Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Ha’azinu – The Secret, Unveiled

Although I appreciate most humor, even jokes about Jews, I have always found comedian Alan King’s wry summary of Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” profoundly unfunny.

Not that we Jews don’t deserve a bit of mockery for our… enthusiasm… regarding things culinary. But the “They tried to kill us” introduction is too painfully true to be even part of a bon mot. Whether the “they” tried to kill us spiritually or physically, from ancient times in Egypt and Babylonia and Persia and Greece and the Roman Empire and the Crusades to more recent history including the Holocaust and Soviet Communism, there have been just so many they’s.

Mark Twain famously observed in 1898 – even before the the USSR and the Holocaust – that “Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of…

“He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.

“The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

The secret is Hashem, of course, and the merit of our forefathers. And our eternal survival is encapsulated in the parsha, in the words “I will exhaust my arrows” (Devarim 32:23). Which the Midrash, cited by Rashi, expands upon: “My arrows will come to an end but they [Klal Yisrael] will not.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayeilech – No, No, No, It Ain’t Me

A time will come, the Torah warns, when Hashem, as a result of Klal Yisrael’s actions, will seem to “abandon them and hide My countenance from them” and “many evils and troubles will befall them” (Devarim 31:17).

And “on that day,” the people will say: “Surely it is because Hashem is not in our midst that these evils have found us” (ibid).

That common translation, however, isn’t literal. What the pasuk really says is “because my Hashem is not in my midst that these evils have found me.”

The straightforward understanding of that expression of anguish is that Hashem’s “hidden face” will cause the Jewish people to doubt His love for them. The singular possessives and object would then simply be personifications of a collective feeling of abandonment.

But the use of the singular may point to a source of behavior that can lead to the “many evils and troubles,” a singularly personal attitude: Jewish individuals – as individuals – imagining that Hashem, although He is “my Hashem,” isn’t truly in me.

That, in other words, there isn’t within me inherent holiness and the attendant ability to unlock it.

And, indeed, Torah-study and mitzvos, so many Jews think, just aren’t them. They’re fine and doable, but for others.

For rabbis.

“Orthodox” ones.

And the delusion that we don’t have momentous potential isn’t limited to Jews estranged from their religious heritage. Dedicated observant Jews are vulnerable, too, to feelings of despondency born of feeling “unholy,” incapable of what they may know the Torah asks of them, but feel just “isn’t them.”

None of us, though, is “unholy.” Hashem took the trouble, so to speak, to grant each of us existence, and that means His plan includes us as essential players, capable of holiness.

Each and every single one of us.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

NItzavim – The Holy Land Has a Name

“Hashem… will return and gather you in from all the peoples to which [He] has scattered you… and He will bring you to the land that your forefathers possessed and you shall possess it…” (Devarim 30: 3-5).

“The land.” 

Eretz Yisrael isn’t its name. It is our description of the fact that it was bequeathed to Klal Yisrael. 

But it did have a name: Cna’an. We don’t call it that anymore, but that was its name, and presumably has some meaning. And its meaning must be meaningful.

In his sefer Nachalas Tzvi, Rabbi Meshulam Fayish Tzvi Gross (who had a weekly chavrusa in Kabbalah with Rav Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn and whose sefarim had haskamos from some of the greatest Gedolim of his time; and who, as Herman Gross, patented several inventions) ventures an answer.

He sees the name rooted in the Hebrew noun hachna’ah, “deference” or “submission.” While other lands, he explains, are overseen by malachim – divine middlemen, not Hashem Himself – Eretz Yisrael is different; hence the palace of the King demands a special degree of hachna’ah.

He cites the fact that the phrase “me’od me’od” is used both to refer to the goodness of the land (Bamidbar 14:7) and to the degree to which we are to feel shfal ruach, lowly (Ravi Levitas in Pirkei Avos, 4:4).

What occurs to me as well is the idea that, when in possession of Eretz Yisrael, we Jews are to be constantly cognizant that it is a yerushah, a bequeathal, to us from Hashem. And that, even when we rightly tell the world that the land is divinely meant for us, we must ourselves always fully and humbly remember that it isn’t our political or military power that maintains our possession of the Holy Land, but Hashem’s kindness in having allowed us to return to it. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Ki Savo – Discarding Despondence

The horrors of the tochacha, the parsha’s description of what Klal Yisrael will endure should it drift from heeding the Torah, left our ancestors dejected. As Rashi writes at the beginning of parshas Nitzavim (Devarim 29:9), when they heard the 98 curses in our parshah, in addition to the 48 in parshas Bichukosai, “their faces paled” and they said, “who can possibly persevere through this?”

Significantly, in the yearly Torah reading cycle, these parashos coincide with Elul’s march toward the Yimei Hadin. And despondence this time of year is a seasonal affliction.

We, too, can feel dejected as Rosh Hashanah comes close, as we will be judged on things that we repented for last year but may need to do the same once again.

But feeling despondent is counterproductive.

The late comedian Mitch Hedberg would deadpan: “I used to do drugs.” And then, after a short pause, add: “I still do. But I used to, too.”

The line may have been a throw-away absurdity. But I think he was describing how he had once (perhaps more than once) quit drugs, only to come to re-embrace them.  When he was clean, he “used to do drugs”; now, off the wagon, he does them again.

Many of us can relate, having resolved each year to improve in some of the very same ways we had resolved to improve the year before.  We “used to” do things that we currently do too.

In a famous letter, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, told a despondent student to realize that one can “lose battles but win wars,” that what makes life meaningful is not beatific basking in the sublime company of one’s accomplishments but rather in one’s dynamic struggles.

Shlomo Hamelech’s maxim that “Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up” (Mishlei, 24:16), Rav Hutner continues, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to gets up again” but, rather, that it is only and through repeated falls that a person achieves.  The struggles – even the failures – are inherent elements of what can, with determination and perseverance, become an ultimate victory.

Facing our mistakes squarely, and feeling the regret that is the bedrock of repentance, is essential. But it carries a risk: despondence born of battles lost.  But the war is not over.  We must pick ourselves up.  Again.  And, if need be, again.

And, as to the curses in the parsha, as Moshe reassured the people (see Rashi, Devarim 29:9), despite all the past and possible future failures, “You are still standing.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ki Seitzei – Principal Parenting Pitfall

A rather stark contradiction seems to lie in how Chazal describe the judgment meted out to a ben sorer u’moreh, the boy who, at the tender age of 13, demonstrates indulgences and worse, and how they treat Yishmael.

The former is judged al sheim sofo, based on what his “end” will likely be: a murderous mugger (Devarim 21:18). The latter, although his descendants will prove to be cruel tormenters of his half-brother Yitzchak’s descendants, is judged “ba’asher hu shom”: where he is at the current moment (Beraishis 21:17).

Granted, the case of a ben sorer u’moreh is virtually impossible to happen, given Chazal’s requirements for prosecution (see Sanhedrin 71a), and, according to Rabi Yehudah, indeed never did. But the explanation of the boy’s irredeemability is at least intended as a lesson, and still clashes fundamentally with the allowance Yishmael is given to become a better person (and, presumably, influence his progeny to follow him in that).

The Mizrachi and Rav Shlomo Zevin address the problem by noting that the ben sorer u’moreh has already himself acted in an ugly manner, whereas Yishmael’s cruel descendants lay generations in the future.

But that ignores the fact that Chazal describe Yishmael himself as having already demonstrated bad behavior, including, according to one opinion, shooting arrows at his half-brother (Rashi, Beraishis 21:9).

What occurs is the possibility that such behavior is only bad when unbridled. One can pull the yetzer hara into the beis medrash (Kiddushin, 30b), channeling it to good effect. And the urge to “violence” can be expressed in milchamta shel Torah, the “warring” of arguments between Torah scholars, lisheim Shomayim.

But, by contrast, the mire of materialism – virtual addiction to luxuries – has no redeeming value. And the young boy sufficiently sunken in it is hopeless.

Which, if true, offers a vital lesson to parents: Be less alarmed by a child’s propensity to bad behavior and violence than to his growing addiction to luxuries. And be very careful not to create, cultivate or feed that fixation.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shoftim – Waste Not

The belief that Jews are cheap has merit, though “frugal” would be the more perceptive word. Valuing everything, no matter how small or seemingly trivial, is a fundamental Jewish ideal. 

My parents rinsed and reused plastic cups and refrigerated even small amounts of a meal’s leftovers rather than consigning them to the garbage. My mother darned holey socks instead of tossing them. That wasn’t cheapness, it was Jewishness. And the placing of even pennies in a pushke was, and is, the fulfillment of a mitzvah.

We live at a time and in a society that sees so much of value as disposable. That attitude is among the many contemporary ones we Jews are meant to struggle against.

There are certainly people who are stingy for selfish reasons, but focused frugality bespeaks an appreciation of the worth of every single resource with which Hashem has gifted us.

The Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 529, commenting on a pasuk in parshas Shoftim) explains that the prohibition of gratuitously cutting down a fruit tree telegraphs a larger lesson, that of the general forbiddance of bal tashchis, wastage.

It aims to “teach our souls to love what is good and useful, and to then cleave to it,” adding that “through this, the good will cleave to us and we will distance ourselves from every evil thing and every destruction. This is the way of exemplary Jews…

“They do not destroy anything – even a mustard seed – and it pains them to encounter any destruction or harm. If they can act to save anything from destruction, they use all their strength to do so.”

“Not so,” he adds by contrast, is the way of “evil people… the cohorts of destructive forces, who rejoice in destroying the world.”

That attitudinal polarization is well evident in our world. Broken windows, smashed bottles and graffiti-marred walls, not to mention assaults and murders, are the yield of one end of the spectrum.

And rinsed-out plastic cups in dish drainers, with filled-to-their-brims-with-pennies-and-nickels tzedakah boxes on nearby kitchen window sills, the other.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Days of Deceit

Fact-free fantasies are all the rage

Shameless charlatans and flagrant fabulists are nothing new. But they seem to be proliferating rather wildly these days.

In only the latest of a slew of recent such scams, a man was just sentenced to five years in prison after raising $400,000 in a GoFundMe campaign, ostensibly for a homeless veteran. He and his companion spent much of the money on gambling, a BMW, a trip to Las Vegas, a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon and designer handbags.

Then there’s Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist radio host and operator of the website InfoWars, who, after a Texas jury’s ruling this month, must pay $45.2 million in punitive damages, in addition to $4.1 million in compensatory ones for spreading the lie that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax “staged” by the government so it could “go after our guns,” and that none of the 20 children killed in that attack had actually died.

He called those all-too-real childrens’ parents, who had to identify and bury the bullet-riddled bodies of their young ones, “crisis actors,” resulting in their being retraumatized, and harassed and hounded by some of Jones’ faithful followers.

Previously, the popular fabler endorsed the “Pizzagate theory”—that Democratic Party operatives ran a global child-trafficking ring out of a DC pizzeria—and implied that a yogurt company was linked to an assault case and helped spread tuberculosis, both of which fact-free fantasies he was later forced to apologize for promoting.

Apparently inspired by Mr. Jones, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene suggested that the man who opened fire on a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, this year, killing six, might have been part of an orchestrated effort to persuade Republicans to support gun control measures.

Millions of Americans believe, without evidence, that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen”; and millions, too (though there’s likely considerable overlap), that the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by US government agents. Among the latter group is Michael Peroutka, the Republican Party nominee for Maryland attorney general.

According to a new study by UNESCO, approximately half the public content related to the Holocaust on the Telegram messaging service denies or distorts facts about the extermination of millions of Europe’s Jews.

And, with each year leaving us with fewer human witnesses to that evil, the noxious weeds of Holocaust denial are bound to infest the history garden.

Poised, too, to become a powerful engine further impelling our era of lies are “deepfakes.”

Those are videos produced with special software that makes it seem that an identifiable person is saying or doing something he or she has, well, neither said nor done. Photoshop on steroids.

The software, readily available and being constantly refined, can alter the words or gestures of a politician or other public figure, yielding the very fakest of fake news.

In 2019, Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that “America’s enemies are already using fake images to sow discontent and divide us. Now imagine the power of a video that appears to show stolen ballots, salacious comments from a political leader, or innocent civilians killed in conflict abroad.”

According to a report released last week by technology company VMware, attacks using face- and voice-altering technology jumped 13% last year.

“Deepfakes in cyberattacks aren’t coming,” the company’s Rick McElroy said in a statement. “They’re already here.”

In March, for one example, a video posted to social media appeared to show Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky directing his soldiers to surrender to Russian forces. It was a deepfake.

The 24-hour news cycle and expansion of social media platforms only compound the problem. “A lie,” as the saying often attributed to Mark Twain goes, “can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” Today, it’s gone all the way around the world before truth even finds its shoes.

So there is ample cause for despair. Lies upon lies exposed, many more still claiming the gullible and a likely empowering of falsehood-promotion in the not-distant future.

But cause, too, perhaps, of hope.

Because Chazal (Sotah 49b) foretold that ha’emes tehei ne’ederes, “truth will go missing” one day: When the “footsteps of Moshiach” are approaching.

(c) 2022 Ami Magazine

Parshas Re’ei – Non-Prophet

“Can’t you jus’ see ‘im walkin’ on that water?” an elderly lady with a large hat, standing next to me on the foredeck of the Staten Island ferry and holding a bible, once asked me on a glorious spring day.

“Sure,” I responded with a smile, pretty sure that she had only meant to address someone she saw as a fellow religious person and had no missionary goal.

The Rambam states that “miracles” prove nothing. They can be sleights of hand, optical illusions or actual magic. He explains that all the miracles our ancestors experienced in Egypt and the desert were divine ways of addressing their needs, not intended as “proofs” that Hashem was behind them. Only the actual and direct interaction with Him at Har Sinai cemented Klal Yisrael’s belief in Hashem and Moshe’s reliability.

Which is why the performance of a wonder cannot, at least alone, establish a prophet’s credentials. In fact, as our parsha notes, a self-proclaimed prophet’s miracle can be totally meaningless.

If there appears in your midst a prophet or a dream-diviner, who gives you a sign or a portent, saying, ‘Let us follow and worship another power’… and the sign or portent comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For Hashem is testing you… (Devarim 13:2-4). 

In fact, when I was once asked by an actual missionary whether I knew that Christianity’s object of veneration is hinted at in the Torah (with the questioner ready, I knew, to offer mistranslated and misinterpreted pesukim in Yeshayahu), I readily answered yes. And pointed out the pasuk above – and the one immediately preceding it: “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it” (13:1). 

In fact, the Baal HaTurim, in non-censored editions, offers a poignant gematria. The numerical value of the phrase “in your midst,” he notes, equals that of the phrase “this is the woman.” And that of “prophet,” the next word, “and her son.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Eikev – Mandate and Magnificence

Carl Sagan once observed that “If you wish to make apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

There was a long period of history when the idea that the universe had a beginning was shunned by philosophers and scientists, when apple pie didn’t require any universe-inventing.

The upshot of (and perhaps impetus for) believing in such a “steady state” universe was that, without a creation, there was no need for a Creator.

Current scientific belief, based on observational evidence from the 1960s, is that there was indeed a beginning, confirming the truth of the Torah’s very first sentence.

Those bent on keeping a Creator out of the picture resort to fantastical ideas like an “expansion-contraction” model or a “multiple universe” one. They “fear Hashem” – the idea of Hashem.

But objective human beings naturally understand that Hashem exists. Just looking around us, at the miracle called nature, is sufficient proof.

The mitzvah of loving Hashem is repeated in our parshah (Devarim 10:12). And the Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 2:2) explains that it is fulfilled when one meditates on what Hashem has created, on our surroundings and their wonders.

But in Sefer HaMitzvos (Asei 3), he describes love of Hashem as resulting from meditating on His mitzvos. So, is “the way toward love of Hashem” to contemplate His universe, or His commandments?

Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, explained that one statement might be describing the lens; the other, the view. As Rav Mordechai Pogramansky, zt”l, put it in a parable: A visitor to a museum is shown beautiful works of art but is entirely unimpressed. Until someone wipes the thick dust off the fellow’s eyeglasses. Then he’s in awe of the art.

Before one can perceive Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s grandeur in the astounding magnificence of His creation, one must first approach Creation as something other than an accident, as something containing meaning. And the way to attain that foundational, vital recognition is to understand the concept of… mitzvos. That is the lens.

Once we recognize that we have a mandate, it is obvious that there must be a Mandator.

And then, peering through that clear lens at our Mandator-created world, we can perceive its astounding wonders. And thereby come to love the One who created it.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran