Category Archives: Israel

Balak — Coddling Curses

There’s a question that begs to be asked at the very start of the parsha, about Balak’s determination to curse the Jews: Why?

I don’t mean what motivated him. That is clear in the Torah’s text: 

And now, please come and curse this nation for me, for it is too mighty for me, perhaps it will enable us to strike at him, and banish them from the land; for I know, that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.” (Bamidbar 22:6).

Why, though, not ask for that blessing rather than that curse? Why not just ask the sorcerer for an assurance of victory in warring with the Jewish nomad nation? 

The question, though, is its own answer. Nations are motivated by self-interest; their enemies are simply those who stand in their way. But when it comes to those who see Jews as adversaries, self interest isn’t the first priority; cursing Jews is. Their foremost desire is not to enhance their own welfare but to deride and attack the object of their irrational hatred.

To take a current example, were it not for such paramount animus,  there would have long been a thriving Palestinian state. In 1947, in 2000 and in 2020, Arab leaders opted not for blessings but for curses against Jews, even though it deprived them of peace and prosperity

Chants across the globe of “Death to Israel” are commonplace. Cognoscenti know well what “From the river to the sea…” really means, and it’s not peaceful coexistence with Jews. To Iran’s Führer, Ali Khamenei, Israel is a “cancerous tumor” and its leaders “untouchable rabid dogs.” 

Maledictions against Israel are regularly hissed from the snake den of Middle-Eastern terrorist groups. Part of the Houthis’ slogan is “Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews.”

In imams’ sermons, Muslim children’s lessons and high school textbooks, calls for the destruction of the state that Jews founded in 1948 are regular menu items. Poisonous entrées.

In the end, though, cursing Jews today won’t work, any more than those planned by Balak. In the future, as then, one way or another, a Higher Authority will prevail.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Letter to the Editor

A letter I wrote to the New York Times was published on Shabbos. It can be read here. Its text is below:

The Evil of Jew-Hatred’

To the Editor:

Re “My Son Is a Hostage. Comparing Hamas to the Nazis Is Wrong,” by Jonathan Dekel-Chen (Opinion guest essay, June 24):

Professor Dekel-Chen misses the point. The parallel indeed fails if all that is analyzed are the particulars of the Third Reich and the Hamas movement. But focusing on the trees here obscures the ugly forest: antisemitism.

The evil of Jew-hatred is a shape-shifter. It may come from political entities on the right or on the left, from one religion or another, from governments and from societal movements. And the ostensible reasons for the hatred vary wildly with time and place. But the target is the same: the Jews.

May the professor’s hostage son, and all those being held by this generation’s Jew-haters, soon be able to rejoin their families.

(Rabbi) Avi Shafran
New York
The writer is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Chukas – Choose Your Weapon

Approaching the land of Edom, Moshe Rabbeinu sends messengers to the region’s king, requesting passage through his land. Moshe reminds Esav’s descendant of how his ancestor’s brother’s descendants had sojourned in Mitzrayim for “many days” (hundreds of years), how oppressed they had been and how they “called out to Hashem,” Who “heard our voices” and released them from Egyptian servitude.

Moshe reassures Edom that the Jewish desert-wanderers will not encroach on its fields or vineyards, that they will happily purchase food and water (which they didn’t even need, as they had the mon and the be’er).

The request is tersely rebuffed. And Moshe and his people are threatened by Edom’s king with the words: “I will come against you with the sword” (Bamidbar 20:14-18). 

Rashi (based on Midrash Tanchuma, Bishalach) fleshes out the response: “You pride yourselves on the ‘voice’ your father bequeathed you…  I, therefore, will come out against you with that which my father bequeathed me when he said, ‘And by thy sword you shall live’.” 

These troubled days, under the pressure of contemporary enemies’ murderous designs, many Jews are less than fully sensitive to the fact that our “voice” – our prayers and Torah-study – are our most powerful means of undermining those who wish us harm. There may be superficial acknowledgment of the value of our “voice,” but less than full investment in the truth of that value.

We have witnessed colossal failures of physical means intended to protect Jewish lives. That should make us all the more cognizant of the truth of “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says Hashem” (Zecharia 4:6). 

Military might, to be sure, is necessary. But what ultimately empowers and protects both those on the front lines and Jews worldwide are our “voice.” 

That, and our true, honest and complete conviction that Torah and tefillah are indeed key to effecting victory.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shelach – The Import of an “It”

The Torah’s narratives are pertinent to every generation. But certain accounts resonate particularly blatantly in certain times.

Like the saga of the ma’apilim, the “insisters,” those Jews in the desert who repented of having spoken negatively of Eretz Yisrael and insisted, even against Moshe’s warning, on short-circuiting (pun intended) the prescribed years of desert wandering and “going up” into the Holy Land immediately.

Some, like the Munkatcher Rebbe Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira, a fierce opponent of nascent religious Zionism during the early 1900s, saw in the ma’apilim a precursor of “those sects that went up to Eretz Yisrael by force to establish colonies and wage war against the nations.”

Rav Tzadok HaCohein, who died in 1900, had a very different approach. He wrote that the ma’apilim felt that, despite the warning against going directly into the land, it was a case of “Whatever the host tells you to do, heed him, except when he says ‘leave’” [Pesachim 86b].

Although the provenance of that text’s final phrase – “except when he he says ‘leave’” – is questioned by some commentaries, the idea Rav Tzadok means to convey is that the ma’apilim felt justified in disobeying the Divine order, that their plan was in fact ultimately consonant with the Divine will. 

But, while they had a point, Rav Tzakok continues, it was not the right time for such brash action. Noting the first word in Moshe’s admonition that “it [the plan] will not succeed,” Rav Tzadok writes: The word ‘it’ is often interpreted by Chazal to mean ‘it, but not another,’ [here] implying that at another time [in history] ‘it will succeed’.”

And, he concludes, “that is our time, the era leading to Mashiach.”

That era has proven prolonged. And the state of Israel is a reality. The question of whether its establishment was a wise endeavor or a dangerous one is moot today. We can only hope that the redemption Rav Tzadok saw implied by the pasuk – even if it didn’t take place in the 1900s – will happen soon, speedily, in our days.

© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran


Professor David Himbara called South Africa “a classic case of a de facto one-party state with mismanaged institutions and endemic crime and corruption.” It’s also a state with much racism and anti-Israelism. Its president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been a driver of those sins. Is there hope for the future? My thoughts are here.

Bamidbar – High Security

The census of the Levi’im differs from that of the other shevatim, in that the latter counted only males 20 years of age or older while the former included even 30-day-old babies.

The inclusion of even infants in the Levi’im count is particularly striking, considering that the role of those counted is “mishmeres mishkan ha’eidus” – the guarding, or protection, of the sanctuary. A baby can’t protect anyone; he himself needs protection.

The most compelling explanation, offered by, among others, the Avnei Azel (Alexander Zushia Friedman, the author of the Ma’ayana Shel Torah compendium), is that the guarding here is not born of physical strength. The very existence of viable Levi’im is itself what offers protection. The security is sourced in the spiritual.

In Rabbi Friedman’s (loosely translated) words: “It is a common mistake that some make by assuming that the interests of the Jewish nation can be protected through martial and political means. Only the holiness and spiritual power of the guardians can actually offer protection… ‘If Hashem will not guard the city, for nought does the guard stand vigil’ (Tehillim 127:1)”

Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, the Rosh Hayeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, recently penned a heartfelt, elegiac essay about the security failures that allowed the tragedy of October 7 to happen, and how the future fate of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael (and everywhere) is dependent on the nation’s embracing its role as Hashem’s chosen people. 

Based on the warnings and lamentations of the nevi’im, Rav Feldman  imagines Hashem saying: “I… decided to wake you up with a powerful shock. I wanted you to realize that hitherto you were successful in your wars and in building up My land, not because of your cleverness or your army, but because I watched over you and granted you success. I wanted you to see that when I removed my support for you for a moment, your cleverness disappeared and your army fell to pieces.”

The essay shocked some in its straightforwardness. Stark truths are often shocking. But the Rosh Yeshiva’s rumination should not have surprised anyone. It was only the echo of Dovid Hamelech’s declaration above, and of the implication of the fact that even a baby among the Levi’im can be a conduit of Divine protection.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Bombs Away

Has President Biden, as his arms delay and words of warning were described in some media, “abandoned” Israel? Or is he still the stalwart defender of Israel’s right to destroy her declared mortal enemy that he declared himself to be in the wake of the October 7 massacre?

My thoughts are here.