Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Mishpatim – Mundanity is a Myth

What an abrupt transition, from the miracles and wonders of the earlier parshios of Sefer Shemos to this week’s list of prosaic, painstaking laws. 

But, just as every letter in the Torah is necessary for it to be kosher, so are life’s seeming banal interactions, in reality, opportunities for holiness. When we conduct our personal and business lives properly, not as rote or out of a self-generated sense of right or wrong but in fulfillment of Hashem’s commands, that is no different from the mitzvos that recall kri’as Yam Suf.

Anshei kodesh, “people of holiness” (Shemos 22:30), is our divine prescription. The Kotzker Rebbe is said to have remarked that “Hashem has more than enough angels; He wants people of holiness.” He wants our humdrum human lives to be infused with holiness. 

A corollary of that thought lies in the realm of Hashem’s hashgacha, which covers our every experience. Not only when it’s readily evident, in seemingly “miraculous” happenings, but no less in our “mundane” lives.

A friend of one of our daughters once shared a powerful story with her, about a woman scheduled to fly to a distant city for an important job interview. The lady found herself stuck in unexpected traffic and arrived at the airport in barely enough time to park her car. She ran to the check-in counter, only to discover that she had missed her flight by mere seconds, and that there were no others that would get her to her interview on time. Dejected, she headed home.

Several hours later, the plane on which she was to have flown began its descent to its destination, the woman’s reserved seat empty… As the plane descended, there was some turbulence, and the captain told the passengers to make sure their seat belts were securely fastened…

And then, the plane… touched down, safely. The passengers disembarked. End of story.

The lady never discovered any reason for having lost the chance of the job, and ended up taking a less lucrative one in her home city.

But there was a reason. 

Whether we perceive it or not, there always is.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

“Is Anybody There?”

“Is anyone there? Can you hear me?” You shout at the rubble of a collapsed building. No reply, but then… was that tapping?

You have an idea. “If you can understand me,” you yell, “tap once.” A single tap. “If you’re injured,” you then say, “tap twice.” Two taps. There’s someone there.

An apt metaphor for something very important. To read what, please click here.

Yisro – Consecrated Coercion

Last week, I offered the idea, based on the three Hebrew words, shiluach, yetziah and geirush, used to describe both the exodus account and a marriage’s dissolution, of Yetzias Mitzrayim as Klal Yisrael’s “divorce” from Egypt and Har Sinai, as its subsequent “betrothal” to Hashem.

The latter image, in fact, is clear from the Midrash Rabbah (Acharei Mos 20:10), which comments on the words “the day of his marriage” in Shir HaShirim (3:11): This, comments the Midrash, is Har Sinai.

And from the Mechilta D’Rabi Yishmael on Yisro, which quotes Rabi Yehuda as explaining that “Hashem from Sinai came” (Devarim 33:2) conveys the image of “a groom going out to receive his bride.”

The chuppah at a Jewish wedding recalls (“bisachtis hahar,” Shemos 19:17) the mountain lifted over the head of the people at Sinai; the candles borne by parents, the lightning; the groom walking forward to greet his bride, the aforementioned Mechilta.

And the end of the birchas eirusin at a Jewish wedding refers to Hashem as having “sanctified His people Israel through chuppah and kiddushin.” Not “with the mitzvos of chuppah and kiddushin, but through those things themselves – namely, at Sinai.

But the mountain above the people is also understood by Chazal as a threat. Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa says that “Hashem overturned the mountain above the Jews like a barrel and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, good; but if not, there will be your burial’” (Shabbos 88a).

Although that intimidation was mitigated later in history, when, in the time of Esther and Mordechai, the people re-accepted the Torah entirely willingly [ibid], what is the significance of the coercion in the first place?

The answer may lie in Devarim 22: 28-29, where the law is set down in the case of a man who forces himself upon a young woman. He is fined the sum of fifty silver coins but also must (if the woman wishes) marry her and, unlike in any other marriage, cannot ever divorce her.

The implication for Hashem’s relationship with Klal Yisrael should be self-evident.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Help Preserve the Kotel’s Kedusha

The push to balkanize the Kotel Maaravi is, as its proponents readily admit, intended as a step toward legitimizing American-style “Jewish religious pluralism” in Israel. That would be a disaster, not only because of the notion’s inherent falsehood — that there are different “Judaisms” — but demographically too, since non-halachic “conversions,” “divorces” and the like have wreaked havoc on the unity of American Jewry.

What is more, the Kotel has always served as a unifier of Jews, whatever their backgrounds or beliefs — probably the only place on earth where so many different kinds of Jews pray side by side.

If you wish to register your chagrin at the plan to partition the Kotel, you can do so easily by visiting:

There is no charge for doing so, and, by sending the letter (or one of your own crafting), you can help show that a good part of “American Jewry” wants the status quo at the Kosel to be retained.

Tizku limitzvos.

Bishalach – A Decisive Divorce

Shalach, the root of the word of the parshah’s title, is used elsewhere regarding the exodus from Mitzrayim (e.g. shalach es ami).  So are the words yetziah (e.g. Shemos, 20:2) and geirush (e.g. ibid 11:1)

Intriguingly, each of those characterizations of our ancestors’ march from Egypt is also associated with… divorce. Vishilcha mibeiso (Devarim 24:2);  viyatz’ah mibeiso (Devarim 24:1); isha gerushah(Vayikra 21:7).

The metaphor telegraphed by that fact is clear. Klal Yisrael was virtually “married” to Mitzrayim, sunken to near its deepest level of tum’ah, and, with Hashem’s help, freed from that “marriage,” divorced, as it were, from Mitzrayim. 

The symbolism doesn’t stop there. When the divorce is finalized, Klal Yisrael gets re-married, this time, permanently, to Hashem, with Har Sinai over the people’s heads serving as a chupah. (Indeed, several marriage customs are associated by various sources with Mattan Torah – the chupah, the candles, reminiscent of the lightning), even the breaking of a glass, recalling the sheviras haluchos).

And that would dovetail strikingly with the prohibition against returning to live in Egypt (Devarim 17:16). Because a remarried woman, too, is prohibited from returning to her first husband (Devarim 24:4).

Even more interesting is the implication of the metaphor to the baffling Gemara in Sotah (2a) that asserts that a man’s “initial mate” is divinely decreed before his birth; and his second one, in accord with his behavior.

Because, in our metaphor, Klal Yisrael’s first “mate,” Egypt, was in fact decreed, to Avraham at the bris bein habisarim; and its final one, Hashem, was earned by the people’s behavior: their willingness to follow Moshe into the desert and declaration of naaseh vinishma at Sinai.

And a coup de grâce lies in how the Gemara paraphrased above describes the challenge of finding the proper mates: kasheh k’krias Yam Suf – “as difficult as the splitting of the Sea.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Bo – Enticing the Wicked Son

When the Torah (Shemos, 12:26) recounts the question the Haggadah attributes to the “wicked son,” it states that, when our ancestors heard it, they responded by bowing down in thanksgiving. What were they thankful for?

The Sheim MiShmuel, quoted in Eliyhu Ki Tov’s Haggadah, explains that the very fact that the Torah considers the ben rasha to be part of Klal Yisroel, someone who merits a response, was the reason for the Jews’ happiness.

When, in other words, we were a mere extended family of individuals, each member stood or fell on his own merits. And many individuals, sadly, did not merit to leave Mitzrayim.

After Yetzias Mitzrayim, however, even a “wicked son” is considered a full member of the Jewish People. The revelation of that truth demonstrated to our ancestors that something had radically changed since their pre-Egypt and Egypt days. The descendants of Yaakov had become something new, a nation.

In the Haggadah, we are told, regarding the “wicked son,” hakhei es shinav,” usually translated as “set his teeth on edge.” He has, we are told, been kofar ba’ikar, denied something essential (literally, “rejected a root”). Had he been in ancient Egypt, we tell him, he would not have been among those saved by Hashem.

A cognate of hakhei, however, exists in the Gemara (Kesuvos 61a), which notes that foods that have kiyuha, an enticing sharpness of smell, must be offered to the waiter serving them.

Might the Haggadah’s hakhei carry a similar meaning? That we are meant to entice the wicked son to join us, by telling him that had he been there – in ancient Egypt – he would not have escaped. But he is now here, post-Yetzias Mitzrayim, and thus part of Klal Yisrael, willy-nilly.

And the “something essential” that he seems, by his question, to deny may refer not to some theological “root,” but rather to his own root, planted deeply, whether he realizes it or not, within our people.

And so our response may hold our hope that his hearing and comprehending that fact will bring him to accept his status as a Jew, and to change his ways.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vo’eira – History’s Foundation

It is interesting that the concept of hakaras hatov, “recognition of the good” that one has experienced, appears not only in the parsha, at the beginning of the Sefer Shemos saga whose apogee is the creation of Klal Yisrael, but also at the beginning of human history itself.

It is Aharon, not Moshe, who initiates the makkos that require the Nile to be hit (Rashi, Shemos 7:19), because the river sheltered Moshe when he was a baby. Likewise when, at the makka of kinim, the ground needed to be hit, it was Aharon who did the act, not Moshe, since the ground had helped Moshe hide the body of the Egyptian taskmaster he killed in Mitzrayim (Rashi, Shemos 8:12).

And, back at the beginning of the Torah, it was necessary that the first man be created in order for the already-created vegetation to sprout from the ground, since, until Adam’s arrival, “there was no one to ‘recognize the good’ of rain and pray for it (Rashi, Beraishis, 2:5).

Hashem, of course, didn’t need Adam to bring rain. And Hashem could have had all the makos come about without any hitting of anything. But He chose to have the Nile and the ground be intermediaries of His will – to stress, as per the Midrashim Rashi cites, as above, the critical importance of hakaras hatov. Clearly, it’s a concept fundamental to the evolution of humanity, stressed at the beginning of history and the beginning of Klal Yisrael. 

And while hakaras hatov may be expressed in an action or toward an object, it is always, ultimately, a recognition of the ultimate source of good, Hashem. 

Which is why Jewish days begin with Modeh ani and end with Hamapil, and why they are filled with the recitation of birchos hanehenin and birchos hoda’ah.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shemos — Against Your Grain

My rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, often spoke of how each of the Jewish forefathers was challenged by Hashem to act in opposition to the very characteristic that defined him.

Avraham, whose middah is chessed, kindness (evident, for example, in his rejoicing at being able to entertain guests even when he was in physical distress, and in his defense of S’dom), has to part ways with his nephew Lot, essentially sending him away (though kindness peeks through even then, when the decision of which direction to take is offered Lot). Then he has to banish Hagar and Yishmael from his home. War being the antithesis of kindness, he needs to fight (although, with chessed again evident, as he was fighting to rescue Lot) in the War of the Kings. Following Hashem’s commandment to circumcise himself and the males in his household, moreover, alienated people he wanted to bring close to Hashem (Bereishis Rabbah 47:10).

Yitzchak’s middah is din, strict judgment. And his judgment of which of his sons deserved the brachos was frustrated by Yaakov. Yitzchak was forced to acknowledge that his judgment had been wrong.

Yaakov, whose middah is emes, truth, had to pretend, guided by Hashem through Rivka, that he was his brother; and then, again directed by Hashem, enters an agreement with his father-in-law Lavan to deprive him of much of his flocks. And Yaakov steals away with his wives without telling Lavan straightforwardly that they are leaving.

In our parshah, we meet Moshe, who dominates the rest of the Torah’s narrative portions (and whom the Torah is “named” after: Toras Moshe). What we know about his character is that he was a “very humble man, more so than any other man on earth (Bamidbar 12:3).”

And, against his will, he is called on by Hashem to lead Klal Yisrael. He has a speech defect and yet must be Hashem’s spokesman. He tries to have his brother Aharon take the reins, but Hashem insists that he lead, and he does.

In life, we are sometimes called to act against our natural grain. And our first reaction is often, “No, that’s just not me.” But we do well to stop and consider that maybe filling a role that doesn’t seem to fit our essential disposition may be precisely what Hashem wants from us, and may hold the potential of great merit.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayechi – A Singular Kindness

Chesed v’emes, “kindness and truth,” is the term Yaakov Avinu uses to describe what he is asking of Yosef when charging his son to not bury him in Mitzrayim (Beraishis 47:29).

And Rashi famously explains that the term is meant to reflect the fact that doing something for someone deceased is the  ultimate kindness – since the doer “isn’t looking toward repayment,” presumably from the recipient of the act.

But while the deceased is no longer in a position to repay the kindness, others certainly are. And the performer of the kindness can also expect reward of a greater sort – in the world-to-come. So why is doing chesed for a deceased person in a singular category?

I wonder if the answer might lie in the words “isn’t looking for” (eino metzapeh) in Rashi’s explanation (although I haven’t found those words in the Midrash that Rashi seems to be citing).

What Rashi might mean is that, while there may indeed be repayment for an act of kindness toward someone no longer able to reciprocate, the performer of the kindness isn’t looking toward repayment. Because he’s in a special state of mind, bluntly confronting the inevitability of death. When he performs his kindness, he is blinded to everything but his own mortality.

Facing head-on what we all too often choose not to think about, although we intellectually know it is real, puts screeching brakes on our merry marches toward success in life and achievement of rewards of all sorts. At that time, we do not look toward any compensation for our efforts.

Interestingly, the word “eivel”, “mourning,” is spelled precisely as the word aval, “however.” What “however” does in a sentence – interrupts and reverses its flow – is what death of a loved one does in a survivor’s life. It stops the speeding “reward pursuant” train and focuses the mourner exclusively on the inevitable truth that this world is ours only until it isn’t.

And so, a chesed done for someone deceased is done in a singular state of pureness, of emes.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran