Category Archives: issues of morality or ethics

Bishalach – La Différence

Our ancestors’ wondering “Is Hashem in our midst or not?” is followed immediately in the Torah by Amalek’s attack (Shemos 17: 7-8). The word expressing Klal Yisrael’s existential doubt – “or not?” – is ayin, which can also be translated “isn’t,” “not there,” or “nothing.”

It’s a word that we find in a seemingly different context in Koheles (3:19), where Shlomo Hamelech says that u’mosar ha’adam min habeheima ayin – “and the superiority of man over animal is nothing.”  

Which, as it happens, well encapsulates Amalek’s philosophy. Famously, its name in gematria equals safek, doubt, which reflects Amalek’s conviction that human life is meaningless, just the yield of random evolution, that there is in fact no essential difference between people and animals; and, thus, that there is no ultimate meaning to human life.

That sentiment, of course, isn’t Shlomo’s true conviction; he concludes Koheles with the statement that “kol ha’adam” – the essence of man” – is reverence for Hashem and fulfillment of His directives. The “no difference” pasuk is an unwarranted cry of exasperation, not a description of final fact.

I remember seeing a worthy thought about what that word ayin in the Koheles pasuk might hint at, rendering it not an uninformed cry but, rather, a statement of deep truth.

The first time the word ayin is used in the Torah is in the sentence: vi’adam ayin la’avod es ha’adama – “and man was not yet there to work the land” (Beraishis 2:5). 

As Rashi explains, for the first vegetation to emerge, there needed to be rain, and rain would only arrive when there was a consciousness that could appreciate it as a divine gift. The “working” of the land, the avodah alluded to, was thus avodas haleiv, the “work of the heart” – a recognition and declaration of gratitude.

And so, the “difference between man and animal” may in fact be precisely “ayin” – namely, what the word hints at in Beraishis: awareness of Hashem and gratitude for His benevolence, which only conscious human beings can feel and express. 

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Letter to the editor, appeared in print on 1/13/24

To the Editor:

Re “For Gaza’s Babies, War’s Effects Will Never End,” by Alice Rothchild (Opinion guest essay, Jan. 11):

The effect of the Israel-Hamas conflict on expectant mothers and on babies is horrific, as is all the death and destruction in Gaza today.

It must end immediately.

Hamas must do what Germany and Japan did in 1945: surrender — and, here, release the kidnapped Israelis it hasn’t yet murdered.

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

Vo’eira – When to Remind Can Be Unkind

It’s intriguing that when Moshe and Aharon are sent to present themselves to Par’oh and to demonstrate the miracle of a staff turning into a snake, Moshe is commanded by Hashem to tell Aharon to throw his staff to the ground to effect the transformation.

Elsewhere, of course, with two exceptions (hitting the Nile and the ground, because Moshe had been saved by water and earth) it is Moshe’s staff that is used to fulfill divine commandments, as in the splitting of the sea and, in the desert, the hitting of the rock to bring forth water. But here, why isn’t Moshe the one charged to cause the miracle?

A lesson may lie in the oddity. Moshe, we remember, was earlier, at the burning bush, told to throw his staff to the ground, where it turned into a snake (Shemos 4:2,3). There, the command was issued after Moshe expressed doubts about whether the Jews would listen to him.

And, as Rashi explains there, the transformation of the staff was not meant as some demonstration of miraculousness but rather as a rebuke to Moshe, for having doubted the Jewish people’s willingness to hear His message.

So perhaps the reason Hashem wanted Aharon and not Moshe to perform the demonstration before Par’oh was to spare Moshe embarrassment over the memory of the rebuke he had earlier received. The reminder, of course, was still there, in a staff turning into a snake. But at least Moshe himself was not asked to perform the very action that had telegraphed the rebuke.

The Mishna (Bava Metzia 58b) says that one may not remind a repentant sinner of his prior deeds, nor a convert’s son of those of his ancestors. Perhaps the lesson here of Aharon being given the order to throw the staff down is that even a subtle reminder can be a source of embarrassment to another, and thus, something to carefully avoid.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shemos – Working the Empathy Muscle

Each of us lives at the center of a series of concentric circles, the closest one encompassing our immediate family members; the next, friends and neighbors; beyond that, co-religionists or fellow citizens of one’s country. At a distance removed even farther is the larger circle of human beings with whom we share similar values. And further out still, the circle encompassing the rest of humanity.

I once wrote an essay contending that it is no sin – in fact, it is proper – that we feel, and demonstrate, our deepest love for the circle closest to us. And greater concern for the next circle out than for those beyond it.

Some Jews seem embarrassed at the idea of Jews acting with special alacrity on behalf of fellow Jews. But they are misguided. 

In fact, I suggested, the only way to feel any concern for the “outer circles” is to hone one’s love for those in one’s inner one first. Exercising the “empathy” muscle with regard to those closest to us is what allows us to have true empathy at all for those most distant.

Moshe Rabbeinu, the “most humble of all men,” was not naturally given to interfering in conflicts. And yet we find him doing so thrice in the parsha: First, by killing the Mitzri who was beating a Jew; second, by berating a Jew who was hitting another Jew; third, by standing up to the non-Jewish shepherds who were bullying the non-Jewish daughters of Yisro.

A dear talmidah of mine from long ago, Tanya Farber, suggested that my observation about how empathy for those distant from us is only enabled by first feeling, and acting upon, empathy for those close to us may inform Moshe’s interventions. What empowered Moshe’s decision to stand up for Tzlafchad’s daughters may have been his standing up earlier for fellow Jews.

The only way to truly “love humanity,” and not just mouth half-hearted concern for it, is to first concentrate on the easier, but essential and prime, endeavor of loving those to whom we are closest.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeishev – What’s Wrong?

When we read the account of Yosef’s unfair imprisonment – and his eventual release after the Egyptian ruler is informed by the sar hamashkim, the butler, of Yosef’s G-d-given ability to interpret dreams – there’s something that’s easily overlooked: the particular action that set Yosef’s liberation into motion.

Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l, points out that the genesis of Yosef’s release from prison and ascension to the position of viceroy in Mitzrayim lies in his having noticed that his fellow prisoners, the king’s baker and butler, were crestfallen one morning.

He didn’t ignore that fact. “Why do you appear downcast  today?” he asked them (Beraishis 40:7). And they proceeded to tell him of their dreams, which he then interpreted.

“Come and see,” Rav Kaminetsky advises, “the greatness of Yosef,” who, after being wrongly imprisoned by other Egyptian officials, nevertheless, when he saw these officials in a state of depression or angst, was so concerned that he immediately asked them what was wrong.

That’s a lesson for life. When we see someone out of sorts, we are often inclined to ignore the person or even steer ourselves in another direction. But it is that inclination to avoid the sad person that should be ignored. We may not have the solution to the depressed person’s problem like Yosef had for his fellow inmates’ dilemma. But asking  “What’s wrong?” or “Can I help?” are the proper responses.  If only because they are expressions of concern. 

Which  may help lift the spirits of the inquiree. 

And even, perhaps, benefit the inquirer.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Lech Lecha – Jewish Influence

Stars aren’t visible during the day. 

Yosef Chaim Cara, a 17th century Polish rabbi, points out in his sefer Kol Omer Kra that after Hashem tells Avram, concerning his future progeny, to “Look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them” (Beraishis 15:5), the Torah goes on to say that “the sun was ready to set… (ibid, 15:12). 

So “count the stars,” it seems, was spoken during daytime.

Rav Karo perceives in that fact a poignant idea. The Jews have never been as multitudinous as the stars – and have never even comprised a population of major proportions. Hashem’s message to Avram, says Rav Karo, was not about numbers but rather about impact

It was: “Are you able to count the stars of the heavens when the sun is shining? Even though the stars are there, they are invisible because of the powerful light of the sun.”

Your progeny, Hashem was telling Avram, will not be many in number but will, like the sun’s light, be overwhelming in importance.

“All the nations,” explains Rav Karo, “will learn from [the Jews] what is proper and just. Without them, he continues, “the world would only continue to sink into darkness.”

Paul Johnson, in the epilogue of his “A History of the Jews,” writes about his subject:

“To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life, and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice… [of] monotheism.

“It is almost beyond our capacity to imagine how the world would have fared if they had never emerged.”

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran