Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Parshas Vo’eira – A Partnership of Opposites

Only one of the Ten Plagues visited upon Par’oh and Mitzrayim elicits a declaration of guilt and admission of Hashem’s righteousness from the Egyptian leader.“

This time I have sinned,” Par’oh admits. “Hashem is the righteous One, and I and my nation are the wicked ones.” (Shemos 9:27). 

It is the plague of hail. Why, of all the other punishments, that one?

What occurs is that the answer may lie in the Midrash brought by Rashi (ibid, 24), that each piece of hail contained a flame, and that water and fire “made peace with each other” in order “to do the will of their Creator.”

Par’oh was an idolater.  The Egyptians worshipped the Nile and, according to historians, the sun.  Idolatry entails choosing a “team” to be on.  One can be on Team Nile, Team Sun, Team Water, Team Fire…

Monotheism entails the recognition that all the “teams” (elohos) are subservient to the one Creator of all the elements (Elohim).

Perhaps Par’oh was forced to confront and internalize that fact by having witnessed, during the plague of hail, the “partnership” of opposites.

Truth be told, we are all comprised of opposites: souls and bodies.  Each has its own desideratum. The only way to “make peace” between them is doing the will of our Creator, which requires both elements to work together.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

parshas Shemos: Pathetic Persecutors

As the Jewish population in ancient Egypt swelled, the Torah tells us that vayakutzu — The Egyptians “were disgusted” (Shemos 1:12).  Rashi explains that “they were disgusted with their [own] lives.”

A superficial reading of vayakutzu would lead to a simpler understanding, that the Egyptians, out of fear (as pesukim 8 and 9 describe), found the Jews, not themselves, disgusting. What is the significance of Rashi’s comment?

The Mei Marom (Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlop, 1882-1951) posits that the pasuk is teaching a psychological truth: It is impossible to embitter the life of another unless one is embittered with himself. Anyone who appreciates and cherishes his own life will perforce be concerned about the lives of others.  

And so, Rabbi Charlop concludes, if one sees someone oppressing another, one can surmise that the oppressor’s cruelty is fundamentally sourced in self-loathing.  

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayechi – The Real Man in the Moon

In a good example of Talmudic humor, Rav Nachman reacted to Rav Yitzḥak’s recounting of what Rabi Yochanan said, that “Our patriarch Yaakov did not die,” with a wry question: “So was it for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him and the embalmers embalmed him and the buriers buried him?” (Taanis, 5b).

The way to understand the contention that Yaakov didn’t die, I think (and it’s borne out of the verses quoted in that Gemara), is that he lives on — as the patriarch whose children, all of them, became the progenitors of Klal Yisrael — through the eternal Jewish people.

The Midrash in Vayeishev, commenting on Yosef’s dream about the sun, moon and stars bowing to him, has Yaakov wondering, “Who revealed to him that my [secret] name is ‘sun’?”

It’s interesting to reflect (pun intended) on the fact that the moon — the symbol, in its waxing and waning, and in its role in the Jewish calendar, of Klal Yisrael — reflects the light of the sun.  We reflect Yaakov, are the continuation of his life.

Even more interesting, according to the Tikkunei Zohar, “the image of Yaakov is carved out [i.e. visible] in the moon.”

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Mask Ask

Back in the day — by which I mean this past spring — I was a resolute non-masker. When shopping, of course, I followed stores’ rules. But in shul, I was part of the majority of attendees who, while shunning hand-shaking and coughing in other people’s faces, chose to not self-suffocate. In my long-favored hashkamah minyan, which required masks, I was granted permission by the maskers to sit behind a mechitzah in the back of the room.

But today I wear a mask religiously, both meanings intended. Because my objection to masking had only been because I felt that the benefit of covering my mouth and nose was outweighed by the danger to my health in not receiving sufficient oxygen. I could feel, I felt, that I wasn’t getting enough air.

But then I found research that showed that oxygen levels did not decrease as a result of masking — even when the masker was engaged in strenuous exercise (a category in which I don’t think even energetic shukkeling belongs).

And so, I realized that it was really just the discomfort of breathing warm air and enduring fogged eyeglasses that argued against the public health benefit of wearing a mask. I was being a shul snowflake.

Though there are the inevitable gadflies who claim there is no benefit to masking, the evidence for its helpfulness in stemming the spread of infections is compelling. To be sure, there is only limited evidence that mask-wearers are less likely to contract Covid-19, but the real benefit of masking is to prevent infected but asymptomatic people from spreading the virus — in other words, to protect others. For that, there is ample evidence, both from lab experiments and, more importantly, from analyses of the rate of virus spread in communities and countries where masking is routine and others where it is spotty.

And so, masking in groups, is, most simply put, an act of chesed.

Then there is the public perception. Although I write as a private individual, my day job is with Agudath Israel of America, where I interact with the media and the public. The image of the chareidi community, despite that it is very large and very varied, is that its members shun masking. That is a problem.

Because — at least to the limited extent that the perception of chareidi mask-shunning is true — it gives people, other Jews and non-Jews alike, the impression that our community doesn’t care about others.

At the Keynote Session of Agudath Israel of America’s recent (virtual) national convention, the organization’s executive vice president, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, offered a heartfelt, impassioned reiteration of the imperative to follow current health authorities’ advice, and declared that religious Jews who disregard precautions like masking and distancing not only potentially harm the health of others but bring about the opposite of the fundamental Jewish imperative to make “Hashem’s name beloved to others.” Chalilah on both counts.

Personally, ever since I’ve become a masked man, I have come to better appreciate something my dear father, a”h, would often say. And, having been yanked by the Soviets at the start of World War II from the Vilna yeshiva in which he had been studying and banished with his friends and their rebbe to the frozen taiga of Siberia, he was amply credentialed to offer the lesson.

“A person,” he taught his children, “can get used to anything.”

What he meant was that, whatever new situation might confront us, it should never be seen as an insurmountable obstacle. With equanimity and time, we can handle things we never would have imagined were handle-able.

As challenges go, wearing a surgical mask around others rather pales compared to chopping wood in 40 degrees below zero weather. But the lesson is the same.

And, indeed, now I’m so accustomed to my mask that I sometimes forget that I’m even wearing it.

Many hands are being wrung over what, oy vey, the “new normal” might be for perhaps even years to come. I understand the angst.

But I imagine my father just saying, reassuringly, don’t worry, you can get used to it.

© 2020 Ami Magazine

Parshas Vayigash – Being Pushed, Being Loved

One of the hardest of life’s lessons to learn, a truth born of challenges we all first encounter in childhood but that persist well beyond, is realizing that being shouldered with responsibility needn’t bespeak lording but love.

Rashi comments on Hashem’s repetition of Yaakov Avinu’s name, calling him “Yaakov, Yaakov” (Beraishis, 46:2), as a lashon chibah, a locution of endearment.

The full Midrash from which Rashi quotes, though, adds “lashon ziruz” — a locution of motivation, of pushing to action. 

In last week’s parshah, the Midrash has Yaakov hinting to Hashem a desire for an end to the relentless challenges that confronted him throughout his life, regarding Lavan, Esav, Rochel, Dina, Yosef, Shimon and Binyamin (43:14).

But in this week’s parshah, Hashem hints back that what might seem to be burdens are in truth opportunities. Yaakov’s life was unimaginably hard, but by living it he became Yaakov Avinu.

With the term “Yaakov, Yaakov,” Hashem signals that being given the responsibility to shoulder challenges — ziruz — can be inseparable from, indeed an expression of, chibah — love.

And that is true not only when the “pushing” is coming from Above, but also when it’s coming from a parent, spouse or friend.

Parshas Miketz — Lying Eyes

A botanist named Joseph Banks who was aboard Captain James Cook’s 1770 voyage recorded in his diary that while the 106-foot-long Endeavour sailed along the east coast of Australia, native fishermen totally ignored the large boat, the likes of which they surely had never before seen. 

Rashi (Beraishis 42:8) quotes the Gemara that explains the reason Yosef’s brothers didn’t recognize him when they appeared before him in his role as second in command of Egypt: They had last seen him beardless and now he was a grown man with a full beard. 

But Yosef, the Midrash says, looked just like his father Yaakov, whom the brothers knew as a grown man, if one considerably older than the Yosef facing them.

Perhaps there was another element at play here, too, the sort of cognitive dissonance that might explain the Australian aborigines’ lack of reaction to the sudden appearance of the large ship. It has been speculated that they had no model in their imaginations for a vessel like the Endeavour and so their minds blocked out what was before their eyes, rendering it invisible.

The very last place Yosef’s brothers could have imagined him being was on a throne in a powerful country. They had left him in the hands of slave-traders and “knew” that he was, if he was even alive, toiling as a lowly servant.  Might that “knowledge” have been at least part of why his face didn’t register with them, why they couldn’t see him even as he was right before their eyes?

Even in our times, we see the incredible power of preconceptions, how blinding they can be.  Even when faced with overwhelming evidence for the truth of something, it can still remain for millions of people an unthinkable thought, and render what is right in front of them effectively invisible.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

However, Reality

The Hebrew word for “mourning” is introduced in Vayeishev to describe Yaakov’s response to the apparent death of his son Yosef: “Vayis’abel (Beraishis 37:34).

The word “eivel” — “mourning” — is composed of the same letters, in the same order, as the word “aval” — “however.”

“However” bespeaks an interruption of a thought.  And mourning — the facing of mortality forced by the death of someone close — is an interruption of life, of living, as we all do, without constantly thinking about death.

It’s interesting to note that the parsha includes not only the interruption of Yaakov’s life by Yosef’s disappearance – his aveilus – but a striking interruption of the narrative flow of the parsha itself, in the form of  the account of Yehudah and Tamar. 

And that narrative also presents yet another interruption, this one, of Yehudah’s life. He is suddenly, unexpectedly, forced to confront the reality of his role in Tamar’s pregnancy.  Yes, Tamar tells him when he seeks to punish her, you seem innocent and I seem guilty.  However, she continues, please recognize these personal items… (38:25). That, for Yehudah, is an aval moment too.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Thinking Out of the Box

Yaakov famously sequestered Dinah his daughter in a box as he prepared to meet Esav his brother.

That, according to the Midrash Rabbah brought by Rashi (Beraishis 32:23). His reason for hiding Dinah, the Midrash notes, was because he feared that Esav would, upon seeing her, wish to marry her. And he didn’t want to take that chance.

But there’s a phrase in the Midrash, though, that is easily overlooked. Not only did he put his daughter in a box, he “locked her in.”

What that seems to indicate is that Yaakov knew that, as Chazal explain at the very beginning of the saga of Dinah’s abduction and rape by Shechem, she was a yatzanis, an “outgoing personality.” She was a naturally curious person. And so, prudently, her father locked her in, since he feared she might emerge during his meeting with Esav to witness the goings-on.

And, according to the Midrash, Yaakov is faulted for that, since, had Dinah in fact been seen by Esav and ended up marrying him, she might have been able to turn his life around and alter the enmity he held in his heart for Yaakov.

But wasn’t Yaakov right to do what he did?  

Apparently not. The question is why.

What occurs is that children have natural proclivities and tendencies.  There are times, to be sure, indeed many times, when a child has to receive “no” as an answer.

But squelching a child’s nature is not a good idea. It can easily backfire.  Ideal child rearing is channeling the child’s nature, not seeking to squelch it. (See Malbim on Chanoch lina’ar al pi darko (Mishlei 22:6).

My wife and I know a couple whose little boy seemed obsessed with airplanes, beyond the normal interest in such things of all little boys. The parents didn’t try to dissuade him from his desire, as he grew, to fly or work with planes, to force him, so to speak, into a box. They allowed him to express it, and the little boy is grown today, a yeshiva (and flight school) graduate who is a certified air traffic controller, and he’s raising a beautiful, Torah-centered family with his wife, our daughter.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran