Category Archives: issues of morality or ethics

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

Noach – Symbols Gone Astray

It’s intriguing that two separate images from parshas Noach have been turned by contemporary society into widely used symbols – and each one is decidedly off the mark. 

A dove holding an olive branch in its mouth has become employed as a symbol of peace. To be sure, the sign that the flood was receding was certainly a happy one. But the message of the dove, according to Jewish tradition – the source, after all, of the Torah’s account itself – was not about peace.

It was, in the words of the Gemara (Eruvin 18b), an expression of willful dependence on the Creator. “The dove,” the passage states, “said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: ‘Master of the Universe, let my food be bitter as an olive but given into Your hand, rather than sweet as honey but dependent upon flesh and blood’.”

The dove had been well-fed by Noach throughout the months of the flood. But it is described as grateful for the opportunity to be fed directly by the Divine, without a human intermediary. So, rather than “peace,” the dove and its bounty are a symbol of striving for closeness to God.

And then we have the rainbow, the Divine “sign” given to Noach, and to all humanity, adopted of late as a symbol of “pride” in flouting the Torah’s directives to humanity regarding human sexuality. The dove being misguidedly co-opted as a symbol of peace is disappointing. But it pales beside the rainbow’s employ to promote things profoundly at odds with Torah and truth.

The rainbow, according to the Torah’s text, is a sign that Hashem will not destroy His world again – even if humanity is deserving of such, which may be one reason for Chazal’s admonition to not gaze exceedingly at a rainbow; it would be embarrassingly uncouth.

The flood itself came about in part because of sexual immorality (Rashi, Beraishis 6:11).

Nothing could be more woefully misguided than employing the rainbow as a celebratory symbol of what played a role in causing the world’s destruction in the time of Noach.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Letter published in the NYT today (10/10/23)

To the Editor:

Re “Israel and Hamas Battle in Gaza as Netanyahu Warns of a Long War” (news article, Oct. 9):

Hundreds of Israelis — men, women, children, infants and the elderly — were dragged from their homes by Hamas operatives, and Israeli citizens were murdered in cold blood. Entire families were taken hostage.

Palestinians in Gaza gathered to celebrate the attacks. In the West Bank, residents danced and sang in the streets. In Beirut, children handed out candy to passing motorists and residents set off fireworks.

Whatever one’s opinion about Israel’s policies, those facts and what they say about the country’s enemies should be greatly enlightening.

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

Vo’eschanan – Little Sins Fuel Bigger Ones

The Kotzker Rebbe likely meant it as a poignant joke when he reportedly remarked that the reason the Ten Commandments had to be both seen and heard (Chazal describe the revelation at Har Sinai as a synesthetic experience – e.g. Yalkut Shimoni 299) was that the word “lo” in lo signov would clearly be seen written with an aleph, not a vav.

That is to say, the commandment is to be understood as “Do not steal,” not “Steal for Him” – which would imply that, for a holy cause, theft is a virtue.

But the Kotzker certainly intended his quip as a serious lesson: Lofty ends don’t justify forbidden means.

If a Jew should “bend the rules” with regard to business or governmental dealings, he is guilty of gezel akum.  Even if his intention is to benefit a charity or Jewish institution.

Hopefully, we all realize that. But when, on occasion, we have read of some such liberty-taking, it behooves us to consider the fact that even those of us who would never consider doing such a thing ourselves might have reason for introspection.

Because a fundamental concept in Judaism is the idea of arvus, that all Jews are intertwined, that we are all responsible for one another. And so, if a Jewish thief exists, it is the “fault,” in a sense, of us all. That’s why we say “Ashamnu…” – “We have sinned” – in first person plural.

That outright Jewish violator of “Do not steal” may have been empowered by our own, less blatant, thievery. Like gneivas daas, stealing another’s mind (misleading him); or gezel sheina, depriving another of sleep; or what Chazal consider to be “stealing from a poor person,” namely, not returning a greeting (Berachos 6b).

Many are the understandings of nachamu nachamu ami – the repetition of the word for “be comforted” in the haftarah of Vo’eschanan. But, considering that the word nechama can mean both comfort and change of heart (as in Beraishis 6:6), perhaps the repetition reflects, too, the fact that our repentance from small transgressions have an effect on preventing larger ones. 

And some comfort surely lies in that fact.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran