Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Naso – Playing Favorites or Paying in Kind

Parshas Naso

Playing Favorites or Paying In Kind

The Divine answer seems to beg the angels’ question.

Hashem’s angelic entourage, Rav Avira recounts (Berachot 20b) asked Him: “Master of the Universe, it is written in Your Torah (Devarim 10:17) that You do not show favor or take bribes. And yet, You show Yisrael special consideration, as it is written, ‘May Hashem lift His countenance to you’! (Bamidbar 6:26).”

Hashem replied:”How can I not favor Israel? For I commanded them, ‘When you eat and are satisfied, you must bless Hashem’ (Devarim 8:10), and yet they are punctilious [to say birkas hamazon, the blessing after eating a meal] over even an olive-sized piece of bread.”

Imagine a mortal judge excusing his showing favoritism to his nephew by explaining “but he’s such a good nephew!”

I think the explanation of Rav Avira’s description of the heavenly interaction lies in the words “and are satisfied.” Hashem’s retort was not that Jews say birkas hamazon even when they are not satisfied (which, arguably, would be an unwarranted and thus illegitimate bracha) but rather that they are satisfied with even a paltry meal. 

Jews are called Yehudim, after Yehudah, whose name reflects his mother’s acknowledgement that, with a fourth son, she has received “more than my share” (Rashi, from Midrash Rabbah). The quintessential Jewish characteristic is the conviction that we are unworthy of the blessings we receive.

And so, we are always, inherently, “satisfied,” even if what we are apportioned is limited. 

Thus, as a middah keneged midah, a “measure for measure,” Hashem is “satisfied,” so to speak, with even our limited service to Him. 

His “special consideration” is but a payment in kind.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shavuos – The Matter of Meaning

The average price paid to climb Mt. Everest – for permits, equipment and guides –  is between $35,000 and $45,000. And hundreds have died in that exploit. 

What impels people to undertake so expensive and dangerous a quest? A misguided search for meaning.

Philosophers argued about what ultimately motivates humans. Nietzsche said power; Freud, pleasure.

Both tapped into something real. The power to, through our choices, change our lives and history, is a manifestation of gevurah, “strength.” In Jewish eyes, though, that doesn’t mean subjugating others; rather, as Ben Zoma in Avos (4:1) defines it, “hakovesh es yitzro,” one who, by force of will, overcomes his nature.

And Freud was on to something too; the Ramchal begins Mesilas Yesharim with the surprising statement that the goal of life is the pursuit of pleasure. Not physical, but rather ultimate, pleasure: “basking in the radiance of the Shechinah.” 

The Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard was insightful. He wrote of the human “will to meaning” – the yearning to achieve something truly meaningful as life’s ultimate goal.

Some imagine “meaning” in climbing Everest. Others envision meaningful accomplishment in meriting mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, for, say, the most slices of pizza eaten while riding a unicycle and simultaneously juggling balls. 

For those who recognize our divine mandate, though, the ring for which to reach is a spiritual one, achieved through Torah and mitzvos

All good fortune to the Everest climbers.

Come Shavuos, we look to a different mountain.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Bamidbar – Life is for the Giving

The Torah’s pointed note (Bamidbar 3:4) of the fact that Nadav and Avihu had no children (according to the Midrash, because they did not marry) is understood by Chazal as having contributed to their deaths. “Contributed,” because the Torah itself states that the reason the two sons of Aharon died was because “they brought illicit fire before Hashem” [ibid]. Leaving the meaning of that phrase aside, though, what role did their having had no children play in their deaths? Not marrying, after all, isn’t a capital crime.

Addressing that question, the talmid chacham and inventor R’ Meshullam Gross, in his sefer Nachalas Tzvi, notes a comment of the Chasam Sofer on the words “And Hashem your G-d will make you abundant for good… in the fruit of your womb” (Devarim 30:9). The Chasam Sofer asserts that there can be a situation where a person’s time on earth has expired but where his death can be postponed by the fact that he is needed on earth to provide guidance to a child or another person dependent on him.

Thus, suggests Rav Gross, had Nadav and Avihu had children, dependents on their elders’ tutelage and guidance, the elders’ deaths might have been spared by that fact. 

It’s an invaluable thought for every parent, grandparent or teacher, when facing a difficult charge – in fact, for every person with a difficult friend: The very fact that you are being tried by your charge or friend, that you are needed to help with the challenge presented you, may just be affording you the gift of life.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Behar – What’s Special About Shmita

The problem surely occurs to every reader of the first Rashi in parshas Behar. The Rabban shel Yisrael, quoting a Midrash, recounts the famous question, “What does shemita have to do with Har Sinai?”

The reference, of course, is to the Torah’s introducing the mitzvah of letting fields lie fallow every seventh year as what “Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai.” 

The Midrash’s answer is that the Torah means to teach us that “just as with shemitah, its general principles and its finer details were all stated at Sinai, likewise, all [mitzvos were similarly stated and elaborated upon].”

The problem: The answer seems to not address the question. Why, though, of all mitzvos, is the point made specifically with shmita?

It is brought in the name of the Chasam Sofer that shmita is chosen because it establishes, to the frustration of the scoffer who contends that the Torah isn’t in fact from Hashem, that it is.

Because, logically, shmita is a self-defeating law. Enjoining the Jews in the Holy Land to let all their fields lie fallow every seventh year (and at the end of 49 years, two years in a row) is an assured recipe for economic disaster.  No human lawmaker would be cruel or dim enough to lay down such a law – only a Legislator Who could in fact ensure, as Hashem does, that the sixth year crops will be sufficiently abundant to carry the populace through could decree such a law.

Thus, says the Chasam Sofer, shmita’s having been divinely commanded at Sinai isn’t merely part of our tradition (a powerful enough status in its own right) but, in its very essence, an indication of its source in the divine.

And so, “just as with shemita” – which law telegraphs its source in Hashem – likewise all mitzvos are sourced in Him. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Acharei Mos/Kedoshim – Black Like Us

The haftarah for Acharei Mos, which will be read this week for the double parsha of Acharei Mos/Kedoshim, is from Amos (9:7), where Hashem extols the Jewish people with the famous and famously strange words: “Behold, you are like the children of Kush to Me.”

Kush is identified as the African kingdom of Nubia (roughly modern-day Sudan/ Ethiopia), and the Gemara (Moed Katan, 16b), commenting on the pasuk from Amos, says: “Just as a Kushite differs [from others] in [the color of] his skin, so are the Jewish people different in their actions.”

The Chasam Sofer (who apparently had “the righteous” in place of “the Jewish people” in that Gemara) interprets that Talmudic comment in an interesting and poignant way:

“One Jew may excel in Torah-study; another, in avodah [prayer]; another, in acts of kindness to others; this one in one particular mitzvah, that one in another.  Nevertheless, while they all differ from each other in their actions, they all have the same intention: to serve Hashem with their entire hearts.

“Behold the Kushite.  Inside, his organs, his blood and his appearance are all the same as other people’s. Only in the superficiality of his skin does he differ. This is the meaning of ‘[different] in his skin,’ [meaning] only in his skin.  Likewise, the righteous are different [from one another] only ‘in their actions’; their inner conviction and intention, though, are [the same], aimed at serving Hashem in a good way.”

That people of different skin colors are only superficially different from one another is accepted as a truism by the Chasam Sofer. His point is that in all our diversity of vocations, fields and foci, we can be entirely equal servants of Hashem.

The Gemara (Ta’anis 22a) speaks of a pair of comedians, who used their humor to cheer up the depressed and defuse disputes.

One wonders if the parents of those meritorious men felt disappointed at their sons’ choices of professions.  Or whether they realized that there are, in the end, many paths that can lead to the World-to-Come.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshios Tazria/Metzora – Life is Other People

Tzara’as, the condition that occupies the bulk of parshios Tazria and Metzora, is characterized by the Talmud as a punishment for sins like speaking ill of others or stinginess at their expense. Thus the Rambam considers it something other than an infection in the normative, medical sense. Other Rishonim (e.g. Daas Zekeinim, Chizkuni), though, seem to regard the condition, at least when it manifests in a human body (it can also affect material and walls) as contagious, evidenced in the requirement that a person with the skin condition “sit alone” outside the camp of the general population (Vayikra 13:46).

Others regard that mandated isolation – which enjoins the afflicted person to call out to passers-by the fact that he is “Impure! Impure!” – as a punishment in itself, or as an opportunity to meditate on his sin (e.g. Sefer HaChinuch).

The Lutzker Rav, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, zt”l (1881–1966), in his Oznayim LaTorah, takes that latter approach to a higher level, observing that the interpersonal sins that brought about the metzora’s condition were born of his dismissive, negative view of other people, his self-centeredness and misanthropy. Thus, he felt no compunctions about speaking ill of others or withholding things from them.

So, suggests Rav Sorotzkin, the metzora’s isolation may be intended to sensitize him to the importance of society. His being cut off from others will eventually be torturous. Like, Rav Sorotzkin adds, interestingly, the fictional Robinson Crusoe, who, shipwrecked and isolated on a remote island, is tormented by lack of interaction with others. The famous novel’s author (Daniel Defoe) “vividly portrays [Crusoe’s] longing for human interaction and conversation.”

The isolated metzora, writes Rav Sorotzkin, will feel similar pain, and thereby come to realize that the world contains others, others whose existence and whose needs he must value. 

The metzora’s calling out of his plight to others, Rav Sorotzkin continues, is intended to inspire them to pray for his recovery. So, added to his existential loneliness, the metzora’s dependence on others will help cure him of his misanthropy. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Shemini – Inner Space

The abundance of advertisements for gyms, weight loss products, hair restoration drugs and cosmetic surgery testifies to contemporary citizens’ obsession with physical image. To be sure, many people seek to work out or lose weight out of health concerns, or have surgery to correct deviated septums. But many more, as the pitches evidence, just want more perfect abs or biceps or “better” noses.

After sufficient decades of living, it becomes apparent that our shapes and faces can only be adjusted so much. That comes as a shock to some, even a source of depression. What’s truly sad, though, isn’t the elusiveness of physical perfection but the silly quest for it.

The laws of tum’ah, or ritual defilement, are many and complex. But one of its basic rules is that a metal vessel can become defiled by contact with a contaminating material even if the source of defilement touches only its outer surface. An earthen vessel cannot contract tum’ah that way.

But if contaminating matter merely enters the inner space of an earthenware vessel, it defiles it even without contacting the inner surface itself. 

The Kotzker Rebbe explained that the reason for that distinction is that a metal vessel has inherent material value, whereas an earthenware one does not. And an earthenware vessel’s only value is in its “space” – in the fact that it can hold something

He went on to pithily observe that a human being is an “earthen vessel,” as the “original” human was made from the earth itself (Beraishis 2:7). 

And, like any earthenware vessel, the human is defined not by his physique but rather by what he can hold “within” him – his soul, which he affects with his actions, thoughts and words.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Sholom Aleichem and Mah Nishtana

Rosh Chodesh Nisan would seem a propitious time for a Kiddush Hashem. And one occurred this year, when a large group of Israeli anti-government protesters, mostly secular citizens aiming to “get in the face” of religious Jews, descended on Bnei Brak. 

They likely wanted to express their anger at the fact that religious parties are part of the government coalition whose plans outrage them, but also to stoke locals’ anger in return. Many protesters wore helmets in anticipation of barrages of rocks or eggs. None, though, materialized, only a handful of young people who shot off harmless fireworks.

What did happen, though, was that some local residents set up food and drink stands, offering the protesters cholent, cookies and bottles of water, which many of the visitors gratefully accepted.

And, in one widely circulated (I prefer to avoid the word “viral” these days) video clip, some of the demonstrators seemed moved when the niggun “Sholem Aleichem” was played on loudspeakers. One older man was filmed taking off his helmet to wipe tears from his eyes as he mouthed along with the Shabbos night welcoming of malachei hashareis. Another protester excitedly accepted a sefer Torah from a resident and danced with it. 

A resident who filmed videos of the unexpected happenings said that the man who removed his helmet and wept looked at her and said, “My father had love for every Jew and wanted everyone to be united. My father would roll over in his grave if he could see the hatred and conflicts among us.”

There are, to be sure and tragically, people who are so hardened in their secularism that they may seem impervious to reconsidering assumptions about Torah or those dedicated to it.

But the pinteleh Yid is always there, ready to be awoken.

After the Torah recounts the question that the Haggadah attributes to the rasha, it describes our ancestors as bowing down in thanksgiving about, Rashi says, the “news of the children.”

The Sheim MiShmuel, quoted in Eliyhu Ki Tov’s Haggadah, explains that, while resha’im in Mitzrayim perished, after yetzias Mitzrayim our ancestors were given the news that all of their descendants – no matter their actions as individuals – would still be part of the Klal. And that was what spurred their display of gratitude.

And the import of that news is that, no matter how far from their spiritual roots Jews wander, there is always a possibility of them finding – as so many have – a path home.

The seder is a particularly powerful puller of Jewish souls. Its memory is indelibly etched in many a less observant Jew’s soul.

My father, a”h, served as rov of a shul attended by both observant and non–observant Jews. One day a man came to Shacharis – to say Kaddish for a yahrtzeit – one of the few occasions we ever saw him – and received an aliyah

He haltingly recited the brachah on the Torah but after “Asher bachar banu…” he hesitated. Then “mikol…” Then, to my immature amusement, “…haleylos shebechol haleylos anu ochlim…”

He was quickly corrected. But I realized that the man had just revealed that, distant as he was from Yiddishkeit, he remembered Mah Nishtana.

The distance between him and his heritage could not keep its words from tiptoeing in, unsummoned but determined.  The seder was a part of him.

When living in Northern California and then in Rhode Island, I became acquainted with many Jewish families seemingly devoid of religious practice. I always made a point of asking whether they had a seder of any sort.  Almost invariably, the answer was… yes, of course. Their sedarim may not have met halachic standards, but they were born of older sedarim that had, and that had left their seeds in the hearts of those present to germinate.

The sheer variety of bizarre “haggadahs” out there itself testifies to the Jewish compulsion to connect, no matter how tenuously, the “ism” du jour to Yetzias Mitzrayim. Forgetting that seminal event simply isn’t an option.

The birds of spring are singing. So are we Jews, singing our history at our sedarim. And even some who have fallen from the nest vaguely remember the song. We just need to refresh their memories. 

© 2023 Ami Magazine