Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Parshas Bo – Choosing a Channel

Since free will is the fundamental element of the human being that places him in a realm apart from the rest of Creation, the question of how Hashem could “harden the heart” of Par’oh (e.g. Shemos 9:12) is an obvious one. 

The Rambam’s approach, echoing Resh Lakish in the Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 13:3), is that the king’s own freely chosen initial actions robbed him of his free will, like, one might say, a drug addict’s choice to use heroin might affect his ability to choose to shun it thereafter. The hardening of Par’oh’s heart only began after several plagues.

The Ramban’s and Sforno’s approach is that, on the contrary, the heart-hardening actually gave Par’oh free will. It was but a counterbalance to the will-sapping fear of the plagues. The divine steeling of his resolve was thus a corrective measure, allowing him to exercise his free-willed decision to refuse Moshe and Aharon’s demand. 

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin offers an original approach. What the Torah’s statement that Hashem hardened Par’oh’s heart means, says Rav Zevin, that he gave Par’oh an enhanced ability to be stubborn. Like every middah, talent and ability, obstinacy can be channeled toward good or bad (See Rav Ashi’s statement in Shabbos 156a about one born under the influence of Ma’adim: “[He will be] either a bloodletter, or a thief, or a shochet or a mohel.”)

Klal Yisrael, after all, is obstinate, too, an am kshei oref. Obstinacy’s import lies in what one does with it.

So Par’oh’s use of his Hashem-given special stubbornness against Moshe and Aharon and Klal Yisrael was… his choice.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vo’eira – Nobody Will Get Stoned

Slight divergences between the Torah’s words or phrases and Targum Onkelos’ rendering of them are often laden with meaning.

One such seemingly minor change is in the Targum’s translation of Moshe’s words: “Were we to slaughter the deity of Mitzrayim in their sight, will they not stone us?”

Moshe, of course, was replying to Par’oh’s suggestion that, if the nation’s Jews needed to have a festive gathering, they could hold it within Egypt’s borders. Moshe responded that, since animal sacrifices would be part of the celebration, and Egyptians worshiped sheep, the suggestion was a non-starter.

The Targum renders “will they not stone us?” as “will they will not say to stone us?”

Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, zt”l, in Mei Marom, observes that Par’oh could certainly have posted soldiers to protect the Jews celebrating in Egypt. And so Moshe couldn’t really have expressed a fear of being attacked. He was expressing instead a refusal to get people upset.

How much there is to learn from this about middos, Rav Charlop muses. “Even when it comes to the greatest mitzvah, one should not do it in a way that causes others pain, even if there are no real repercussions.”

Obviously, there are mitzvos that might in themselves upset others; they must be performed all the same. But when a mitzvah or minhag might cause pain or outrage to some – kapparos in some public places is an example that comes to my mind – concern for the feelings of others are not something to be ignored.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Shemos – Best-Laid Plans

The account of Moshe’s being placed in the river, discovered by bas Par’oh and raised in royal surroundings would seem to be of no import regarding the main narrative of Shemos – Moshe’s killing the Mitzri, fleeing as a result to Midian and being charged by Hashem with his mission.

Ibn Ezra, though, suggests that it is very much part of the larger story. He writes that “Perhaps Hashem arranged things so that Moshe would grow up in a royal house and his spirit would thereby be exalted” and he would “not possess a base spirit used to being in the house of slaves.”

That, he continues, was necessary for Moshe to be able to kill the Mitzri and intercede to help Yisro’s daughters (and, I might also suggest, to be able to receive nevu’ah, which requires a state of contentment). 

Which makes for a delicious irony: Par’oh’s decree to kill baby boys is what required baby Moshe to be placed in the river, which resulted in his being raised as a royal, which allowed him to become the agent of Klal Yisrael’s geulah, the very thing Par’oh had sought to undermine. 

“Many thoughts are in a man’s heart, but it is Hashem’s plan that will persevere” (Mishlei 19:21). It has been said that the intent of that pasuk is that those very thoughts of man can be the vehicle for the fruition of Hashem’s plan.

We see that not only in Par’oh’s ultimately self-undermining decree but in the narrative that ended Sefer Beraishis. As Yosef reassured his brothers about their plotting against him, which resulted in his elevation in Mitzrayim and his becoming the provider of food to the the nation and his family: “Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] Hashem designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive.”

We read these parshios after Chanukah, on the path to the next Jewish holiday, Purim. There couldn’t be anything more Purim-centric than the irony of how best-laid plans can themselves bring about the opposite of the plotters’s wish: “Hashem’s plan.”

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayechi – In Praise of Diaspora

Eretz Yisrael is the desideratum to which the Torah’s entire narrative leads. 

From Hashem’s promising the Land to Avraham’s descendants, to our ancestors’ exodus from Mitzrayim and years of wandering in the desert, the path of the Torah’s account leads inexorably to the Land.

Even the Torah’s description of the universe’s creation, as Rashi expounds in his very first comment in parshas Beraishis, is intended to establish that Eretz Yisrael is ours. 

And yet…

Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin (Pri Tzaddik, Vayechi) notes that the first word in our parsha indicates that Yaakov’s true “living” took place during his final 17 years in Mitzrayim, after all the challenges he had lived through. Now he was free to attain his spiritual goals. In Egypt.

Similarly, he continues, the main expansion of Torah Shebe’al Peh took place… in Bavel

Har Sinai, too, is not in Eretz Yisrael.

“In every generation,” writes Rav Tzadok, “souls decline.” Yet “we see what happened to the Jewish people especially when they were in exile… In exile they arrived to the exalted levels of holiness, because this is the will of Hashem.”

And he cites Rav Simcha Bunim of P’shischa as having said that “even though the souls of each generation progressively decline, the essence of the heart (hanekudah shebilev) becomes progressively purified and rarified (nitaheres umizdacheches yoser) in each successive generation.”

I don’t claim to know what those phrases truly mean. But that they mean something can’t be denied.

Why Jews living and developing in places other than their ancestral home is a vital part of Hashem’s plan is not something we can fathom. That fact, Rav Tzadok explains, is symbolized by the parsha’s being sasum, “closed off,” with no space before it. Spaces in the Torah indicate opportunity to absorb and understand. There can be no understanding of the need for galus.

But the need for Torah to develop outside of the Jewish homeland is clearly established, even if inscrutable. Galus and giluy (revelation), after all, share the same root letters.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayigash – No Fair

Imagine the emotions of Yosef’s brothers at the start of the parsha.

They have been grievously treated by Tzafnas Pa’ene’ach, the Egyptian king’s viceroy, who accused them falsely of being spies, then insisted that they bring their youngest brother Binyamin to him from Cna’an, even after being informed of how their father would be terribly pained to part with the boy. And when they give in and manage to convince Yaakov to let them show Binyamin to the viceroy, and bring him to Egypt, they witness their young brother being accused falsely of stealing the viceroy’s prized divination-goblet.

And when they offer to pay for the non-crime with their own imprisonment, the viceroy insists that only Binyamin be imprisoned and that they go back home, where their father is awaiting the return of all of them – especially Binyamin.

It’s been remarked that there is no word in Hebrew for “fair,” in the sense of an experience being comprehensible as just. There is mishpat, or judgment; and tzedek, which is rightness; and hogen, implying propriety. But even those words are limited to technical human interactions. 

“Fair,” in the sense of life making sense, isn’t a Jewish concept. An Israeli expressing exasperation over a happening in his life that seems arbitrary or unjustifiable would thus be limited in expressing himself and say “Zeh lo fair!”

And if ever there were human beings justified in feeling that what has happened to them was unfair, they were Yosef’s brothers.

But they learned soon enough that what they saw as unfairness was simply the result of their being like the proverbial blind men palpating the elephant. They were perceiving only part of a larger picture.

A picture that, in an instant, became clear to them, with the viceroy’s two words: “I am Yosef.”

We are seldom shown, as Yosef’s brothers were, why the things that make us say “no fair!” are in fact, well, fair. But the equivalent of “I am Yosef” throughout  our lives exists, even if we cannot recognize it. And in moments of exasperation at life’s unfairness, we should remember that.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Miketz – Second Time Around

Yosef, as an Egyptian viceroy, is so emotionally conflicted as he maltreats his brothers, who don’t recognize him, he has to leave the room to cry (Beraishis, 42:24).

Why he felt he had to persist in his protracted ruse to get his brothers to bring him the youngest of them, Binyamin, his only full brother, why he needed to threaten to imprison his young sibling, is fairly obvious.

To reach the goal of a true reconciliation with the brothers who plotted against, and then sold, him years earlier, Yosef had to ascertain if his brothers had truly repented of their past treatment of him. That would be evident if they now were prepared to protect a younger half-brother – one from the same mother, Rachel, who bore him – at whatever cost.

They passed the test, standing up to the viceroy and showing their readiness to do whatever might be necessary to return Binyamin to his father Yaakov.

The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah, 2:1) famously writes:

“What is considered complete repentance? When a person confronts the same situation in which he sinned and has the potential to commit [the sin again] but nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it… not because of fear or a lack of strength.”

In that halacha, the Rambam is codifying what Rav Yehudah says in Yoma, 86b. But neither the Gemara there nor the Rambam indicates the ultimate source in the Torah of that idea.

I suspect it is the account of Yosef and his repentant brothers.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeishev – Never Say Die

He refused.

That is the meaning of the word vayima’en, a word used twice in the story of Yosef in this parsha, once to describe a refusal by Yaakov Avinu, the second to describe one by Yosef.

Mourning his missing and presumed killed son for many days, the Torah recounts, Yaakov refused to be comforted (Beraishis 37:35): Vayima’en lihisnachem.

And then, when Yosef, serving as the second-in-command of the house of the Egyptian notable Potifar (ibid, 39:8), is seduced by his master’s wife, he refuses her: Vayima’en, again.

I haven’t been successful in tracking down the source of a suggestion I heard several years ago, but offer it all the same.

It was Yaakov’s refusal to accept that Yosef was no longer alive that enabled Yosef to refuse Mrs. Potifar’s blandishments. The first vayima’en gave power to the second one. It was, in other words, the merit of Yaakov’s love for, and dedication to, his son that empowered that son to overcome a great moral challenge (which he came close to failing, hinted at by the wavering shalsheles with which his vayima’en is chanted).

The lesson being that when we refuse to give up on someone who seems hopelessly “gone” – in whatever way – our very refusal can serve as a spiritual merit for that person, a long-distance and unknown-to-him assistance to him in dealing with adversity.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran