Category Archives: Holidays

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 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

Parshas Yisro – The Barrel’s Secret

Our ancestors’ acceptance of the Torah was imperfect: It included an element of coercion. 

The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) teaches that “Hashem held the mountain over the Jews’ heads like a gigis (a barrel).” The Maharal explains that the stunning nature of the experience, the terrifying interaction of human and Divine, left no opportunity for full free will. Directly interacting with Hashem, how could one possibly say no?

And that “coercion” remained a moda’ah, a “remonstration,” against Klal Yisrael, the Gemara teaches, until… the events commemorated by Purim.

In the time of Esther, the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive Hashem’s presence where — diametric to the Sinai experience — it was anything but obvious.  Instead of seeing the threat against them in mundane terms, Persia’s Jews recognized it as Hashem’s message, and responded with prayer, fasting, and repentance.  And so, by freely choosing to perceive Hashem’s hand, they supplied what was missing at Sinai, confirming that the Jewish acceptance of the Torah was — and is — wholehearted and sincere. 

The Gemara’s image of Hashem “holding the mountain over their heads” at Sinai is a striking metaphor. But why “like a barrel”? Isn’t a mountain overhead compelling enough?  Who ordered the barrel?

One of the ways a person’s true nature is revealed is “b’koso” – “in his cup” – in his behavior when his inhibitions are diluted by drink. (Eruvin, 65b).

On Purim, in striking contrast to the rest of the Jewish year, we are enjoined to drink wine to excess.  And what emerges from that observance, at least among Jews who approach the mitzvah properly,  is not what we usually associate with inebriation, but rather a holy, if uninhibited, mode of mind.

Thus the revelation of our true nature provided by the Purim-mitzvah perfectly parallels the revelation of the Jews’ wholehearted acceptance of Hashem that took place at the time of the Purim events.  With our masks (another Purim motif, of course) removed, we show our true selves.

In Pirkei Avos (4:20), Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi teaches us not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.” 

A gigis, throughout the Talmud, contains an intoxicating beverage.  

Hashem doesn’t look at the container — the coercion symbolized by the barrel held over our ancestors’ heads — but rather at how Jews act when they have imbibed its contents. He sees not our ancestors’ lack of full free will at the Sinai experience but the deeper truth about the Jewish essence, the one revealed by Purim’s wine.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Clock is Missing

Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday on the Jewish calendar occuring at the new moon, beginning on a night when the moon isn’t visible at all. That fact is hinted at in the posuk “Tik’u bachodesh shofar bakeseh liyom chageinu” (“Sound the shofar on the New Moon, at the appointed time for the day of our festival”) — Tehillim 81:4. The word bakeseh, “at the appointed time,” can be read to mean “covered.”

The moon is, famously, a symbol of Klal Yisrael.  It receives its light from the sun, as we receive our enlightenment from Hashem; it wanes but waxes again, as we do throughout history; and it is the basis of our calendar.

Various ideas lie in the oddity of Rosh Hashanah being moonless.  One that occurred to me has to do with that latter connection, that the moon is our marker of time, our clock, so to speak.  When we repent of a sin, Chazal teach, the sin can be erased from our past — even, if our teshuvah is complete and sincere, turned into a merit!

And so, we are particularly able on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the ten days of teshuvah, to undermine time, to go back into the past and change it. 

What better symbol of that power than to remove our “clock” from the sky?

Ksiva vachasima tovah!

Recent Ami Articles

For the past month and a bit, my weekly columns have been appearing in Ami Magazine. My agreement with the periodical allows me to share links to the pieces on its website, but not to share them in their entirety in other ways.

So I’ll be posting links to the pieces, and their first sentences, in the future here, in addition to articles that may have been published elsewhere.

Recent offerings are at https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/07/29/cut-the-curls-youre-out-of-the-band/ and https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/08/05/dont-kick-the-donkey-2/