Category Archives: Holidays

Mishpatim – Full Moon Danger

On June 6, 1944, D-Day, more than 150,000 Allied troops stormed the coast of Normandy to begin the liberation of France from the Nazis. 

The criteria for choosing that day included a low but rising tide for the seaborne soldiers, a tide that occurred only around the time of a new or full moon. It took place on the latter.

Other military onslaughts throughout history were scheduled based on the moon’s phase – full moons when light was desired; new moons when darkness was needed to limit soldiers’ visibility to the enemy.

Among the 53 mitzvos in parshas Mishpatim is one that, peripherally, involves the moon. And it is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence of the Torah’s divine origin. Because the mitzvah, by all logic, would seem to doom the Jewish people.

On the shalosh regalim, the three “pilgrimage festivals,” all adult Jewish males are commanded to journey to the Beis Hamikdash in Yerushalayim. That, of course, would leave the borders of Eretz Yisrael essentially open to attack by the Jews’ enemies. And two of those festivals were utterly predictable – because they began on the 15th of their Jewish months, one in the spring (Pesach) and one in autumn (Sukkos). Each at the full moon of its month.

Even the most primitive military strategist would have noticed that pattern and would conclude that the land would be most vulnerable to attack on those holidays. Or, in the summer, during the first quarter moon, when the right half of the moon is lit – the holiday of Shavuos. 

Which makes the mitzvah of alyah liregel starkly self-defeating. No human lawmaker would be cruel or dim enough to lay down such a law – only a Legislator who could in fact ensure that the populace would not perish as its result. And, of course, it didn’t.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Nitzavim – Turning Pain to Gain

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) at the start of parshas Nitzavim sees in the parsha’s opening words, “You are standing today” the message that, despite the sins and travails of Klal Yisrael up to that point, and the klalos enumerated in parshas Ki Savo, the nation is still standing. Indeed, the Midrash continues, “the curses strengthen you [ma’amidos es’chem].”

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that physical systems naturally degenerate into more and more disordered states. 

Living systems, though, seem to act otherwise. A domeim, a non-living item like a rock or mineral, is indeed entirely subject to entropy. A tzomei’ach, though, a plant, which grows, less so. And an animal, a chai, even less so, as it can also move around to promote its wellbeing.

And a living human is even more able to defend against entropy, manipulating his environment, using intelligence, tools and creativity to protect himself.

The highest rung on the hierarchy, according to sefarim, is Yisrael, the Jewish nation. Perhaps we are particularly entropy-resistant – especially able to turn challenges that would naturally wear away other people, leaving them feeling dejected and hopeless, into not just perseverance but renewed strength. Haklalos ma’amidos es’chem.

The churbanos of the Batei Mikdash, for example, were followed with determined and successful Jewish renewal, as was the most recent churban, that of Jewish Europe. Parts of Klal Yisrael have returned to Eretz Yisrael, and Torah study and practice thrive throughout the world.

And in our personal lives, too, as Rav Dessler writes, our failings and fallings can, through our pain and teshuvah, become fuel for our determination to reach even greater heights. 

A timely thought during these waning days of Elul.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ki Savo – Schrödinger’s Moon

Seizing on the fact that the Hebrew word for a granary – osem – shares two letters with the word for “obscured” – samui – Chazal make an intriguing assertion: Blessing [i.e. increase in volume] is common only in things that are “obscured from the eye” (Bava Metzia 42a).

The pasuk on which that truth is based is in our parsha: “Hashem will order the blessing to be with you in your granaries [ba’asamecha]…” (Devarim, 28:8).

Rav Dessler (first chelek of Michtav M’Eliyahu, pg. 178 in my ancient edition) explains that what we call cause and effect, the essence of physics, is really an illusion; only Hashem’s will is operative, even in what we call physical nature. And so, when something is out of sight, where cause and effect cannot be perceived, His will can cause bracha in the hidden. 

That idea of natural law’s suspension in the case of something beneath perception is vaguely, but tantalizingly, reminiscent of quantum physics’ “Schrödinger’s cat” thought experiment, where direct cause and effect is seemingly suspended – on the subatomic level, but with theoretical implications for the macroscopic world. The issue underlying Schrödinger’s paradox remains an unsolved problem in physics.

Be that as it may, though, something important will in fact be “obscured from the eye” in a few weeks: the moon, on Rosh Hashana. The moon is Klal Yisrael’s timekeeper, and time is the most fundamental element of nature. Klal Yisrael’s clock will not be visible on the first of the days of teshuva.

And time itself, in a sense, will be suspended then. Because we can interfere with its natural, relentless march forward – or, at least, with its unreachable past. Through the bracha of teshuva, which Chazal tell us can change the very nature of our pasts, traveling back, in a way, in time – turning past wrong actions done intentionally into actions done inadvertently; even, with the deepest teshuva, repentance born of pure love of Hashem, into meritorious acts. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shavuos – The Matter of Meaning

The average price paid to climb Mt. Everest – for permits, equipment and guides –  is between $35,000 and $45,000. And hundreds have died in that exploit. 

What impels people to undertake so expensive and dangerous a quest? A misguided search for meaning.

Philosophers argued about what ultimately motivates humans. Nietzsche said power; Freud, pleasure.

Both tapped into something real. The power to, through our choices, change our lives and history, is a manifestation of gevurah, “strength.” In Jewish eyes, though, that doesn’t mean subjugating others; rather, as Ben Zoma in Avos (4:1) defines it, “hakovesh es yitzro,” one who, by force of will, overcomes his nature.

And Freud was on to something too; the Ramchal begins Mesilas Yesharim with the surprising statement that the goal of life is the pursuit of pleasure. Not physical, but rather ultimate, pleasure: “basking in the radiance of the Shechinah.” 

The Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard was insightful. He wrote of the human “will to meaning” – the yearning to achieve something truly meaningful as life’s ultimate goal.

Some imagine “meaning” in climbing Everest. Others envision meaningful accomplishment in meriting mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, for, say, the most slices of pizza eaten while riding a unicycle and simultaneously juggling balls. 

For those who recognize our divine mandate, though, the ring for which to reach is a spiritual one, achieved through Torah and mitzvos

All good fortune to the Everest climbers.

Come Shavuos, we look to a different mountain.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Emor — Simple Jews

The Baitusim, a sect in Talmudic times often associated with the Tzedukim (or Sadducees), had a congenial approach to establishing the date of Shavuos, which the Torah describes as the fiftieth day from a particular point (Vayikra 23:15-21).

The Sinaic mesorah defines that starting point as the second day of Pesach (designated by the Torah as “the day after the Shabbos” – “Shabbos” here meaning the first day of the holiday), the day the omer sacrifice was brought. Thus, Shavuos could fall on any day of the week.

But the Baitusim seized on the Torah’s reference to that first day of counting as “the day after the Shabbos” as indicating that the fifty days must start after a literal “Shabbos,” on a Sunday, the first one after the omer, ensuring that Shavuos, too, would always fall on an Sunday.

A Baitusim spokesman defended his group’s position to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: “Moshe, our teacher, loved the Jews and… established [Shavuos] after Shabbos, so that the Jewish people would enjoy themselves for two days” (Menachos, 65a).

Hashem, he was asserting, certainly wanted His people to have a “long weekend” each summer. 

An enticing thought, perhaps. But not what Hashem commanded. And Judaism is all about doing what He commands, whether it sits well with us or we think we have a better, “improved” idea. It isn’t our prerogative to “reform” divine will.

Our mandate is to be tamim, “simple,” “perfect,” “trusting.” It was, after all, our ancestors’ declaration of Na’aseh vinishma, “We will do and [only then endeavor to] hear [i.e.understand]” that earned us the Torah.

Which declaration, of course, took place, according to the mesorah, on Shavuos.

As Rava told a heretic who ridiculed his alacrity, “We Jews proceed with simple purity, as it says [in Mishlei 11:3], ‘The simplicity of the upright will guide them” (Shabbos 88b).

Notes the Shem MiShmuel: The “seven weeks” that are counted from Pesach to Shavuos are pointedly called sheva Shabbasos temimos – “seven perfect weeks.” Weeks, the word is hinting, for us to grow in what merited us the Torah, our temimus.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran