Category Archives: Jewish Thought

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

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

Korach – Democracy and Its Discontents

Few contrasts in the Torah are as stark as the one between Moshe Rabbeinu and Korach.  The latter is propelled by jealousy, a blinding sense of self (and self-entitlement). And, like populists who followed, he used the masses to foster his personal goal.  

Moshe is the opposite, “the most humble of all men” (Bamidbar 12:3), and aspired to no leadership position; he had to be drafted. He serves the masses, stands up for them with his very existence – mecheini na, “erase me from Your book” if You won’t forgive them for the sin of the egel, he pleads with Hashem (Shemos 32:32). 

And so he is puzzled by Korach’s rebellion.  “I didn’t take even one donkey from them. I caused them no harm? (Bamidbar 16:15)” (Rashi sees the statements as expressions of pain.)  

To Moshe, leadership is a mission; to Korach, it’s a perk. Like all populist politicians, he claims, “I’m working for YOU” – while Moshe speaks of leaders being picked by Hashem.

Rav Yosheh Ber Soloveitchik notes that Korach invokes “democracy” to push his agenda. Which, Rav Soloveitchik and others note, inheres in Korach’s “arguments.”  Why should there be a need for a single strand of techeles if a garment is made entirely of techeles?  Why should only two small parshios in a mezuzah be necessary for a house filled with holy books? Why, in other words, should Moshe and Aharon be set apart from everyone else? – The entire nation is holy! (Bamidbar 16:3),

Today, too, there are truly selfless and dedicated leaders of Klal Yisroel – and their detractors. 

And some of the contemporary disparagers are “observant.” The religiosity of Moshe’s detractors saved Ohn ben Peles’ life. His wife, wise woman that she was, got him intoxicated enough to take a long nap when he was to be summoned to be part of the mob. Then she sat out front of their tent with her hair uncovered.  When the plotters, who she knew were “holy people,” approached the Ben Peles home to fetch Ohn, they turned on their “frum” heels.

Today, too, people who claim to uphold the Torah choose to portray Gedolim negatively.  When we read the words that one “should not be like Korach and his eidah” (Bamidbar 17:5), we are being exhorted to reject them.

© 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

Biha’aloscha – Being Aharon

Something special about Aharon HaCohein is telegraphed in the sentence “And Aharon did so,” after Moshe’s brother receives instructions about lighting the menorah in the Mishkan (Bamidbar 8:3). Rashi, paraphrasing Sifri, comments: “This tells us the praiseworthiness of Aharon, that he didn’t change [anything in the service].”

Well, of course he followed Divine orders carefully, puzzle many commentators. What is the significance of stating the obvious fact? 

An interesting approach is offered by the Chasam Sofer. The Talmud, he points out, describes the daily schedule of service in the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash and notes, inter alia, two things: that the menorah-lighting takes place simultaneously with the burning of the afternoon incense on the mizbei’ach haketores (Yoma 15a); and that the cohein bringing the ketores would become wealthy as a result of performing that service (Yoma 26a). 

Thus, suggests the Chasam Sofer, Aharon’s “not changing” means that he never took a day off from the menorah-lighting, which he could have allowed someone else to do, to take advantage of the wealth-producing ketores-offering. In other words, he shunned material gain that was available to him.

A simpler approach is taken by R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, who interprets Rashi’s comment as “And Aharon didn’t change himself.”

“Power tends to corrupt,” British historian Lord Acton famously wrote in 1887. That adage – as true about fame and privilege as it is about power – has been borne out by countless examples since and presently.  

Aharon, however, despite the new exalted status he had received, born of the special mitzvah entrusted to him, remained… Aharon.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Naso – Kosher Favoritism

To some, chumros, or stringencies beyond what halacha requires, are always laudable. But in the Vidui Rabbeinu Nissim, recited on Yom Kippur Katan, we confess, amid actual sins, that “What You declared pure I declared impure… what You permitted I forbade…” 

So what makes a chumra proper?

I suggest it’s the intent. If a chumra is motivated by love of Hashem, it is praiseworthy. If motivated by neurosis or by a “holier than thou” or other self-serving attitude, it is worthy only of repentance. 

The Gemara (Brachos 20b) recounts a conversation between Hashem and angels. The latter protest that, although Moshe declared that Hashem does not show nesias panim, special favor (Devarim 10:17), in Birchas Cohanim, in our parsha, it states Yisa Hashem panav eilecha – “May Hashem show you special favor…” (Bamidbar 6:26).

Hashem’s response: “How can I not show Klal Yisrael favor when, despite the requirement of satiation for reciting Birchas Hamazon, they do so even after eating a mere olive or egg’s volume?”

How does that address the complaint? And what right do we even have to say Birchas Hamazon if we’re not satiated? I think what is being conveyed is that Klal Yisrael, out of love for Hashem, considers itself satiated even with a meager portion of food – a “chumra,” so to speak, a venture beyond the norm – which in turn merits a parallel “beyond the norm” on Hashem’s part, in His showing us special favor. 

I wonder if that may be why, in the bracha the cohanim make before Birchas Cohanim, the word “bi’ahava,” “with love,” is appended. Could it be because love is what merits it and love is what it expresses?

And I wonder further if a hint to that word’s being added to the bracha lies in the unnecessary letter vav in the word emor (ibid 6:23), “Say,” that introduces Birchas Cohanim. For vav means something that bonds two things (Shemos 27:10) – and the letter itself, used throughout the Torah, meaning “and,” bonds the word before and the one after it. 

And Birchas Cohanim bespeaks a bond, a bond of love.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

Bechukosai – Embracing Simplicity

While there are various Midrashic comments on what “chukos” – the embrace of which leads to the overflowing blessings described at the start of the parsha – refers to, the simple meaning of the word is “ decrees”, i.e., laws that may not be consonant with, or may even defy, human reason.

The blessings describe a utopian world, and so there must be ultimate significance to their being dependent on our acceptance of such reason-defying laws.

And, indeed, the essence of dedication to the Divine lies in unquestioning obedience, in the recognition that Hashem’s directives must override our personal, philosophical or practical concerns. That was what Avraham was ready to accept at the akeida, and what his descendents accepted when they followed Moshe into a barren and unforgiving desert.

That unquestioning trust of Divine will is called temimus, “pure simplicity” – in the phrase’s most sublime sense.

As Rava told a heretic who ridiculed his self-harming alacrity: “We Jews act with simple purity, as it says [in Mishlei 11:3], ‘The simplicity [tumas] of the upright will guide them’. ”  (Shabbos 88b).

The Shem MiShmuel notes that the “seven weeks” that are counted from Pesach to Shavuos are pointedly called sheva Shabbasos temimos – “seven perfect weeks.” He sees in the word temimos a hint to the mindset they are meant to cultivate: one of temimus, the bending of our intellects and hearts to Divine will. And that is, in fact, central to what we celebrate at the denouement of sefiras ha’omer, Shavuos. 

Because, at Mattan Torah, which we celebrate on that holiday, our forebears’ unanimous declaration was: “Naaseh v’nishma” – “We will do and we will hear!” That is to say, we accept the Torah’s laws even amid a lack of “hearing,” of understanding.

Even the laws of the Torah that we feel we can understand, that seem entirely just and proper, are to be observed, in the end, because they are… laws of the Torah. So, even when we return a lost object or compensate someone for damage we have caused him, we do so, ultimately, not because it is “just” in our estimation but rather because Hashem has declared it so.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran