culminates in her own marriage.

It isn’t fashionable these days to celebrate passivity or submission, even in those words’ most basic and positive senses. But Judaism, unlike fashion, is eternal.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Yetzias Kaufering

Pesach Sheni is a special day in my family, because in 1945, on that day of the Jewish calendar, my father-in-law, who passed away earlier this year, was liberated from Dachau by American soldiers.

You can read about his last days in the concentration camp, and about his family’s marking of that day each year, here.

(Photo is of my father-in-law and one of his orphan charges in France.)

Parshas Bamidbar – Desert and Direction

The sefer of Bamidbar (or, to be pedantic, B’midar) begins with the word Vayidaber; and the Talmud Yerushalmi, I’ve seen it cited, even calls the sefer by that latter word.

Both words, as it happens, share the same three-letter Hebrew root, d-v-r, even though one means “desert” and the other “speak.”

What common element of meaning could associate a desert with speech?

The answer may lie in yet another word with the exact same three-letter root, a word that means something else, seemingly, altogether. In Tehillim, we find the phrase yadber amim tachteinu (47:4), which can be translated “He will guide the nations under us.” Although Rashi and the Targum on Tehillim take a different approach to the word yadber, the Gemara (Shabbos 63a) understands the word to mean “guiding,” and the context of the pasuk supports that understanding. The Radak and Ibn Ezra also translate it that way.

Speaking (especially the sort of speech with which the word dibbur is associated: clear, strong words) guides the one spoken to in a particular direction, to hearing the meaning or directive of the speaker. So it isn’t terribly farfetched to imagine that yadber and vayidaber are subtly related.

Midbar, though, seems a puzzle.

What occurs is that a midbar is a desolate, featureless place, usually dangerous, for lack of food and water, and the presence of snakes and such.  But the challenges and dangers may not be what inheres in the word midbar; certainly, the desert through which the Jews were wandering lacked those threats; the well of Miriam, the maan and the cloud of protection made it a safe place.

But it remained one without distractions, and was the path, if a convoluted one, leading the people, guiding them, to their goal, Eretz Yisrael.

Might the word midbar’s essential meaning reflect not desolation nor danger, but the idea of an open path leading to a goal beyond it, toward  which one is being guided?

And, even in our own lives, might obscuring the distractions around and within us help us perceive where we are supposed to go?

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Two Paths to the Happy End of History

Between the lines of the terrible description in parshas Bechukosai of what will happen if Klal Yisrael abandons the mitzvos of Hashem lie subtle hints to the limits and end of those curses.  The land will not yield produce (making it inhospitable to occupiers); there will be years of barrenness (but as an atonement for the unobserved shemitos); we will be scattered throughout the world (making it impossible for our enemies to isolate and destroy us – Rabbeinu Bachya).

And, of course, after the long, painful recounting of the tragedies that might befall us, Hashem offers the assurance that “But despite all this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted by them, nor will I have rejected them or obliterated therm, to annul My covenant with them” (Vayikra 26:44). And that He “will remember My covenant with Yaakov and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also my covenant with Avraham…” (26:42).

So even within the curses are blessings; and when the evil passes, what will remain will be Hashem’s covenant with our forefathers, and our salvation as a people through its merit. 

So what the Torah is saying is that there will be a happy end to history but that there are two ways it can be reached: We can choose good and get there in a direct fashion; or, chalilah, we can choose the opposite and have to endure a long, grueling and tragic galus-journey… but to the same destination.  Our forefathers’ merit ensures that all will, in the end, be well.

In other words, our suffering, should our choices make it necessary, will also have become part of Hashem’s plan.

An idea subtly echoed in the final law of the parshah, temurah.

It is a sin to attempt to transfer the holiness of a consecrated animal to another one.  And yet, the sin nevertheless effects holiness, as the second animal becomes holy as well.

Even our sins, for which we are responsible, can all the same end up yielding the fruition of Hashem’s plan.

Hu us’muraso yih’yeh kodesh. (ibid 27:10.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Emor – Embracing Our Worlds

A strange and strangely familiar phrase is found in Rashi, commenting on the Torah’s introduction of the account of the mekalel, the blasphemer, with “And he went out” (Vayikra, 24:10)

Rashi, quoting Rabi Levi in a Midrash, elaborates: “He went out of his world.”  The idea of an individual’s personal “world” is also employed by the renowned 18th century Italian mystic Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato in the very first sentence of his famous work Mesilas Yesharim. He introduces his book by stating that the essence and root of human service to the Divine begins with a person’s effort to clarify and establish “what his obligation is in his world.”

That each of us has his or her own world is a curious notion.  I think it means that each of us has a unique spiritual essence that needs to be expressed in a unique way and utilized in service to Hashem. Intriguingly, that idea resonates powerfully with the second Midrash Rashi cites about the phrase “And he went out” — that the blasphemer has just left the court of Moshe, where he had lost his case.

That case involved his claim, since his mother was Jewish (although his father was an Egyptian) that he was entitled to a portion of land in the area of his mother’s tribe, Dan. The ruling, however, was that, while he was a member of the Jewish people, he — uniquely, among the people — owned no portion of the land.

That left him with two options: Either to accept that fate, and recognize that it was “his world” – a personal situation that somehow positioned him for a particular, singular role to play in society.  Or to reject the ruling angrily.  He chose the second path, and then some.  Thus he “left” not only the court but his world.

Some people who see their life circumstances as “unfair” face a similar choice. The key to true success in life — which, of course, is unrelated to profession, wealth, fame or pleasure —  is seizing one’s individual, unique circumstance, no matter how limiting or painful or puzzling it may be, recognizing that it is his or her “own world” –what makes them special.  And then, after ascertaining what that specialness seems to demand, getting down to work.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Acharei Mos – Love Means No Matter What

My late dear friend Yossie Huttler, a”h, with whom I often studied Daf Yomi on our Staten Island ferry commute, once asked me a question about parshas Acharei Mos. 

Rashi, he pointed out, cites a Midrash on the words “that dwells among them [Klal Yisrael, even] amid their defilement.” Rashi says: “Even though they are defiled, the Shechinah remains among them” [Vayikra, 16:16].

And yet, in the very last pasuk in the parshah, on the words “Do not defile yourselves with them [major sins], I am Hashem, your G-d” [ibid 18:30], Rashi, again quoting a Midrash, comments: “But if you do defile yourselves with these sins, I cannot be your G-d; you will have cut yourself off from me… you will deserve annihilation.” 

So which, asked R’ Yossie, is it? If Klal Yisrael is deeply sinful, does the Shechina still dwell among us all the same? Or, chalilah, will we then have cut ourselves off from Hashem and deserve destruction?

What occurred to me at the time was to understand the two Midrashim as entirely in tandem. As the latter one states, our descent, if it happens, into irredeemable tum’ah is a self-cutting-off from Hashem, and leaves us deserving, chalilah, of destruction. That is a reality.

And yet, still and all, it is overridden by another reality: that, despite it all, Hashem will not ever cut Himself off from us, and will never destroy us. In fact, He remains entirely among us, even in amid our defilement.

That is because, as we say in the final brachah before Krias Shema both in Shacharis (habocher biami Yisrael biahava) and Maariv (oheiv amo Yisrael), Hashem loves us.

A child can be rebellious, even reject his parent, even deserve, as a result, a serious punishment. But a loving parent will not reject the child, or even punish him to the extent he deserves. Because the parent is loving.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Tazria – Pity the Habitual Accuser

It’s bad enough that the person whose divisive sins caused him to contract tzora’as (a physical condition conferring tum’ah and sometimes mistakenly identified with leprosy) has to sit apart from society, but he is also enjoined: “vi’tamei tamei yikra” — “ ‘And ritually contaminated! Ritually contaminated!’ he should call out” (Vayikra 13:45).

Indeed, the Talmud uses that added indignity to illustrate a popular (well, at the time) saying: “Poverty follows the poor.” (Bava Kama, 92b).

But the metzora’s prescribed announcement of his condition, says the Talmud, teaches other things too. Like the importance of letting others know of one’s sufferings, so that they might pray for him (Mo’ed Katan 5a). And it hints, too, to the need to mark a grave, so that people won’t inadvertently become tamei by passing over it (ibid).

The Shelah (Rav Yeshayahu HaLevi Horovitz, c.1555-1630), however, sees in the metzora’s announcement a hint to yet something else. Parsing the phrase differently, he reads it as saying “and those ritually contaminated will call out [about others] ‘Ritually contaminated!’ ”

In other words, people tend to project their own deficits onto others.  As the amora Shmuel said, in the context of genealogical status: “Those who assert a flaw [in others], their own flaw is what they assert” (Kiddushin 70a).

Indeed, it isn’t uncommon to see people in the public sphere who seem to make a habit of accusing others of a particular proclivity or wrongdoing being exposed as having the same proclivity or having been engaged in the same sin.

And in the private sphere, if we ever have the unpleasant experience of being accused of something by someone who is given to lobbing the same accusation at others, we might do well to pause. And, rather than take the allegation personally, realize that the accuser may, in fact, simply suffer from insecurity, and is really accusing himself.  

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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