Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Vo’eschanan – No Mere Miracle

The centerpiece, if such a word can be used in the context of a parshah, of Vo’eschanan is generally assumed to be the Aseres Hadibros, the Decalogue.

But I think that the even more fundamental element of the parshah is the recounting of history at 4:32-36, beginning, “For ask now about the early days that preceded you…” In particular: “Has any people heard a Divine voice speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived?” and “From the heavens [Hashem] let you hear the Divine voice to torment you…”

Every religion on earth touts a miracle or miracles as its basis. Judaism is different, something the Rambam explains in Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 8:1-2). 

While there were many miracles in Egypt and the desert, he notes, only the revelation at Har Sinai truly cemented, without reservation, in the minds and hearts of the Jews, the fact that Hashem was real and had been the author of the miracles they had experienced.  Because, the Ramban observes, any “miracle” could in fact be trickery or sorcery, engineered by a talented magician or sorcerer.

So what made Har Sinai qualitatively different from the splitting of the sea or the mon? The fact, it would seem, that our ancestors directly interacted with the Divine there. The Sinaic experience wasn’t mediated by the senses. The Jews “saw” the thunder; the normal senses were bypassed (See Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:15:1). 

It was a meeting, so to speak, of the minds – or, better, minds and the Mind.

Which is what the phrase “to torment you” above refers to. The experience – “Face to face Hashem spoke to you” (5:4) – was so wrenching to mere mortal men and women that the nation, after the first two dibros, begged Moshe to continue receiving the revelation, with the people continuing as bystanders, witnesses, but not direct recipients (See 5:22-24). The need for the initial “torment” or “torture” was to establish, which no mere miracle could, Hashem as Hashem. 

And that establishment of relationship is absolutely singular. No similar claim to a mass Divine-to-mortals revelation is, or can be, claimed by any other people or faith. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Devarim – Starry, Starry Night

It’s rare for city dwellers to truly see the night sky. Only once, many years ago, driving on a moonless night in West Virginia, did I fully perceive the vast number of stars – nearby planets and distant suns – that were a regular part of people’s lives before the advent of electrical lights.

Although I also (to my shock and delight) saw the Milky Way, the galaxy of which our solar system is part, the billions of individual stars within it cannot be differentiated by the naked eye.

How many stars can be seen with the unaided eye? Hundreds, for certain, maybe even thousands. 

Which leads me to a puzzle. Why are the “stars of the heavens” used by the Torah to mean truly huge numbers? Like in Beraishis 22:17 and Devarim 28:62 and in our parshah (1:10)?

Rashi makes the puzzle even more puzzling: “But were they [the Jewish people] on that day as [many as] the stars of the heavens? Were they not only six hundred thousand?”

In fact, including women and children, they were at least two million. Certainly many more than the stars that our eyes can make out on the starriest of nights.

There are midrashim and commentaries that see the Torah’s star/Jewish People comparisons as indicating something qualitative, not quantitative, like the midrash cited by Rashi on the pasuk in our parshah, which sees the reference indicating Klal Yisrael’s eternal nature. Or Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook’s suggestion that, just as stars are used for navigation, so are the Jews to live lives to guide other nations, to be a “light unto” them. Perhaps he saw the word larov, “in abundance,” as implying larav, “as a teacher.”  But the word’s simple sense cannot be ignored.

I don’t have an answer to the puzzle, only an observation. Namely, that today we know the Milky Way isn’t a “heavenly river,” as might be the meaning of Nehar Dinur (the “river of light” referenced in Chagigah 14a), some undifferentiated band of light, but rather a collection of billions of stars. And that science, most recently the Webb space telescope, has already revealed unimaginable numbers of stars in untold numbers of galaxies far, far beyond our own.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Mas’ei – A Historic Killing’s Echo

One of the most – if not the most – confounding laws in the Torah is that of the go’el hadam, the relative of someone who was accidentally killed, who is permitted (in some opinions commanded) to pursue the unfortunate killer and dispatch him.

So much to unpack here. Personal revenge is far from a Jewish concept. In fact, the Torah unequivocally forbids it in all other situations: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against those of your people” (Vayikra 19:18). Why the exception here? And when the offense being avenged wasn’t even intentional? That would seem to violate even common sense.

Adding to the oddity of the go’el hadam law is the fact that the pursued can find safe haven in any of the “cities of refuge”– six designated ones plus another 42 Levi’im cities that also provide the accidental killer a safe base, where the pursuer has no right to harm him.

Sefer Devarim is called Mishneh Torah – a “review of the Torah.” Although it does contain laws not found earlier, it is, in some sense, an “addendum” to the prior four sefarim. Which would make Bamidbar, at least in a way, the final sefer of the Torah, its conclusion.

The Torah begins its account of human history with a killing, an exile and a protection. Kayin killed his brother, but no one had ever been killed before, so he may be considered a shogeg, an “accidental” killer, even if he intended violence. Or even his intentional act, by bringing killing into the world, may have been what “allowed” for accidental death at the hands of humans.

And Kayin was a bechor, a first-born, whose role the Levi’im come in time to replace. After his act, Kayin is forced to wander, bereft of a territory. The Levi’im, the assumers of the bechor-role, are also deprived of a tribal section of Eretz Yisrael. Instead, they are to dwell in designated cities. To which a killer-by-accident can find refuge. Cities force people to interact interpersonally. An antidote, perhaps, to the Kayin-attitude of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

There is much more to explore here, but let it suffice it to say that the elements of the first killing in history seem to echo in the law of go’el hadam at the “end” of the Torah. Might the law’s import be not in its actual use but rather (as various tannaim hold in the cases of the bayis hamenuga, ir hanidachas and ben sorer u’moreh – see Sanhedrin 71a)) on another level? 

Certainly worth deeper thought.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Pinchas – Self Changes Everything

The law of kana’im pog’im bo – “the zealous ones can attack him” – that Pinchas acted upon to dispatch Zimri and Kozbi is a highly unusual, if not singular, one: If one poses it as a halachic query, it is rendered a forbidden act; but if acted upon without consultation, it is meritorious. How can something prohibited be a mitzvah? We find yibum rendering what was an aveira (relations with one’s brother’s wife) a mitzvah, but there the situation has changed, with the death of the brother. Here, the same act under the same circumstances is both wrong and right.

In physics, there is something called the “observer effect,” referring to the fact that the act of measuring something affects what is being measured. For instance, a thermometer placed in a liquid can’t truly measure the liquid’s temperature, since the thermometer’s own temperature changes the liquid’s (and using a thermometer with the same temperature as the liquid would require knowing the liquid’s temperature beforehand).

The observer effect is even more pronounced in quantum physics, where even the most basic act of observation disturbs the state of subatomic particles.

I wonder if something like the “observer effect” may exist in the halacha of kana’im pog’im bo. The act itself, in its essence, is proper; it is the introduction of self that changes the status of the law, rendering the act forbidden. 

If the aspirant to the status of “zealous” has the presence of mind to query whether he should act, the answer is that he should not. Once a he has entered the situation, it changes what was permitted, even meritorious, into something forbidden. With the introduction of self, everything changes.

When an act of kana’us is performed automatically, though, devoid of “self”-consciousness, without consideration of its potential impact on oneself, it is praiseworthy. And Pinchas, who acted out of pure dedication to Hashem, with no concern for self, is rightly praised.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran