Category Archives: Holidays

Take Two – Pesach Sheini’s Special Significance to My Family

“Second Passover,” or Pesach Sheini, a minor Jewish holiday, is anything but minor in my family. It was on that Jewish date, which, in 1945, fell on April 27 (and this year, falls on May 15), that my late father-in-law, the late Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, was liberated by American forces from Kaufering, part of the concentration camp complex known as Dachau.

In biblical times, Pesach Sheini, coming a month after Pesach, was a day on which Jews who were unable for various reasons to bring the korban Pesach, or paschal sacrifice, on Pesach had another opportunity to do so, and to eat its meat along with matzos (unleavened bread), and bitter herbs. For my father-in-law, it became a symbol of his own “second chance” — at life. His happy one as a child in the Polish city of Lodz had been rudely interrupted by the Nazis on September 8, 1939.

Mr. Cohen became a teenage inmate of several concentration camps. On Pesach Sheini in 1945, he and a friend, Yossel Carmel, lay in Kaufering, in a corpse-filled pit, where they had been cast by their captors, who thought them dead.

Over recent days, there had been rumors that the camp’s commanders had been ordered to murder all the prisoners, to deprive the advancing Allied armies of living witnesses to their work. 

The friends’ fear, though, was leavened by hope, born of the sound of explosions in the distance. “We prayed,” he later wrote, that “the thunderous explosions would go on forever.” The pair, he recalled, “eventually fell asleep to the beautiful sound of the bombs.”  

The only moving things in the camp were shuffling, emaciated “musselmen,” the “walking skeletons” who had been rendered senseless by starvation and trauma. And so the pair wondered if, perhaps, the camp guards had abandoned the premises. Alas, though, the S.S. returned, bringing along prisoners from other parts of the camp complex, who were kicked toward waiting wagons and, quite literally, thrown onto them.

But, when no one was looking, the two inmates managed to climb down from where they had been cast and found new refuge in a nearby latrine.  “Our stomachs,” he recalled, “were convulsing.” 

Eventually the wagons left, and the two young men crept back into their cellblock, posing again, not unconvincingly, as corpses. 

Then they smelled smoke. Peeking out from their hiding place, the young men saw flames everywhere. Running outside, the newly resurrected pair saw German soldiers watching a barracks burn, thankfully with their backs toward them. There were piles of true corpses all around, and the two quickly threw themselves on the nearest one that wasn’t aflame.

My future father-in-law thought it was the end, and wanted to recite the “final confession” that Jewish liturgy suggests for one who is dying. But his friend reminded him of an aphorism the Talmud ascribes to Dovid Hamelech, King David, that “Even with a sharp sword against his neck, one should never despair of Divine mercy.”   

And that mercy, at least for them, arrived.  Every few minutes, bombs whistled overhead, followed by fearsome explosions. The earth shook, but each blast shot shrapnel of hope into their hearts. The Germans now really seemed gone for good. 

Dodging the flames and smoldering ruins, the pair ran to the only building still intact, the camp kitchen.  There they found a few others who had also successfully hidden from the Nazi mop-up operation.

And they discovered a sack of flour. They mixed it with water, fired up the oven and baked flatbreads. My father-in-law, who, throughout his captivity, had kept careful note of the passing of time on the Jewish calendar, knew it was Pesach Sheini. And the breads became their matzos. No bitter herbs were necessary.

The door flew open and another inmate rushed in breathlessly, finally shouting: “The Americans are here!”

A convoy of jeeps roared through the camp. American soldiers approached the barracks, some, Mr. Cohen recalled, with tears streaming down their faces at the sight of the piles of blackened, smoldering skeletons. 

“Along with the American soldiers,” he wrote, “we all wept.” 

And then he recited the Jewish blessing of gratitude to God for “having kept us alive and able to reach this day.”

Eventually, Mr. Cohen made his way to France, where he cared for and taught Jewish war orphans; and then to Switzerland, where he met and married my dear mother-in-law, may she be well. The couple emigrated to Toronto and raised five children. For decades thereafter, each Second Passover, he and others who had been liberated from Kaufering that day, along with other camps’ survivors, would arrange a special meal of thanksgivingin Toronto or New York, during which they shared memories and gratitude to God.

As the years progressed, however, sadly but inevitably, fewer and fewer of the survivors were in attendance. And, like his friend Mr. Carmel, Mr. Cohen is no longer with us.

But his wife, and my wife and her siblings, along with scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, spread across several states, Canada and Israel, gather in groups, in person or virtually, every Pesach Sheini to recall his ordeals and his liberation, the “second life” we are so grateful he was granted by God.

Many are survivors today, of hateful violence, again against Jews in Israel, as well as other people in places like Sudan, Myanmar, Yemen, Europe and Ukraine. Despair is a natural reaction to witnessing such evil. But those who, like my father-in-law — and my own father, who spent the war years in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia — persevered and created new post-trauma lives show that pasts needn’t cripple futures.

That, like in the case of Pesach Sheini, we can be graced with second chances.

Acharei Mos – “No. You Do ME”

“Propriety” was apparently a theme of the Sadducees, or Tziddukim, one of the camps of Jews during the Second Temple period that rejected the the Torah’s “Oral Law,” the key to understanding the true meaning of the Written one. The former, of course, reveals things like that “An eye for an eye” means monetary compensation, and that “totafos” means what we call tefillin.

And so, the Tziddukim rejected the Oral Law’s direction that “Sabbath” in the phrase “from the day after the Sabbath,” directing the beginning of the Omer-counting period, means the first day of Pesach. They felt, they explained, that having two days in a row of rest and festivity – Shabbos and Shavuos, the fiftieth day of the count – would be a nice and proper thing.

And they advocated, too, a change in the Yom Kippur service described in the parsha, at the very crescendo of the day, when the Kohein Gadol entered the Kodesh Hakadashim. The Oral Law prescribes that the incense offered there be lit only after the Kohen Gadol entered the room. The Tziddukim contended that it be lit beforehand. While they offered Written Law support for their position, their true motivation, the Talmud explains, was the “propriety” of doing things differently. 

“Does one bring raw food to a mortal king,” they argued, “and only then cook it before him? No! One brings it in hot and steaming!”

The placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems most appropriate” – above the received truths of the mesorah is the antithesis of Torah, whose foundation is not “you do you” but “you do Me.” 

Our very peoplehood was forged by our forebears’ unanimous, unifying declaration at Sinai: “Naaseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will hear!” – “We will accept the Torah’s laws,” in other words, even amid a lack of ‘hearing,’ or understanding, even  if we think we have a better idea.”

Naaseh v’nishma” stands in stark contrast to society’s fixation on not only having things but having them “our way,” and to Jewish groups that want to bring Torah “in line” with contemporary sensibilities.

But from Avraham Avinu’s “ten trials” to 21st century America, Judaism has never been about comfort, enjoyment or personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter emerges from a holiness-centered life). It has been about Torah and mitzvos – about accepting them not only when they sit well with us but even – in fact, especially – when they don’t.

With apologies to JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson (Jewish mother’s maiden name: Annis Chaikin), Judaism is not about what we’d like Hakadosh Baruch Hu to do for us, but rather about what we are privileged to do for Him.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Klal Yisrael’s Second Marriage

It’s intriguing. Three words are used to refer to Yetzias Mitzrayim (yetziah, geirush and shilu’ach; see, for examples, Shemos, 20:2, 11:1 and 8:17).

And they are the very same words used as well to refer to… divorce (see Devarim 24:2, 24:1 and Vayikra 21:7). 

The metaphor seemingly hinted at by that fact is that Klal Yisrael became “divorced” from Mitzrayim, to which it had been, in a way, “married,” a reflection of our descent there to the 49th level of spiritual squalor. 

But the apparent “divorce” of Klal Yisroel from Mitzrayim is followed by a new metaphorical matrimony. Because that is the pointed imagery of the event that, mere weeks later, followed Yetzias Mitzrayim: ma’amad Har Sinai.

Not only does Rashi relate the Torah’s first description of a betrothal – Rivka’s – to that event (Beraishis 24:22), associating the two bracelets given her by Eliezer on Yitzchok’s behalf as symbols of the two luchos, and their ten geras’ weight to the aseres hadibros. And not only does the navi Hoshea (2:21, 22) describe Mattan Torah in terms of betrothal (vi’airastich li…, familiar to men as the pesukim customarily recited when wrapping tefillin on our fingers – and to women, from actually studying Nevi’im).

But our own chasunos themselves hearken back to Har Sinai: The chuppah, say various seforim hakedoshim, recalls the mountain, which Chazal describe as being held over our ancestors’ heads; the candles traditionally borne by the parents of the chosson and kallah are to remind us of the lightning at the revelation; the breaking of the glass, of the breaking of the luchos.

In fact, the bircas eirusin itself, the essential blessing that accompanies a marriage, seems as well to refer almost explicitly to the revelation at Har Sinai. “Blessed are You, Hashem, … Who betrothed His nation Yisroel through chuppah and kiddushin” – “al yidei” meaning precisely what it always does (“through the means of”) and “mekadesh” meaning “betroth,” rather than “made holy” like “mekadesh haShabbos”).

The metaphor is particularly poignant when one considers the sole reference to divorce in the Torah.

It is in Devarim (24, 2) and mentions divorce only in the context of the prohibition for a [female] divorcee, subsequently remarried, to return to her first husband. The only other “prohibition of return” in the Torah, strikingly, is the one forbidding Jews to return to Mitzrayim (Shmos 14:13, Devorim, 17:16). Like the woman described in Devarim, we cannot return, ever, to our first “husband.”

More striking still is the light thereby shed on the confounding Gemara on the first daf of massechta Sotah. 

The Gemara poses a contradiction. One citation has marriage-matches determined by Divine decree, at the conception of each partner; another makes matches dependent on the choices made by the individuals – “lifi ma’asov” – “according to his merits.”

The Gemara’s resolution is that the divine decree determines“first marriages” and the merit-based dynamic refers to second ones.

The implications, if intended as such regarding individuals, are, to say the least, unclear. But the import of the Gemara’s answer on the “national” level – at least in light of the Mitzrayim/Har Sinai marriage-metaphor – provide a startling possibility.

Because Klal Yisroel’s first “marriage,” to Mitzrayim, was indeed divinely decreed, foretold to Avrohom Avinu at the Bris Bein Habesorim (Bereishis 15:13): “For strangers will your children be in a land not theirs, and [its people] will work and afflict them for four hundred years.”

And Klal Yisroel’s “second marriage,” its true and permanent one, was the result of the choice Hashem made – and our ancestors made, by refusing to change their clothing, language and names even when still in the grasp of Mitzri society and culture – and their willingness to follow Moshe into a dangerous desert. And, ultimately, when they said “Na’aseh vinishma,” after which they received their priceless wedding ring under the mountain-chuppah of Har Sinai.

And  a fascinating coup de grâce: The Gemara in Sotah referenced above describes the challenge of finding the proper mates. Doing so, says Rabbah bar bar Ḥana in Rabi Yoḥanan’s name, is kasheh k’krias Yam Suf – “as difficult as the splitting of the Sea.”

© 2022 Ami Magazine

The Puzzle of the Fours

Four questions. Four sons. Four expressions of geulah. Four cups of wine. Dam (=44) was placed, in Mitzrayim, on the doorway (deles, “door,” being the technical spelling of the letter daled, whose value is four).

Moving fourward – forgive (fourgive?) me! – Why?

The chachamim who formulated the Haggadah intended it to plant important seeds in the hearts and minds of its readers – especially its younger ones, toward whom the Seder is particularly aimed.

All its “child-friendly” elements are not just to entertain the young people present but more so to subtly plant those seeds. Dayeinu and Chad Gadya and Echad Mi Yodea are not pointless; they are pedagogy.

There are riddles, too, in the Haggadah. Like the Puzzle of the Ubiquitous Fours.

The most basic and urgent concept the Seder experience is meant to impart to young Jews is that Yetzias Mitzrayim forged something vital: our peoplehood. It, in other words, created Klal Yisrael.

Each individual within the multitude of Yaakov Avinu’s descendants in Mitzrayim rose or fell on his or her own merits. And not all of them. Chazal teach us, merited to leave. Those who did, though, were reborn as something new: a people.

And so, at the Seder, we seek to instill in our children the realization that they are not mere individuals but rather parts of a nation unconstrained by geography, linked by history, destiny and Hashem’s love. 

Thus, the role we adults play on Pesach night is precise. We are teachers, to be sure, but we are communicating not information but identity. Although the father may conduct the Seder, he is not acting in his normative role as teacher of Torah but rather in something more like a maternal role, as a nurturer of neshamos, an imparter of identity. And thus, in a sense, he is acting in a maternal role.

Because not only are mothers the parents who most effectively mold their children, they are the halachic determinant of Jewish identity. A Jew’s shevet follows the paternal line, but whether one is a member of Klal Yisrael or not depends entirely on maternal status.

The Haggadah may itself contain the solution to the riddle of the fours. It, after all, has its own number-decoder built right in, toward its end, where most books’ resolutions take place. After all the wine, we’re a little hazy once it’s reached, but it’s unmistakably there, in “Echad Mi Yodea” – the Seder-song that provides Jewish number-associations.

“Who knows four?…”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Bishalach – A Decisive Divorce

Shalach, the root of the word of the parshah’s title, is used elsewhere regarding the exodus from Mitzrayim (e.g. shalach es ami).  So are the words yetziah (e.g. Shemos, 20:2) and geirush (e.g. ibid 11:1)

Intriguingly, each of those characterizations of our ancestors’ march from Egypt is also associated with… divorce. Vishilcha mibeiso (Devarim 24:2);  viyatz’ah mibeiso (Devarim 24:1); isha gerushah(Vayikra 21:7).

The metaphor telegraphed by that fact is clear. Klal Yisrael was virtually “married” to Mitzrayim, sunken to near its deepest level of tum’ah, and, with Hashem’s help, freed from that “marriage,” divorced, as it were, from Mitzrayim. 

The symbolism doesn’t stop there. When the divorce is finalized, Klal Yisrael gets re-married, this time, permanently, to Hashem, with Har Sinai over the people’s heads serving as a chupah. (Indeed, several marriage customs are associated by various sources with Mattan Torah – the chupah, the candles, reminiscent of the lightning), even the breaking of a glass, recalling the sheviras haluchos).

And that would dovetail strikingly with the prohibition against returning to live in Egypt (Devarim 17:16). Because a remarried woman, too, is prohibited from returning to her first husband (Devarim 24:4).

Even more interesting is the implication of the metaphor to the baffling Gemara in Sotah (2a) that asserts that a man’s “initial mate” is divinely decreed before his birth; and his second one, in accord with his behavior.

Because, in our metaphor, Klal Yisrael’s first “mate,” Egypt, was in fact decreed, to Avraham at the bris bein habisarim; and its final one, Hashem, was earned by the people’s behavior: their willingness to follow Moshe into the desert and declaration of naaseh vinishma at Sinai.

And a coup de grâce lies in how the Gemara paraphrased above describes the challenge of finding the proper mates: kasheh k’krias Yam Suf – “as difficult as the splitting of the Sea.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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