Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Korach – The Nature of Nature

My late friend and once-Staten Island Ferry chavrusa Yossie Hutler, zichrono livrachah, once posed an insightful question about parshas Korach.

“[In the] morning,” Moshe tells Korach and his entourage, Hashem will make His will known. And Rashi (Bamidbar, 16:5), quoting the Midrash (Tanchuma 5, Bamidbar Rabbah 18:7), has Moshe telling  those adversaries that “Hashem assigned limits to His world. If you are able to change morning to evening, so would you be able to change this [decree of Aharon and his sons as kohanim].” 

The Midrash strengthens its point by noting that the same root of bdl (“separated”) is used both regarding day and night at creation and regarding the Jewish people and Aharon as the kohein and progenitor of kohanim.

So the point Moshe made was that, just as nature cannot be changed, neither can Hashem’s choice of Aharon as kohein.

But, asked Yossie, isn’t that blatantly discordant with the final judgment of Korach, which was, of all things, a change of nature – the opening of the earth to swallow him and his people?

What occurred is that, as various Jewish thinkers (Rav Dessler prime among them) have explained, there is no such thing as “nature.” All there is is Hashem’s will. His will regarding some things is ongoing; we call the results nature. But, in the end, there is only His will.

In fact, the Midrash’s wording (“Hashem assigned limits…”) is pointed. It’s not that “nature” cannot change. It’s that Hashem’s will cannot be changed by humans. 

And so, the earth’s opening to swallow Korach and company was indeed no less “natural” than the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. It was simply Hashem’s will. And humans cannot change that will.

Which might be why the Midrash (cited by Rashi, 16:30) notes that the “mouth of the earth” that opened that day was created “during the six days of creation,” along with the rest of all that we like to call “nature.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Happy’s Happy, but Not Human

Happy the elephant isn’t a person.

That seeming truism was the official ruling of New York’s highest court last week, necessitated by a suit brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project aimed at freeing the pachyderm from prison – the effective description by the group of the Bronx Zoo.

The 5-2 decision by the state Court of Appeals ruled that “while no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion,” a writ of habeas corpus, a fundamental Constitutional right protecting against unlawful imprisonment, is intended to protect the liberty of human beings and does not apply to animals.

The two dissenting judges called Happy’s confinement “inherently unjust and inhumane” and “an affront to a civilized society.”

Judaism considers it forbidden to cause animals unnecessary pain, a prohibition called tzaar baalei chaim, “pain of living creatures.” At the same time, though, the Torah explicitly considers animals to be subject to the needs of humans. While it must be accomplished in as painless a way as possible, utilizing animals for work and even killing them for food or leather are fully sanctioned by the Jewish religious tradition.

Whether being confined to a zoo for the edification and admiration of humans constitutes “undue pain” is an open question. But my guess is that, assuming the confined animals are treated well, which generally is the case in modern zoos, there would be no problem in the eyes of Jewish law with keeping Happy in the Bronx. Presumably Happy is happy.

So the New York court, while it has no obligation to mirror Judaism’s take on anything, has essentially adopted the Jewish view of animals.

Reading of the case brought back a memory. Over my many years serving as spokesman for a national Orthodox Jewish group, Agudath Israel of America, I once received a call from the producer of a network television news program. I was naturally honored and straightened my tie before picking up the phone.

Dropping my voice a couple octaves to project the requisite gravitas, I asked how I might be of help. 

I imagined the caller would want the Jewish take on some pressing issue of the day, and was quickly and properly deflated by her question:

“Rabbi, what we’d like to get your take on is the question of whether pets go to heaven.”

“Pardon?” I objected.  She repeated herself, and I responded that I really didn’t think I wanted to participate in the planned program.

She persisted, though, and, eventually, having been given a day to think it over, I consented.  What I came to realize was that if the issue was really, as the producer claimed, so important to so many, there must be some reason.  And then I realized the reason.

Many of the most fundamental philosophical and moral issues of our time – indeed of any time – touch upon the special distinction of humanness.  That is why proponents of abortion on demand, which they choose to call “choice,” choose as well to call an unborn child a “pregnancy,” or, at most, a “fetus.”  Dehumanizing (used here in its most simple sense) a baby makes it easier to advocate for terminating him or her. 

Ethicist Peter Singer has gone a significant step further, making the case for the killing of already-born babies who are severely disabled.  He has written, pointedly, that infants are “neither rational nor self-conscious” and so “the principles that govern the wrongness of killing nonhuman animals… must apply here, too.”  Or, as he more bluntly puts it: “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.”  Professor Singer advocates as well the killing of the severely disabled and unconscious elderly.

In that mindset, I pondered, why not be accepting of intimate relations, beyond owner/pet comradeship? Wouldn’t objections to marital bonds between humans and “other animals” be a form of “speciesism”?

Indeed, years ago, a man testified before a Maine legislative committee that proponents of a ban on animal sexual abuse are “trying to force morality on a minority,” and asked a judge to allow his “significant other” – of the canine persuasion – to sit by his side during a court case.  The petitioner had been told that he needed special permission, he said, because, “my wife is not human.” 

As it happens, Professor Singer is supportive of jettisoning morality here too.  The only conceivable reason for considering human-animal intimate relations to be unworthy of societal sanction, he cogently observes, is the belief that human beings are inherently superior.  That, indeed, is the position of Judaism, and the professor rejects it summarily.  “We are,” he maintains, “animals.”

And so what I came to realize is that much indeed of import to the contemporary world in the end revolves around the difference between animals and humans.  It is a difference that not only keeps pets from meriting heaven, because they lack true free will and the divine mandate to utilize it, but also charges us humans to act as something above our physical, animal selves, including according special respect to other humans, including those who are very new or very old. 

And so, that was the point I tried to make when the producer and her entourage eventually shlepped their camera equipment to my office to film the segment. 

Some of my comments survived the editing process. “Heaven,” I said at one point, “is something one earns, one doesn’t just ‘go to’ it.”

“Animals tend to bond with their caregivers,” I added, “and that’s the way it should be. But that doesn’t erase the distinction between the animal and their caregiver.” And then, tipping my hat about how old I am, I said, “Timmy can go to heaven, but Lassie can’t.”

I hope viewers of the program were spurred to think about the qualitative difference between humans and animals, and the idea that humans can, by their choices, earn eternal reward.  Because it is a fundamental – in fact, the most fundamental – fact of life.

And these days, more trenchant than ever.

(c) 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shelach – The Importance of Feeling Unthreatened

The idea that the prohibition against lashon hora, “speech of evil,” includes speaking negatively about a thing, not just a person, is surprising.

But the sin of the meraglim, the scouts who were sent by Moshe Rabbeinu to spy out the land of Cna’an, who returned with a demoralizing report, is characterized as precisely that: slander of the Holy Land. The Torah describes the scouts’ sin as spreading dibah (Bamidbar 13:32), which Onkelos renders “shum bish,” or “a bad name.” 

And Rabbi Elazar ben Parta, in the Talmud, uses the scout narrative to emphasize the gravity of lashon hora in its more common usage:

“If one who defames the wood and rocks of Eretz Yisrael received so severe a punishment, then with regard to one who defames another person, all the more so will he be punished severely.” (Arachin, 15a)

Several of the meraglim’s names include words meaning animals. Might something about lashon hora be implied by that?

The most basic instinct of any animal is self-preservation. (Human beings are the only creatures that can choose, and have chosen, to die willingly for a higher cause.)

And the prime engine of self-preservation is fear. Which is what the meraglim felt, and instilled in the people, by describing the inhabitants of the land as, well, fearsome.

Perhaps lashon hora, too, has at its roots a misguided sense of self-preservation. Slandering another is often the result of feeling a threat – if not against one’s life, then in some less violent, more subtle way.

Which raises the possibility that cultivating one’s self-worth – immunizing oneself, so to speak, against feeling intimidated by others or seeing them as competitors – might be a worthy strategy for undermining the human tendency toward negative speech.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Woe Isn’t Us

The reflexive form of the word k’mis’onenim (“The people were mis’onenim [complaining] bitterly before Hashem” – Bamidbar 11:1) indicates that our ancestors were self-focused in their grumbling. They were mourning themselves, sorrowful (as per the Ramban, who cites the phrase ben oni, Beraishis 35:18) over their lot.

Entering the desolateness of the desert, they felt pangs of worry or fear.

But, aside from the construct of the word, there is its prefix, the k’, which indicates “like” or “as.”

Rav Chaim Vital understands that qualifier as conveying the fact that the complaint was not verbalized, but rather (perhaps this, too, indicated by the reflexive) internal, silent.

Another possibility occurs. Namely, that complaining, mourning, feeling sorry for one’s lot, as easy and common as it may be, is in conflict with the essence of a Jew.

Our purpose in life is to serve Hashem, and doing so goes hand in hand with simcha, joy – the opposite of aninus. As in Mizmor LeSoda that we recite daily, we are to “Worship Hashem in happiness; come into His presence with joy.” (Tehillim 100:2)

So to call Jews mis’onenim isn’t an option. If we feel sorry for ourselves and bemoan our lots, it is born of something extraneous to our essence. We can be K’mis’onenim” – like complainers. But the Jew in his essence is a makir tov, a discerner of blessings, an acceptor of his lot with joy, a bearer of a korban Todah.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Naso – No Small Wonder

A bracha we make several times daily has an etymological connection to the nazir, the laws for whom are included in the parshah. It lies in a word in the second pasuk of that section, the word used, uniquely here, to mean “pronounce” or “articulate.”

When a man or woman shall pronounce (yafli) a special vow of a nazir to separate themselves to Hashem…” (Bamidbar 6:3).

The word is yafli; and the bracha, Asher Yatzar, which is made after the elimination of bodily waste and which ends umafli la’asos, literally, “Who causes wonders to do,” but is usually translated “and acts wondrously” or “performs wonders.” 

The word hafla’ah is hard to crack. While peleh, its root, clearly means “wonder,” in one place (Makos 13b), it is interpreted to mean “flogging.”

The Zohar (3:126a) seems to take it to mean something similar to the word nazir itself – “to separate.” Chizkuni notes that it can mean two seeming opposites: “taking apart” and “building.”

The Gemara (Nazir 34a) quotes Rabi Tarfon as rendering it as “specifying.” 

It isn’t impossible to connect the various meanings with “articulate,” since speaking a sentence means stringing different words (like a series of lashings) together, building a thought (and, with words like “but” or “however,” dismantling the previously expressed thought). “Articulate” itself is from a Latin root meaning “separate.” And speaking, of course, is itself a wonder, exclusive to the human realm. Flogging is a series of individual, distinct strikes.

But what of mafli in Asher Yatzar? 

What occurs is that the wonder of digestion is much more than the simple separation of nutrients from waste. It involves a staggering amount of retrieving myriad substances – elements, minerals, chemicals, vitamins – from what we ingest and specifying them, i.e. directing them to where they are needed for their disparate purposes to benefit our bodies, thereby allowing our lives to proceed. Our food is “taken apart,” that is to say “broken down,” so that each component of our food can be utilized to “build” in its specific realm, to keep us alive.

Wonderful indeed.

© Rabbi Avi Shafran 2022

RNS Article about the Jerusalem Day Parade


The Jewish way to celebrate Jerusalem Day

We are enjoined by our Jewish faith not to goad or incite other peoples or religions. 

June 1, 2022

By Avi Shafran

 (RNS) — Residents of Israel and Gaza dodged a bullet on Sunday (May 29) — in fact a slew of bullets, and bombs and missiles.

Sunday was “Jerusalem Day,” an annual celebration that commemorates Israel’s capture of the Holy City during the 1967 Six-Day War. As in past years, it included a parade through the Holy City’s Arab Quarter, which this year had drawn fierce threats of terroristic attacks from Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that governs Gaza, which, had they been carried out, would have incurred retaliation from Israel.

Thankfully, the group proved to be only grumbling. As usual, some local clashes between marchers and Arab Quarter residents broke out but no large-scale violence erupted.

All the same, the parade was, as it always has been, misguided, dangerous and decidedly un-Jewish.

I am a Haredi Jew (often, and distastefully to me, referred to as “ultra” Orthodox), and I rejoice in the fact that Jerusalem is in Jewish hands. I rejoice that the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, where the ancient Jewish temples stood and toward which Jews worldwide have faced in prayer over millennia, is today accessible to all.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, under Ottoman rule and then the British mandate, Jewish worshippers at the wall risked assaults, and animal dung was regularly dumped there.

Between 1948 and 1967, when the city was under Jordanian control, half of the Old City’s 58 synagogues were demolished and the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was plundered and its tombstones used as paving stones.

Jews, needless to say, were denied access to the Western Wall.

For millennia Jews have prayed daily for their people’s return to the Promised Land and its spiritual center, Jerusalem. When the armies of three countries tried to remove Jews from the region for the second time in the Six-Day War, and were vanquished, we cried in joy.

Even having returned to our ancestral land, we are required to be sensitive to other faiths and peoples. We pray daily for the return of the central temple to the site where it originally stood. But that return, according to the Jewish religious tradition, is in God’s hands, not ours. Until the messiah arrives to usher in a new era of history — when, in Isaiah’s words, “a wolf and a lamb shall graze together” and global peace will reign — we are enjoined to not goad or incite other peoples or religions.

And so a baldly nationalistic march — especially through the Arab Quarter of the Old City — was no way to mark the happy fact that Jerusalem and the Western Wall are today open to people of all faiths. It was, simply put, a provocation.

The day before the march, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, one of the most revered leaders of the Haredi community, reportedly asked Haredi members of the Israeli Parliament if they truly “don’t understand that (the march) is unnecessary and dangerous.”

He also decried Jews’ visiting the Temple Mount itself, which, in 1967, Israel put under the administrative control of the Jordan-based Islamic trust known as the Waqf. Since then only Islamic worship has been permitted on the Mount, in order to preserve and promote peace.

At the time, Israel reasoned that to alter the religious character of the place, where the Dome of the Rock shrine — one of the holiest places in Islam — and the Al-Aqsa Mosque stand, would be a gross affront to the Muslim world. It was a decision born not of weakness but of wisdom, even if the peace it meant to foster remains an elusive entity.

Peace has been elusive for many reasons, including Arab states’ rejection, for many years, of Israel’s legitimacy. But there has been much progress in that area of late. Today, the main obstacles to peace are groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which are sworn to murder Israelis and destroy their country, and those Palestinians in the Israel-occupied West Bank who swoon to these groups’ hateful siren call.

But Israel only pushes peace further out of reach when it indulges Jewish nationalists by allowing incendiary actions that insult the feelings of Israel’s Arab residents and of all who sympathize with them. Like the Jerusalem Day parade.

Some will point to the scuffles that broke out as celebrants made their way into the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter, arguing that both sides threw invective and glass bottles at each other, requiring the intervention of Israeli police. The march itself, however, even if it had proceeded peacefully, was an unnecessary invitation for resentment.

And to what end? To assert Israeli sovereignty in the face of Arabs? That may reflect a militant nationalistic stance. But not a Jewish one.

Before the next Jerusalem Day, Israel should examine the true meaning of the event, which is to express our gratitude for being able to live and worship freely in Jerusalem. A truly Jewish Jerusalem Day would foster heartfelt gatherings in places where no one will be angered or affronted. Next year Israel should redirect its citizens’ feelings from provocative demonstrations to a Jewish celebration of a city whose name is rooted in the Hebrew word shalom, “peace.”

(Rabbi Avi Shafran, who serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization, writes widely in Jewish and general media. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Bamidbar – The Child Makes the Parent

The reference in the parshah (Bamidbar, 3:4) to the fact of Nadav and Avihu’s childlessness can be read as a simple explanation for why further generations of their lines are absent from the Torah’s text. But Abba Ḥanan, in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, sees it as telegraphing much more, that “A man who does not engage in procreation is liable to death” (Yevamos 64a).

There are various reasons given for the meaning of the “strange fire” that those two of Aharon’s sons brought on the altar in the desert: That they didn’t accord their father due respect (Yalkut Shimoni, 524:5); that they had decided a law themselves in the presence of their teacher (Rashi, Vayikra, 10:2); that they had drunk wine before entering the Mishkan (ibid); that they spoke uncouthly between themselves about the eventual deaths of Moshe and Aharon (Sanhedrin, 52a).

The implication of the Gemara in Yevamos, though, is that, had they married and had children, they would not have perished.

Intriguing is the Chasam Sofer’s suggestion in explanation of that fact. He writes that a person doesn’t fully relate to how he should conduct himself vis-à-vis his superiors until he has children.  Then, he feels what lack of proper honor, which a child naturally exhibits, is like, and recognizes the imperative of such honor. 

Had they had children, in other words, Nadav and Avihu would have been prevented from showing a lack of proper honor to Moshe and Aharon (and the Mishkan).

(Interestingly, our parshah also notes how even people who are biologically unable to have children can, in effect have them – by undertaking their tutelage. “Whoever teaches the Torah to the son of his fellow man is considered as if he had begotten him” (Rashi, Bamidbar 3:1, quoting Sanhedrin 19b).

And so, in addition to all the other reasons for seeing children as blessings – that having them is a mitzvah, that they hasten Mashiach, that they provide genealogical continuity, that they offer many joys, that they can eventually care for their elders, we might add one more: 

That, even as we help them grow, they do the same for us.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Bechukosai – To Know What We Don’t

It would be silly to claim a “favorite” Rashi, but one comment made in rare places, including in this week’s parshah, by the author of perfectly succinct yet brilliant glosses to not only Tanach but the entire Talmud Bavli deserves special mention – and consideration.

Noting the ungrammatical use of the word “erkecha,” where “erech” would seem to be the logical form, Rashi (Vayikra 27:3) informs the reader that he “doesn’t know” the reason for the structure of the word.

“I don’t know” is a phrase as well-deserved as it is rare these days, when self-assuredness seems all too often to stand in for self-respect, when opinions are routinely proffered as unassailable fact, when people are permitted – even expected – to state without doubt what they cannot possibly know to be true (and, in some cases, like in contemporary politics, what clearly isn’t).

There is, of course, nothing wrong with opinions (for some of us, our stock in trade), but Rashi’s modest example is one we would be wise to more often emulate.   As the Gemara puts it: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’” (Berachos, 4a).

Some of us “know,” for example, that one political party is better for the country; others, that that the other one is; some “know” that stricter limits on abortion are proper; others “know” that they are a danger. Some “know” that the p’sukim of ma’aseh beraishis mean one thing.  Others, that they mean something else. We think a whole lot of things, but know a good many less.

To be sure, there are verities. That we humans possess a spark of the Divinity that created us, for instance.  That we have free will.  That life is precious.  That our actions have consequences. 

For Jews, there are – or should be – other certainties, among them that we have been divinely chosen to set an example for the wider world, that our carefully-preserved history includes at its apogee Hashem’s bequeathal of His Torah to us (which we will soon be celebrating again), that our mission and our peoplehood are sacred.

But there are many smaller things, no end of them in fact, that we do not know, at least not with the certainty of those essential convictions.  And so, as we consider political or social or personal issues, even if we think we have a pretty good idea of just what’s what, it’s always a good idea to pause to remember what Rashi knew, and admitted he didn’t.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Incident at Frankfurt

Lufthansa, Germany’s largest airline, ended up with sauerkraut on its corporate face recently, after more than 120 visibly Jewish men and women in Frankfurt’s airport on May 4 were banned from boarding their connecting flights. 

Most of the Jewish passengers were heading to Hungary, to visit the burial placeof a revered rabbi, Reb Shayeleh Kerestirer, on the anniversary of his death. They had to scramble to get on flights with other airlines.

In a statement shortly after the incident, the airline claimed that the travelers had been blocked from the flights because, on their earlier flight from New York, they had refused requests to honor the airline’s medical mask requirement. 

Numerous passengers, however, told news outlets that they and the vast majority of Jewish travelers had heeded the mask mandate and had been unfairly grouped together and punished because of a small number of rule-violators.

Holding anyone who happened to look Jewish accountable for the infraction of a few was, obviously, well… Problematik.

Exacerbating things was one of several videos disseminated by Dan’s Deals, an air travel website, that went viral schnell. In it, after an irate passenger heatedly protested the collective punishment, a Lufthansa supervisor blurted out that it had been “Jewish people who were the mess, who made the problems.”

Lufthansa found itself in quite a Kuddlemuddle.

Many were upset by the accounts and videos. Agudath Israel executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel wrote a letter to Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr the following Monday asking that he research the “disturbing accounts” about the flight, which indicated that “People were being punished simply because they shared ethnicity and religion with the alleged rule violators.”

The next day, Lufthansa said that it “regrets the circumstances surrounding the decision to exclude the affected passengers from the flight.” “We apologize to all the passengers unable to travel on this flight,” the airline added, “not only for the inconvenience, but also for the offense caused and personal impact.”

“What transpired,” it continued, “is not consistent with Lufthansa’s policies or values. We have zero tolerance for racism, antisemitism and discrimination of any type.

“We will be engaging with the affected passengers to better understand their concerns and openly discuss how we may improve our customer service.”

While an apology was certainly warranted, many were less-than-impressed with this one. Yad Vashem director Dani Dayan, the ADL and the Agudah were among the disappointed.

They, variously, made the points that regretting the “circumstances surrounding the decision” was not the same as regretting the decision; that no reference was made to the remark about how “Jewish people… were the mess”; that passengers’ “concerns” were blatantly obvious, namely, that they were targeted for mistreatment only because they are Jews; and that focus should be trained not on “how [Lufthansa] may improve its customer service” but rather on the egregious nature of what transpired and on steps Lufthansa will take to make sure that such incidents never occur again.

In the wake of those complaints, on the 11th, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr personally apologized for the incident in a video call to the rabbi of Berlin, Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal.

“Antisemitism has no place in Lufthansa,” Mr. Spohr told the rabbi. “What happened should not have happened. Our company represents a connection between people, cultures, and nations. Openness and tolerance are the cornerstones and there is no room for antisemitism.”

Rabbi Teichtal subsequently told Dan’s Deals that the CEO’s apology sounded genuine and that he was told that the employees involved in the incident have been suspended, pending an investigation.

There is much to unpack from the incident. Firstly, despite the airline workers’ indefensible actions, if in fact there were any passengers who were asked to mask and refused, they were not only wrong but the ultimate cause of what all the other affected passengers had to endure.

Secondly, is angrily badgering a person, like what evoked the “Jewish people who were the mess” comment, the Jewish way to deal with even an unconscionable decision? Would the Chofetz Chaim have indignantly berated an airline employee? Yes, the indignation brought forth an ugly response. But scratch many a person enough (let aside a German) and you’ll strike antisemitic sentiments. But is such scratching a mitzvah? Or proper?

Thirdly, and more happily, I was struck by a snippet of one video taken at the time. It was of a group of heavily-armed German police standing at the ready. From somewhere in the crowd of irate passengers flew a crude accusation: “Nazis!”

The policeman in charge positively simmered and then stepped forward. “Who was it?” he asked. And then, when there was no response, he raised his voice: “WHO WAS IT? WHO SAID THAT?”

No one came forward to claim the slur.

But the officer clearly considered it deeply insulting. 

(c) 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Behar – Don’t Serve Servants

“They are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt” (Vayikra 25:55).

Although the Talmud’s comment on the phrase “They are My servants” – “but not the servants of servants” (Bava Kamma 116b) – has a technical, halachic meaning, it also hints at a broader one.

In other words, not only does it say that a Jew cannot own another Jew, it also signals that Jews are not to indenture themselves to causes other than the Jewish mandate. Not to a political party, social cause or personality. A Jew’s exclusive ultimate role is to be a servant of Hashem.

Because the freedom we were divinely granted from Egyptian bondage was not what many consider “freedom” – libertinism, the loss of all fetters. It was a passage from being “servants to servants” – to Egyptians and Egyptian mores – to becoming servants of Hashem. As Moshe, in Hashem’s name, ordered Pharaoh: “Let my people go so that they may serve Me” (Shemos 9:1).  

The Hebrew word for freedom, cherus, the Mishna (Avos, 6:2) notes, can be vowelled to render charus, “etched,” as the Aseres Hadibros were on the luchos.  “The only free person,” the Mishna concludes, “is the one immersed in Torah.”

True freedom doesn’t mean being retired and moneyed, lying on a beach with sunshine on one’s face and a cold beer within reach, without a care or beckoning task. 

In the words of Iyov, “Man is born to toil” (5:7).  True freedom, counterintuitively, comes from hard work.  Applying ourselves to a higher purpose liberates us from the limitations of our inner Egypts, and is what can bring true meaning to our lives.

Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

“I have on my table a violin string. It is free to move in any direction I like. If I twist one end, it responds; it is free.

“But it is not free to sing. So I take it and fix it into my violin. I bind it, and when it is bound, it is free for the first time to sing.”

A timely metaphor, as we progress from Pesach, the holiday of our release from bondage, to Shavuos, the day we entered servitude to the Divine. And when, like on Pesach, we will sing the words of Hallel.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran