Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Parshas Vayeira – The Will IS the Way

Inordinate attention is afforded the menu that Avraham Avinu offered the angels disguised as nomads whom he welcomed to his home: Water, fine-flour bread, cream and milk; and, according to the Gemara, the tongues of three calves, served with mustard (Bava Metzia, 86b). 

And yet, it was all a futile feast, as angels don’t eat, and the visitors only pretended to do so (teaching us the Talmudic equivalent of “When in Rome…” [ibid]).

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin points out that a similarly ineffectual effort ends the parsha too: The Akeidah, where Yitzchak is bound in preparation for his sacrifice at the hand of his father — something that not only didn’t take place but was never even considered by Hashem (Taanis 4a).

The bookend narratives, says Rav Zevin, teach us that it is the will that matters most. To be sure, actions are indispensable. But the intention motivating our behavior is what gives it its greatest value.

And, what’s more, as Rav Yitzchak Hutner notes, when the goal we imagine is not reached, the value of the will is undiminished. For we invoke and rely upon the merit of the Akeidah to this day, despite the fact that its intent, blessedly, never came to fruition.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Letter in the Wall Street Journal

A letter I wrote to the Wall St. Journal was published today, and is here.

It reads as follows:

Mr. Peretz Takes a Swipe at Orthodox Jews
In reviewing a book about the ‘othering’ of Jews, no less.
Oct. 10, 2021 3:04 pm ET

Irony has seldom been more glaring than in Martin Peretz’s claim, in his review of Dara Horn’s “People Love Dead Jews” (Bookshelf, Oct. 5), that “many of the ultraorthodox, the very pious, the canonical don’t think of me and mine as brothers and certainly don’t think of Jewish women like Ms. Horn as sisters.”

How dolefully humorous that my brother, Mr. Peretz, in reviewing a book by my sister, Ms. Horn, about how much of the world treats Jews as “others,” not only misinforms readers but engages in a particularly ugly “othering” of fellow Jews, those of us who hew to our—his, Ms. Horn’s and my—mutual religious heritage.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Agudath Israel of America
New York

Parshas Lech Lecha – The Meaning of Magein

“I am a shield for you,” is the common translation of what Hashem told Avram after the war of the kings (Beraishis 15:1). And Rashi, referencing the Midrash (Midrash Rabbah, 44:4), explains that the assurance was that Avram would not be punished for having killed people during the war in which he rescued his nephew Lot.

But the word magein, as that Midrash makes clear (paraphrasing it as “chinam”), does not mean “shield” at all, but rather “for free.” It is a cognate of the Aramaic word for “without cost,” as in assia dimagein bimagein magein shaveh — “A doctor who heals for nothing is worth nothing” (Bava Kamma, 85a). The intention being that Avram has received a “free pass,” so to speak, for his actions; he has incurred no “debt” for what he had to do during the war. Any deaths he caused will take no toll on his heavenly account.

Which might be understood as a middah kineged middah, a befitting Divine response of chessed (the suppression of din, strict justice, the offering of something unearned) to the chessed that is Avraham’s middah, his defining characteristic.

Avraham helps others “for free”; Hashem exempts him from punishment “for free.”

The first brachah of the Amidah, “Avos,” mentions the three Jewish forefathers, but concludes “Magein Avraham.” And, fittingly with the above, the brachah references zocher chasdei avos, “Who remembers the chessed-acts of the forefathers.”

Avos is the only one of the Amidah’s brachos where concentrated intent is technically required even post-facto. And so, the meaning of “magein” matters. The word can indeed, of course, mean “shield.” But, perhaps, in the context of how it relates to Avraham, conceiving of it as meaning “treating with chessed” might be more to the point.

And it would thus be an understandable introduction to tefillah. We ask for many things throughout the Amidah. But we have to realize that olam chessed yibaneh (Tehillim 89:3), that whatever we receive, in the end, if only because we were given life “for free” to begin with, comes from Divine suppression of din.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Noach – Our (Temporarily) Un-Whole World

The word “toldos” introducing the “account” of Noach is spelled in a subtly different way than its first appearance in parshas Beraishis, where “eleh toldos hashamayim vi’ha’aretz” (Beraishis 2:4) concludes the account of the creation of the world. There, in its first usage, it is written malei, “full,” with two vavs, one after the tav and one after the daled.

Gershon Zev (William) Braude was a respected Jewish studies scholar who befriended me, a much younger man, when my family and I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, from, roughly, the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s.

He once asserted that there are 13 places in Tanach where the word toldos is used. Only in two of those places, he averred, is the word written malei: The first usage, in parshas Beraishis, and at the very end of sefer Rus (4:18), where the genealogy leading to the birth of David, the progenitor of mashiach, is recounted.

Thus, Gershon Zev Braude suggested, “wholeness,” or perfection of human history, existed at the creation of the world and will emerge again with the arrival of mashiach.

In the interim, though, as we all vividly sense, the world remains unfulfilled, imperfect, un-whole.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Beraishis – J’accuse, J’apprécie

Sometimes an unspoken “thank you” can be hidden within a sentence, even, perhaps, within an accusation.

Famously, Resh Lakish (Shabbos 87a) sees in Hashem’s reference to the luchos that Moshe shattered as he descended Har Sinai — asher shibarta, “that you broke” (Shemos 34:1) — a hint of approval for the act, by expanding the word asher, “that,” to y’yasher kochacha: “may your strength be true.” (Presumably, the exegesis is based on the fact that the simple prefix-letter shin could have stood in for the word asher.)

The same word asher (again, unnecessarily) occurs in a pivotal statement by Adam in parshas Beraishis. Accused by Hashem of eating from the forbidden tree, the first man blames his wife, saying, “The woman whom You gave to be with me gave me from the tree” (Beraishis 3:12). The word translated “whom” in that pasuk is asher.

Could there be some subtle acknowledgment of rightness, like Hashem’s of Moshe’s act, in Adam’s blaming of Chava? It’s interesting that, immediately after the punishments for the sin are recorded, Adam gives his wife a name, Chava, that reflects appreciation: “because she has become the mother of all life” (Beraishis 3:20).

Adam, moreover, for his blaming reaction, is called a kafui tova, “one who covers over a good thing” (Avoda Zara 5b).  But “covering over” a good implies knowledge that it is indeed good. 

There are indeed times when an assignment of blame is wrapped around a hidden kernel of valuing the blamed. A good amount of antisemitism reflects that fact. Some who accuse “the Jews” of nefarious plottings harbor an inner realization that Jews are in fact special. A child might rail against his mother for her cruelty in not giving him the treat he wants, but hidden in his anger — he wouldn’t demonstrate it against a stranger, after all —  is the recognition that she is… his mother, the one who loves him dearly.

Might that be true, too, in interpersonal relations? Might Adam have, amid his blaming of Chava, been acknowledging the immeasurable gift that she was to him? And might some of those who lob complaints against us be subtly communicating appreciation?

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Rabbi Amnon’s Tongue

A frisson of fright is sent up the spine of every sensitive Jew when Unesaneh Tokef is intoned on the Yomim Nora’im. Because of the image it conjures of the Dayan uMochiach, the One “Who judges and proves and knows and bears witness; Who writes and seals, counts and calculates, Who remembers all that was forgotten,” opening the Sefer Hazichronos in which “the signature of every man” is inscribed and which “will read itself.”

And because of the scene it paints of the“great shofar” sounding, followed by a “quiet, faint voice”; as the angels themselves are seized by “a trembling and terror” as they declare: “Behold, it is the Day of Judgment.”

The shudder is intensified by the tefillah’s soul-piercing reminder about the coming year—“who will live and who will die… who will be undisturbed, and who in turmoil,” who “will be laid low, and who raised high.”

And by the haunting melody to which it is traditionally sung.

And, finally, by our recollection of the tradition we have of the tefillah’s origin.
A certain Rabbi Amnon, who lived in the 11th century, the account goes, was pressured by the Archbishop of Mainz to convert to Christianity. Rabbi Amnon refused repeatedly, but on one occasion he asked for three days’ time to consider the offer, a stalling tactic he immediately regretted, as he realized he had given the priest hope that his Jewish subject might abandon his ancestral faith.

When Rabbi Amnon didn’t visit the clergyman at the end of the three days, he was forcibly taken to him and again refused the demand of the priest, who had Rabbi Amnon’s fingers and toes amputated one by one, pausing before each drop of the sword to allow the Jew to change his mind. He didn’t, and was returned to his home, along with his amputated limbs.

On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried, along with his body parts, into the shul, and, before Kedushah, asked the chazan to pause. The silence was then broken by the tortured rav’s intonation of Unesaneh Tokef, after which he died.

Several days later, the leader of the Mainz Jewish community, Kalonymus ben Meshulam (who would later perish in the Worms Massacre), had a dream in which Rabbi Amnon taught him the words of the tefillah.

The account is attributed to the famous 13th century halachic work Ohr Zarua, written by Rav Yitzchok ben Moshe of Vienna. Reading the actual text one year led me to a detail I hadn’t realized before.

When Rabbi Amnon was brought before the archbishop, the rav told the clergyman that he wanted to be punished—not for refusing the Christian’s urging to convert but rather for giving the impression that he had even considered such a thing. “Cut out my tongue,” he told the archbishop. The clergyman, however, refused that request. He saw Rabbi Amnon’s sin as his refusal to come as he had promised, hence he chose his own punishment for the rav, the one that was meted out.

And so the priest, while he cruelly and grievously tortured the Jew, left his victim’s tongue in place.

“The voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esav,” said Yitzchak Avinu (Bereishis, 27:22). The use of weaponry, held by hands, is the province of Esav. Yaakov’s power lies in his tongue—in his words, his prayers.

There, I realized, was a point I had always missed. Rabbi Amnon, denied the excision of his tongue he had requested, went on to use it well—to compose the Unesaneh Tokef that marks a most poignant moment in the Musafim of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The part of his body he regretted having misused he ended up using powerfully, inspiring countless Jews over the generations since—to, as per the tefillah’s final declaration, use their own words, along with teshuvah and tzedakah, to be ma’avir any ro’a hagezeirah.

Gmar chasimah tovah.

Parshas Haazinu — Not Bad but Best

A man once visited the saintly Chafetz Chaim and the sage asked him how things were going for him. The visitor responded, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt if they were a bit better.”

“How can you know it wouldn’t hurt?” was the Chafetz Chaim’s immediate response. “Hashem knows what is best for you better than you do. And whether or not you think he has given you the best for you, He has.” 

That idea is one of the explanations of “The Rock, perfect is His work; all His paths are justice” (Devarim 32:4).

There are things entirely unknown to us — “more things in heaven and Earth” as Shakespeare had Hamlet tell Horatio, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Sometimes adversity is punishment in this world for our benefit in the next; sometimes it is a temporary pain that will lead to a greater gain; sometimes it is the yield of mystical calculi involving previous histories of our souls.

But it is always, whether we think it so or not, for our betterment.

The Chafetz Chaim was known to tell people not to employ the word “bad” about their travails, to opt instead for the word “bitter.”

Because, he explained, medicine is often bitter, but it’s not bad; it is best. 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Driving Like It’s Rosh Hashanah

Some Jews attend shul only on the Yamim Nora’aim or for a yahrtzeit. They “compartmentalize” their Judaism. It’s called on only for special occasions. And yet, as always, there’s more to be gained by not looking at others but rather inward. Our Orthodox world, after all, “knows from” compartmentalization too.

A similar compartmentalization is evident in a more observant Jew who, while he would never dream of eating food lacking a good hechsher, might nevertheless act in his business dealings, or his home life, or behind the wheel in less Torah-observant ways.

It seems part of the human condition to, while knowing Hashem and His Torah are real, relegate their presence to one’s “religious” life, not one’s mundane day-to-day living.

Some of us don’t always pause and think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or pronounce every word clearly and distinctly). We allow our observances and davening to sometimes fade into rote. I’m writing here to myself, but some readers may be able to relate.

Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Days of Repentance, is suffused with the concept of Malchus, “Kingship.” The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and the concept of malchiyus is prominent in the days’ Mussaf tefillah. What, though, has kingship to do with repentance?

By definition, a king has a kingdom, over which he exerts his rules. There is little escaping even a mortal monarch’s reach, and none of his subjects dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case of not a king but the King.

Kingship and compartmentalization are diametric, incompatible ideas. If Hashem is to be our Ruler, then there are no places and no times when He can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is our yearly opportunity to try to bring our lives more in line with that ideal. To better comprehend, in other words, that Hashem is as manifest when we are sitting behind a desk, driving, cooking or sending kids off to school as He is when we are reciting Shemoneh Esrei, as present on a nondescript December morning as He is during the Yamim Nora’im.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayeilech

Prepared to Not Progress

Children brought to shul need to be controlled by their parents, of course. They mustn’t be permitted to disturb those gathered there to daven. But, at least from an age when they can be effectively controlled, they should be brought.

Ah, but won’t controlling them perforce prevent their parents from focusing fully on their tefillos?

Too bad. That’s part of a parent’s job, being hindered.

The mitzvah of Hakhel, described in parshas Vayeilech, entails, in the time of the Beis HaMidkash, the gathering, during the first year of the Shmitta cycle, on the first day of chol hamoed Sukkos, of all the nation’s “men, women and children” (Devarim 31:12).

The men, Rashi quotes Massechta Chagiga (3a), in order to study (from the portions of the Torah the king reads); the women, to absorb the words; and the children… “to give reward to those who brought them.”

Seems rather circular. Bring them because it’s a mitzvah to bring them?

It is said in the name of R’ Nosson Adler (the first rebbe of the Chasam Sofer), and also of the Baal Shem Tov, that the meaning of the Gemara is that the parents’ reward is for bringing their children even though controlling them makes their fathers’ and mothers’ learning and listening difficult.

Chinuch, training children, in other words, is important enough to require parents’ discomfiture and loss of personal, even spiritual, opportunity.

The Amora R’ Yochanan (Chagigah 15b) said, based on a pasuk in Malachi, that only if a rebbe is similar to an angel of Hashem should one “seek Torah from his mouth.”

R’ Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz, the “Hafla’ah” (and, interestingly, another rebbe of the Chasam Sofer), suggests that, since angels are described (Zecharia 3:7) as “omdim,” “standers,” implying changelessness, R’ Yochanan means to say that a rebbe has to be prepared to not progress personally, if that is the toll of his dedication to his students.

And parents, of course, are the ultimate rabbaim, the most influential molders of their children. They must be prepared to be hindered in their personal progress for the sake of their young.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran