Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Tzav – The Challenge of Change

The shalsheles cantillation, expressed in a long, wavering series of notes, occurs only four times in the Torah. 

In three, the “wavering” may reflect a wavering of will. In Beraishis 19:16, Lot, about to leave S’dom, hesitates to forgo its wealth and pleasures; indeed, the shalsheles is on the word “And he hesitated.”

In Beraishis 24:12, Eliezer is beginning his prayer to Hashem to find the right wife for Yitzchak; the shalsheles is on the word “And he said.” He had wanted Yitzchak to marry his daughter, so, again, there is some hesitation at a crucial point, when he needs to abandon that hope and focus on the future.

Yosef, in  Beraishis 39:8, is facing an internal conflict too, as he summons all his personal fortitude to resist the blandishments of Potifar’s wife. The shalsheles there is on the word meaning “and he refused.”

In our parsha, though, the shalsheles (Vayikra 8:23) is on the word meaning “And he slaughtered,” referring to the ram sacrifice that was part of the investiture ceremony installing Aharon and his sons into the kehunah. What wavering or hesitations is here?

For the previous seven days, though, Moshe had played the role of kohein. Might the shalsheles indicate Moshe’s being conflicted over being “deposed” from the kehunah

I find that unlikely. The “most humble of all men” (Bamidbar 12:3) would be above so self-centered a feeling. 

What occurs is that any wavering on Moshe’s part may simply have been born of the challenge every human has while facing a change of role. It’s discomposing to suddenly be thrust in a new direction. 

Life is full of changes, many of them unsought and discombobulating. When we feel a shalsheles in our lives, though, we need, as Moshe did, to recover from the jar and do what we must to accept the change.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayikra — Hierarchy and Holiness

Animal sacrifices begin not only the parsha and the sefer of Vayikra but the world as we know it. Because Noach was commanded to take extra animals of certain species on the ark for the purpose of offering them as korbonos

Interestingly, it was Noach who was the first person permitted to eat animals; before the flood, vegetarianism was the Divine order. That might have bearing on understanding what a korbon is.

The hierarchy of creation noted in many Jewish sources are: domeim, tzomei’ach, chai, medaber: “still” (mineral), “growing” (vegetation), “living” (animal) and “speaking” (human). It was a hierarchy innately understood by early humans.

At least until the generation of the flood, when the Torah refers to the people as basar, “flesh” (Beraishis 6:3, 6:13). That reflected the fact that men mated with animals (Rashi, Beraishis 6:2, based on Beraishis Rabba 26). Society had devolved to the point where it considered all “flesh” to be essentially the same, that saw humans as simply evolved beasts.

It is conceivable that the permission to consume animal flesh was intended to re-establish the hierarchical distinction between “living” and “speaking” beings.

If so, perhaps a message that lay, and lies, in the concept of an animal sacrifice is that we humans are a momentous and qualitative step above the animal world, that we can kill and eat animals, and are meant to rise above the animalistic elements of our nature, which misled the generation of the flood to equate the animal and human spheres.

And our position at the pinnacle of nature forces us to recognize our proximity to what is above us. Which would well fit the meaning of the word korbon, which does not mean “sacrifice.” It is from the word karov, “near.” And is best rendered, if awkwardly, as “bringer of closeness.” Closeness to Hashem. A korbon reminds us that we are above animals, hence closer to the Divine.

Which may be why Rabi Yehudah HaNasi states that an am ha’aretz, a person oblivious to his calling to holiness, is “forbidden to eat meat ”(Pesachim, 49b). It would be, in a way, cannibalism.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayak’hel — Tough Love

The kruvim, three-dimensional depictions of two winged childlike beings, a male and female, formed from the gold of the kappores, the cover of the aron, are described as “facing one another” (Shemos 37:9).

The Gemara (Bava Basra, 99a) notes that in Divrei Hayamim II, the pasuk describes them as facing toward the kodoshim (3:13), and explains – on the presumption that the kruvim represent Hashem and Klal Yisrael – that the kruvim were animated, facing one another “when the Jewish people do the will of Hashem,” and outward when they do not. 

Which makes an account of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash particularly strange. In Yoma 54b, the Gemara describes how the enemy entered the Bayis and saw the kruvim (or a depiction of them) entwined “like a man and his beloved.” They mocked what they could only see as a pornographic icon in the Jews’ holiest place. 

The obvious question: Why, at a time when the Jews had apparently not been doing Hashem’s will – after all, the Beis Hamikdash was being razed! – were the kruvim not only not facing away from one another but embracing?

A moving answer is related in the name of the Maggid of Mezritch. He notes that halacha requires a husband to express his love for his wife before embarking on a long trip. Hashem, thus, was demonstrating his love for His people when He was about to “leave” them for a long period of exile.

I wonder, though, if there may be another message in the puzzling image of the entwined kruvim: That, just as a truly responsible parent facing a need to punish his child does so with anguish and out of pure love, so was Hashem “pained” and “loving” toward His people when they required punishment.

Yes, when the Jews were not doing His will, the kruvim faced away from one another. But, afterward, at the time of their necessary punishment, there was only pure love. And, if so, wherever they may be today, the kruvim are still in embrace.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Ki Sisa – Reasonable but Wrong

Our ancestors’ devotion, so soon after the revelation at Har Sinai, to a physical object, the egel hazahav, the golden calf, is rightly and remarkably confounding. Obviously, like so many of the Torah’s narratives, behind the simple Written Law account lies information necessary for a true understanding of things. 

Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, in his Mei Marom, offers a tantalizing thought with regard to the calf-worshiping. He suggests that the people, on the sublime level approaching prophecy that they had attained after Hashem’s revelation, perceived something shocking but true: that Hashem will speak to them in the future from something physical, something in fact made of gold. 

The truth of that perception lay in the kruvim that were part of the kapores covering the aron in the holiest part of the Mishkan.  From a point between those golden representations of children, Hashem would one day speak to Moshe (Bamidbar 7:89).

Like every actual prophecy, though (see Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 7:3), the vision required accurate interpretation. And, faced with the egel, which Chazal tell us emerged miraculously from the gold thrown into a fire, and what they felt was Moshe’s tardiness in returning from the top of the mountain, the people surmised that the egel was the golden object that would host Hashem’s future communication. 

There is a lesson there for all of us far from the level of perception of our Sinai ancestors. We often assume that what we see is to be interpreted a certain way, and that our position or actions should be based on that interpretation. Often we are right. But often, wrong. The law of unintended consequences can wreak much havoc.

Consider Sefer Esther. Imagine the Shushanites’ interpretation of Mordechai’s stubborn refusal to honor Haman with a bow to him. It was reasonable for them to conclude from that sight that Mordechai was endangering the Jews rather than subtly paving the path toward their rescue from mortal danger.

Reasonable, but wrong.

We, too, need to respect the interpretation of events and the required response that experienced elders counsel. And sometimes that requires, if not ignoring what we see, at least understanding that its implications may not be what we think.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tetzaveh – Making a Living and Making Light

Most agricultural oils are produced from seeds. The olive is one of the few fruits that produce oil. And olive oil plays a major role in the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash.

It is a component of menachos, the flour-offerings that are required in a number of situations and consigned in part to the mizbe’ach, with the remainder, in most cases, consumed by kohanim.

And, of course, olive oil is the fuel the Torah requires for the menorah that stands in the kodoshim, the penultimate holiest place in the Ohel Mo’ed and Beis HaMikdash.

Which purpose opens parshas Titzaveh, where “pure olive oil derived from thorough crushing” is to serve “to illuminate” (Shemos 27:20).

Rashi comments that such purity is only required for the oil used in the menorah, but that which is used for menachos needn’t be of that highest quality.

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin sees menachos as representing physical nourishment and the menorah’s light as representing mind nourishment, “illumination” in its nonliteral sense.

Many unhealthy substances in food can be tolerated by bodies, he notes. But foreign, untrue ideas are a more subtle, and hence more dangerous, threat to minds.

Moreover, he continues, efforts are needed to attain both our physical and spiritual sustenances. Our “daily bread” requires labor, and grasping Torah truths is earned only through mental work (“If someone says… ‘I didn’t labor but attained [Torah]’ – don’t believe him” [Megilla 6b]).

But, says Rav Zevin, there is a difference in those respective efforts. When it comes to physical sustenance, we are enjoined to labor only to the extent that yields us our needs; we are not justified in making “earning a living” some sort of high sacrament and giving it our “all.” When it comes to ascertaining truth, however, to studying Torah, we must apply our entire selves, our “hearts and souls,” to the task.

And that, he contends, is what is telegraphed by the acceptability of second-tier purity oil for menachos, but only perfectly pure oil for the menorah. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shaken… and Stirred

While the west coast’s torrential rains this winter and the recent devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria were light-years beyond anything my family and I ever experienced when we lived in Northern California in the late 1970s, they brought back memories of those days.

My musing about floods and earthquakes and the realization they should engender in us is here.

Terumah — What’s in The Name

Although there are several explanations in various midrashim for the word li in the phrase viyikchu li (“And have them take for Me”), Rashi, famously, simply comments “lishmi” – “for My sake” [literally, “for My name”].

On a basic level, Rashi is likely saying that, unlike general charity, which can be born of personal motives (e.g. “so that my son will live…” – [Pesachim 8a]), the terumah, or donation, for the Mishkan must be offered wholeheartedly lishmah, for Hashem’s sake.

But the word lishmi, as noted above, literally translates as “for My name.”  Which raises the possibility of another approach to Rashi’s comment.

Back in parshas Bishalach, after Amalek’s attack on the newly freed Jewish people, we find an abstruse pasuk: “For there is a hand on the throne [keis] of Yah, [there shall be] a war for Hashem against Amalek from generation to generation” (17:16).

Rashi there, echoing the Midrash Lekach Tov (and Midrash Tanchuma in Ki Seitzei), explains that the use of “Yah,” the first two letters of the Tetragrammaton, and the word keis for throne, missing the final aleph of the word kisei, indicates that: “[Hashem’s] name will not be complete and His throne will not be complete until the name of Amalek is completely obliterated.” 

According to the Megaleh Amukos (in his derasha for Purim), the first two letters of Hashem’s name represent His interaction in the higher realms; and the final two, in the lower realms. (The contention is alluded to in the pasuk “The heavens will be glad and the earth will rejoice” [Tehillim 96:11], where the first letters of the first phrase spell Yah and the first letters of the second one are vav and heh, the final two letters of the Tetragrammaton.) Amalek’s existence prevents Hashem’s full manifestation in the human realm.

The Gemara in Megilla (13b) recounts how Haman’s 10,000 silver ingot bribe of Achashverosh for the privilege of destroying the Jewish people was “pre-empted” –and Haman’s plan undermined – by the shekalim the Jews willfully donated to the Mishkan centuries earlier. .

Haman, of course, was an Amaleki, and sought to further the goal of his ancestors. But his plans were frustrated by the willful donation to holiness of his targets’ own ancestors. Thus, the terumah of the Jews in Moshe’s time were, quite literally, lishmi – “for My name” – for the goal of “completing” the Tetragrammaton.

May it quickly be realized.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Mishpatim – The Angels Were Right, But Wrong

When we think of the word na’aseh, “we will do,” it is usually in the context of the phrase na’aseh vinish’ma, “we will do and we will hear” – Klal Yisrael’s statement of commitment to following the Torah’s laws, whether they are understood by reason or not. 

But the word naaseh appears in this week’s (and last week’s) parsha as an independent statement, without vinish’ma following it. 

And it appears as well in the Torah’s very first parsha, Bereishis, where it is Hashem Himself using it in the sense of “Let us make,” with the words “man in Our image” following.

Intriguingly, in both places – the creation of man and the revelation at Har Sinai – we find the Gemara describing angels’ opposition. In the first case, we are told of Hashem’s asking an angelic entourage if man should be created. They say no and Hashem destroys them. A second group offers the same response as the first and it, too, is destroyed.  A third one, noting its predecessors’ fate, says: “The universe is Yours. Do with it as You wish.” (Sanhedrin 38b)

At Sinai, similarly, we find angels opposing the offering of the Torah to human beings. Hashem asks Moshe to respond to them and he argues that the Torah’s laws presuppose human inclinations. “Do you have a father and mother?” to honor, he asks, among other examples. “Have you jealousy and an evil inclination?” (Shabbos 89a). Only humans, in other words, can say “We will do.”

In both cases, the angels’ case seems predicated on the inherent fallibility of human beings, the likelihood that they will sin and are unworthy of existence or being gifted with the Torah.

And sin and rebellion indeed ensued, right after Adam’s creation and after the Torah was accepted by his distant descendants. So, in a sense, the angels were right. But they were wrong.

There can be no true win without the possibility of loss. No advancement without the potential for decline. No accomplishment of ultimate good without an accompanying possibility of evil. 

The place where a ba’al teshuvah, a penitent sinner, stands, according to Rabi Abahu, “is a place where even the perfectly righteous cannot stand.” (Berachos 34b).

An old Chassidic tune’s words may say it best:

“Why, oh, why has the soul descended? / From so high a place to so one so low? / Because the descent is necessary for ascending.”

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Yisro – The Barrel’s Secret

Last year, I noted what Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa says about the Sinaitic revelation, that “Hashem overturned the mountain above the Jews like a barrel [gigis] and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, good; but if not, there will be your burial’” (Shabbos 88a).

What I suggested then was that a law in Devarim (22: 28-29) might be pertinent to that element of coercion: If a man forces himself upon a woman, he is fined, but also must (if the woman wishes) marry her and, unlike in any other marriage, cannot ever divorce her. The implication for Hashem’s having “forced” His relationship with Klal Yisrael should be self-evident.

That same Gemara in Shabbos, though, also teaches that the element of “coercion” at Sinai stood as a “remonstration” against the Jewish People, for their seeming lack of full agency at the time. It was remedied only centuries later by the Jews in Persia at the time of Mordechai and Esther.

The “coercion,” the Maharal explains, was essentially the powerful nature of the experience itself, the interaction of human and Divine, which left no opportunity for true free choice.

Enter Purim. Then, the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive Hashem’s presence where it was not in any way obvious.  Instead of seeing the threat against them in mundane terms, they recognized it as Hashem’s message, and responded with prayer, fasting, and repentance. By choosing to see Hashem’s  hand, they supplied what Sinai lacked, confirming that the Jewish acceptance of the Torah was – and is – wholehearted, sincere and pure. 

The “barrel” of Rav Avdimi’s description, thus, may be deeply meaningful. After all, isn’t a mountain overhead not sufficiently frightening?  Who needs a barrel metaphor?

A gigis, however, throughout the Talmud, contains an intoxicating beverage.  

In Pirkei Avos (4), Rabi Yehudah HaNasi teaches us not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.” That advice may have application here. The Jewish nation’s reaction to coercion at Sinai may not have revealed our people’s truest nature. What does, though, is how we express our dedication in a state of mindless purity, like ours on Purim, when we imbibe what a gigis holds. As Rabbi Elai said (Eiruvin 65b), a person’s true character can be ascertained “in his cup.”

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Bishalach – The Measure of a Mohn

One of the strangest pesukim in the Torah is the one that ends the account of the mohn.

After stating that “the Bnei Yisrael ate the mohn for forty years, until they came to a settled land; they ate the mohn until they came to the border of Eretz Cna’an,” the Torah continues, without so much as a segment break, to state that “The omer is a tenth of an ephah” (Shemos, 16:36).

Granted, an omer-volume was the portion each person received daily. But why do we need to know its relationship to a larger volume? And why is so seemingly banal a statement the one to culminate the mohn account?

Something in the Midrash about the korban ha’omer, the offering of an omer of barley on the second day of Pesach, is enlightening here.

In Vayikra Rabba 28:1, Rabi Yanai says:

The way of the world is that a person buys a measure of meat in the market; how much effort he expends, and pain he suffers, in cooking it. And, as people sleep in their beds, Hashem brings the winds and raises clouds and causes plants to sprout and ripens crops… and all He is given in return is the payment of the omer…

So the korban called omer implies a recognition of the fact that, however we may feel about our own efforts, it is Hashem Who does the, so to speak, heavy lifting regarding our sustenance. And that, of course, is the message of the mohn, too. The miraculous all-purpose food that fell from the sky signaled that, whatever efforts we might make to sustain ourselves, it is Hashem’s will that, in the end, in fact, does that.

And so Moshe was commanded to place an omer of mohn, that mere tenth of an ephah,into a container, to be preserved for all generations (Shemos 16:32). It is a reminder not only of the mohn miracle itself, but also of its implication, that, even in the absence of a korban omer, it is not our effort, in the end, that puts food on our tables.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran