Category Archives: Holidays

Mikeitz – Small, Not Inconsequential

Yosef, who reaches the height of temporal power in this week’s parshah, was originally presented as unimpressive, even vain, the favorite of his father but the lesser, at least as they saw things, of his brothers. He tells on them, doesn’t think it unwise to share his seemingly self-aggrandizing dreams to his family and spends time attending to his superficial appearance. The Midrash refers to him as the katan shebish’vatim, the “small one” of the tribes.

How misleading all that is began to become evident when, in last week’s parshah, Yosef, made part of an Egyptian nobleman’s home, summons superhuman fortitude to refuse his benefactor’s wife’s adulterous entreaties. The Gemara (Yoma, 35b) holds him up as the ultimate model for the ages of resisting temptation.

The hidden potential power of the “small” and “unimpressive” is a timely thought at the time of Jewish year when we read about Yosef.

I’m always struck by the contrast between, on the one hand, the garish, multicolored and blinking lights that scream for attention from so many American homes each winter and, on the other, the quiet, tiny ones that softly grace the windows of Jewish ones. 

Chanukah is often portrayed as a “minor” holiday. It is indeed only rabbinic in nature, but its deep power is evident from its treatment in classical Jewish philosophical and mystical works.

And, echoing “small” Yosef’s attainment of the epithet “tzaddik,” for his personal fortitude, the events recalled on “minor” Chanukah were about fortitude, too — the struggle to maintain Jewish integrity and observance, and resist an enticing and dominant non-Jewish culture.

Small can be consequential. Isn’t that, in the end, the essence of rabbim biyad me’atim

Chanukah celebrates how all the alien firestorms of powerful empires and mighty cultures were unable to extinguish the flame of Jewish commitment. Those empires may have flared mightily, but they disappeared without a trace. Their luster was mere tinsel. 

Yosef seemed unimpressive; he was anything but. And our small, flickering lights are eternal.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Myth of Mundanity

The thought experiment begins by asking us to ponder a world where the dead routinely rise from their graves but in which no grain or vegetation has ever grown. Long departed relatives routinely reappear and, presumably, funerals are au revoirs, not goodbyes. Food is procured exclusively from non-vegetative sources.

And the fantasy continues with the sudden appearance of a stranger who procures a seed, something never seen before in this bizarre universe, and plants it in the ground. The inhabitants look on curiously, regarding the act as no different from burying a stone, but are shocked when, several days later, a sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned. They are even more flabbergasted to witness its eventual development into a full-fledged plant, bearing fruit – and, even more astonishing – seeds of its own.

Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler painted the bizarre panorama, and, as it happens, the conjured scenario has pertinence to Chanukah.

The point Rav Dessler was making was the fundamental idea that there really is no inherent, objective difference between what we call nature and what we call miraculous.  We simply use the former word to refer to that to which we are well accustomed; and the latter, for things that we have never before experienced.  All there is, in the end, Rav Dessler concludes, is Hashem’s will, expressed most commonly in nature.

Yesh chachma bagoyim, “there is wisdom among the nations.” The celebrated essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson famously conveyed much the very same idea, when he wrote:

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”

The star-filled sky, Emerson asked us to realize, is seen as non-miraculous only –only – because it appears every night.

Famed physicist Paul Davies put the thought starkly and strikingly: “The very notion of physical law,” he wrote, “is a theological one.”

What does all that have to do with Chanukah?

The chag, of course, commemorates the Macabeeim’s routing of the Greek Seleucid fighters who sought to impose heathenism on the Jews in Eretz Yisrael. The Maccabeeim managed to rout their enemy, recover Yerushalayim and rededicate the defiled Beis Hamikdash.  Only one vial of tahor, undefiled, oil, though, for use in the menorah was discovered in the debris. It was enough to burn for only one day, yet, once kindled, lasted for a full eight, yielding Chanukah’s observance of eight nights of candle-lighting.

Why, the Beis Yosef famously asked, is Chanukah observed for eight days, when the miracle of the oil was really only evident over seven – since there was sufficient recovered oil for one day?

Many answers have been suggested. One, though, offered by, among others, Rav Dovid Feinstein, zt”l, is based on Rabbi Dessler’s (and Emerson’s, and Professor Davies’) contention.

Seven of Chanukah’s days, goes this approach, indeed commemorate the miracle that the menorah’s flames burned without fuel.  The eighth day, though, is a celebration unto itself, commemorating the fact – no less of a miracle to perceptive minds — that oil burns at all. It is an acknowledgment of the Divine essence of nature itself.

Which poignantly echoes the Gemara’s account of how the daughter of Rabi Chanina ben Dosa realized shortly before Shabbos that she had accidentally poured vinegar instead of oil into the Shabbos lamps, and began to panic.  Rabi Chanina, who vividly perceived divinity in all and, the Talmud recounts, as a result often merited what most people would call miracles, reassured her.  “The One Who commanded oil to burn,” he said, “can command vinegar to burn.”

Which, in that case, is precisely, the Gemara recounts, what happened. Vinegar doesn’t usually burn, of course, unless it’s Rabbi Chanina’s. But the fact that oil burns, for all of us, remains a miracle, if a common one.

Sifrei nistar portray the small Chanukah flames as leaking spiritual enlightenment into the world. Perhaps the realization of the miraculous hidden in the mundane is part of what we are meant to gain from the lights.

Heading into the dismal darkness of what some coarse folks might think of as a “G-d-forsaken” deep winter, the Chanukah lights remind us that nothing, not even nature, is ever forsaken by G-d, nothing devoid of divinity.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Rabbi Amnon’s Tongue

A frisson of fright is sent up the spine of every sensitive Jew when Unesaneh Tokef is intoned on the Yomim Nora’im. Because of the image it conjures of the Dayan uMochiach, the One “Who judges and proves and knows and bears witness; Who writes and seals, counts and calculates, Who remembers all that was forgotten,” opening the Sefer Hazichronos in which “the signature of every man” is inscribed and which “will read itself.”

And because of the scene it paints of the“great shofar” sounding, followed by a “quiet, faint voice”; as the angels themselves are seized by “a trembling and terror” as they declare: “Behold, it is the Day of Judgment.”

The shudder is intensified by the tefillah’s soul-piercing reminder about the coming year—“who will live and who will die… who will be undisturbed, and who in turmoil,” who “will be laid low, and who raised high.”

And by the haunting melody to which it is traditionally sung.

And, finally, by our recollection of the tradition we have of the tefillah’s origin.
A certain Rabbi Amnon, who lived in the 11th century, the account goes, was pressured by the Archbishop of Mainz to convert to Christianity. Rabbi Amnon refused repeatedly, but on one occasion he asked for three days’ time to consider the offer, a stalling tactic he immediately regretted, as he realized he had given the priest hope that his Jewish subject might abandon his ancestral faith.

When Rabbi Amnon didn’t visit the clergyman at the end of the three days, he was forcibly taken to him and again refused the demand of the priest, who had Rabbi Amnon’s fingers and toes amputated one by one, pausing before each drop of the sword to allow the Jew to change his mind. He didn’t, and was returned to his home, along with his amputated limbs.

On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried, along with his body parts, into the shul, and, before Kedushah, asked the chazan to pause. The silence was then broken by the tortured rav’s intonation of Unesaneh Tokef, after which he died.

Several days later, the leader of the Mainz Jewish community, Kalonymus ben Meshulam (who would later perish in the Worms Massacre), had a dream in which Rabbi Amnon taught him the words of the tefillah.

The account is attributed to the famous 13th century halachic work Ohr Zarua, written by Rav Yitzchok ben Moshe of Vienna. Reading the actual text one year led me to a detail I hadn’t realized before.

When Rabbi Amnon was brought before the archbishop, the rav told the clergyman that he wanted to be punished—not for refusing the Christian’s urging to convert but rather for giving the impression that he had even considered such a thing. “Cut out my tongue,” he told the archbishop. The clergyman, however, refused that request. He saw Rabbi Amnon’s sin as his refusal to come as he had promised, hence he chose his own punishment for the rav, the one that was meted out.

And so the priest, while he cruelly and grievously tortured the Jew, left his victim’s tongue in place.

“The voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esav,” said Yitzchak Avinu (Bereishis, 27:22). The use of weaponry, held by hands, is the province of Esav. Yaakov’s power lies in his tongue—in his words, his prayers.

There, I realized, was a point I had always missed. Rabbi Amnon, denied the excision of his tongue he had requested, went on to use it well—to compose the Unesaneh Tokef that marks a most poignant moment in the Musafim of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The part of his body he regretted having misused he ended up using powerfully, inspiring countless Jews over the generations since—to, as per the tefillah’s final declaration, use their own words, along with teshuvah and tzedakah, to be ma’avir any ro’a hagezeirah.

Gmar chasimah tovah.

Driving Like It’s Rosh Hashanah

Some Jews attend shul only on the Yamim Nora’aim or for a yahrtzeit. They “compartmentalize” their Judaism. It’s called on only for special occasions. And yet, as always, there’s more to be gained by not looking at others but rather inward. Our Orthodox world, after all, “knows from” compartmentalization too.

A similar compartmentalization is evident in a more observant Jew who, while he would never dream of eating food lacking a good hechsher, might nevertheless act in his business dealings, or his home life, or behind the wheel in less Torah-observant ways.

It seems part of the human condition to, while knowing Hashem and His Torah are real, relegate their presence to one’s “religious” life, not one’s mundane day-to-day living.

Some of us don’t always pause and think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or pronounce every word clearly and distinctly). We allow our observances and davening to sometimes fade into rote. I’m writing here to myself, but some readers may be able to relate.

Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Days of Repentance, is suffused with the concept of Malchus, “Kingship.” The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and the concept of malchiyus is prominent in the days’ Mussaf tefillah. What, though, has kingship to do with repentance?

By definition, a king has a kingdom, over which he exerts his rules. There is little escaping even a mortal monarch’s reach, and none of his subjects dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case of not a king but the King.

Kingship and compartmentalization are diametric, incompatible ideas. If Hashem is to be our Ruler, then there are no places and no times when He can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is our yearly opportunity to try to bring our lives more in line with that ideal. To better comprehend, in other words, that Hashem is as manifest when we are sitting behind a desk, driving, cooking or sending kids off to school as He is when we are reciting Shemoneh Esrei, as present on a nondescript December morning as He is during the Yamim Nora’im.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Nitzavim – The Role of Failure

Reflecting the time of year when we read Nitzavim, before the “Days of Awe,” the parshah’s major themes are sin and repentance.

And while much of Nitzavim concerns potential punishments for sin, there is also an undercurrent of assurance, of the possibility of teshuvah, repentance. “And you will return to Hashem, your G-d” (Devarim 30:2).

Even the parshah’s first words imply the power of teshuvah. Moshe addresses the Jews as nitzavim hayom, “standing upright today” (29:9), despite the fact that “much did you anger” Hashem over the years of wandering the desert, “yet He did not destroy you” (Rashi 29: 12).

Essential to teshuvah is charatah, regret of the sin. But charatah means just that, regret, wishing one had not sinned. It does not mean despondence, which can actually impede teshuvah.

Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin from 1940 into the 1970s, once wrote a letter to a student who had shared his anguish and depression over personal spiritual failures.

What makes life meaningful, the Rosh Yeshiva responded, is not basking in one’s “good inclination” but rather engaging, repeatedly, no matter the setbacks, in the battle against our inclination to sin.

“Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up,” (Mishlei, 24:16) wrote Shlomo Hamelech. That, wrote Rav Hutner, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to get up again.” What it really means, he explains, is that it is precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles — including the failures — are inherent to the achievement of eventual, ultimate success.

One of the melachos of Shabbos is mocheik, or “erasing,” the sister-melachah of “writing.” And the melachos are derived from what was necessary during the construction of the mishkan.

Erasing, Rashi (Shabbos, 73a) explains, was necessary because mistakes would be made when marking the mishkan’s beams with letters indicating their placement. But only actions intrinsic to the construction of the mishkan are melachos. Apparently, mistakes were part of the process.

It’s much more than what Big Bird taught, that “everyone makes mistakes.” It’s that everyone needs to make mistakes.

Civil engineering professor Henry Petroski captured that truth in the title of one of his books: “To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.” Initial failures, he asserts, are what drive tasks to perfection.

The same is true in life. Teshuvah is accomplished with regret, not despondency.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Ki Seitzei — We’re All the “Beautiful Woman”

It’s edifying to compare the larger world’s celebrations of its various New Years and the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah.

The former is characterized by revelry, drunkenness and, hat tip to Auld Lang Syne, a smidgen of sentimentality. The latter, by trepidation and regret of the past year’s missteps.

Greater society’s preparation for their New Years Days consists of buying fireworks and alcohol.  Ours is Elul, the month during which, as the Eastern European folk saying has it, even the fish in the rivers tremble.

The law of the yifas to’ar, the “beautiful woman” encountered among the enemy and fallen for by a Jewish soldier in war, is a strange one.  The captive, after a month’s time during which she, shorn of her hair, is to cry over the loss of her father and mother, is permitted to be taken by the soldier as a wife.

Much has been written in explanation of the counterintuitive law. But the Zohar Chadash has a metaphorical comment. 

Seizing on the word used in the law for “month” (“yerach”), the mystical text comments, “da he archa d’Elul” — “this is the month of Elul.”

The yifas to’ar is leaving her past behind, entering a new world. According to Rabbi Akiva in the Sifri, the “father and mother” over whom she cries refer to the idolatries of her past, as per the prophet’s rebuke: “They say to the wood, ‘You are my father,’ and to the stone, ‘You bore us’ ” (Yirmiyahu 2:27). Her tears are tears of regret, for having been in idolatry’s thrall. And, perhaps, tears of joy at entering a new world, as part of the Jewish nation.

During Elul, we mourn our pasts too, and express joy (V’gilu bir’ada — rejoice in trembling -Tehillim 2:11), as we enter a new world, a new year. 

After the night’s drunken revelry, a New Year’s Eve celebrant may find himself experiencing delirium tremens, the infamous “DT’s”. 

Jews who fully embraced Elul will wake up as BT’s.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Shoftim – We’re All in This Together

Why, of course the elders of the nearest city didn’t kill the man! So what is the meaning — in the case of a person found murdered on the road, where the ritual of egla arufa is prescribed — of their requirement to say, “Our hands did not spill this blood”? (Devarim 21:7)

As the Mishneh (Sotah 45b) explains, what the elders must affirm is that they did not even send the visitor off without food or accompaniment as he left their city. 

And so, by their declaration, they are guiltless even of that. So why is an “atonement” — which the egla arufa is called — necessary? For whom does it atone? The murderer? Certainly not. If he is subsequently discovered and convicted in court, he is executed (ibid 47b).

It seems clear that, as the pasuk itself states starkly, the atonement is for “Your people Yisrael” (Devarim 21:8). What could that mean? What did the Jewish people do to the victim?

There are interpersonal actions that Chazal equate in some way to more obvious crimes. Lashon hara, for instance, is characterized by Chazal as “killing” (Arachin 15b).

Rav Dessler notes that when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Yehoshua’s conquest of Canaan, it is described as the sin of the entire people (Yehoshua 7:1). Had the people as a whole, he explains, been sufficiently sensitive to the commandment to shun the city’s spoils, even if they did not violate it themselves, Achan would not have been able to commit his sin.

Perhaps here, too, even if no particular person was directly responsible for the wayfarer’s murder, what enabled so terrible an act to happen might have been the reaching of a “critical mass” of murder-insensitivity on the part of many others, or their commission of things that Chazal liken to murder. 

If so, the murder understandably requires a communal atonement.

It’s a timely thought. Entering the period of the Jewish year when we recite the “Ashamnu” litany, we might ponder the use of the first-person plural in that confession of sins, and recognize that even if we are individually innocent of the actual sin, we might still, in subtle ways, have contributed to the ability of a fellow Jew to actually commit it. We’re all in this together.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

An Antisemite’s Perceptive, Worthy Words

Most people, if they are familiar with the name at all, associate “Chateaubriand” with a meat dish.  But François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand was a famous French author who died in 1848.  He was not well disposed toward Jews, considering them cursed for the farcical sin of deicide, and wrote approvingly about how “Humanity has put the Jewish race in quarantine.”

And yet, some other words of his are, even coming from so poisoned a pen, more than worthy for Jewish pondering during the annual period of the “Three Weeks” just begun, during which Jews mourn the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem and the Jewish exile. I am indebted to the late British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for, in his Haggada, bringing Chateaubriand’s words to my attention.

The French writer visited a desolated Jerusalem, where he saw Jews pining for the arrival of mashiach and the end of the Jewish exile.

And wrote as follows:

“This people has seen Jerusalem destroyed seventeen times, yet there exists nothing in the world which can discourage it or prevent it from raising its eyes to Zion. He who beholds the Jews dispersed over the face of the earth, in keeping with the Word of God, lingers and marvels. But he will be struck with amazement, as at a miracle, who finds them still in Jerusalem and perceives even, who in law and justice are the masters of Judea, to exist as slaves and strangers in their own land; how despite all abuses they await the King who is to deliver them… If there is anything among the nations of the world marked with the stamp of the miraculous, this, in our opinion, is that miracle.”

And a further miracle, may it come swiftly and in our days, will be the arrival of that king, and the end of our exile.

(c) 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran