Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Beraishis – Marriage Medicine

The first marriage in history, which we reference in the Birchos Nesuin recited under the chuppah, differed in a fundamental way from all marriages to follow.

According to one Midrashic opinion, Adam and Chavah were created as a human fusion, a man/woman. And the “forming” of the first woman described by the Torah described its separation into two entities.

Tzela, often translated “rib,” is in fact used with regard to the Mishkan to mean “side,” so it could refer to the woman part of Adam/Chavah before Divine surgery provided each entity independent personhood.

And so, Adam’s union with his wife was actually a “reunion” – of two beings who had originally been one. As reflected in Adam’s words when presented with Chavah: “This time it is a bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” (Bereishis, 2:23).

But every subsequent marriage involves two discrete individuals becoming united, but not reunited. Marriage, after the first one, is less like reattaching a severed part than like transplanting a newly donated one.

The medical metaphor is meaningful.

Transplantation, we know, carries a risk of rejection. The body’s natural reaction to the introduction of an “other,” with its own distinct genetic identity, is to seek to show it the door. That “immune response,” of course, is essential for fighting the introduction of foreign elements that could be harmful.

Likewise, a human soul’s natural response to the intimate introduction of an “other,” with its own discrete spiritual and emotional identity, is to seek to protect itself from the new “threat.”

Doctors address the transplantation danger with immunosuppressant drugs, chemicals that prevent rejection – or, put another way, that weaken the host body’s sense of self.

That, in the context of contemporary marriage, holds an invaluable lesson. The spiritual-emotional transplant that each member of the couple undergoes needs an “immunosuppressant” of its own for the marriage to succeed. It requires, in other words, no less than in the case of an organ transplant, a weakening of self.

Here, no drug will do; what alone can work is sheer force of will and love.

Newlyweds can disagree over whether the window in autumn should be open or closed. But the chilled spouse should be the one insisting that it remain open for the comfort of the overheated one; and the latter should be running to shut it to keep the other warm.

And windows, of course, are only a mundane example.

What’s more, the medical metaphor message isn’t only for newlyweds. Because transplant recipients need to take their medication for life.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vizos Habracha — Four Fundamental Letters

The Torah begins with an act of kindness, Rabi Simlai points out – Hashem’s providing clothing to Adam and Chava; and ends with an act of kindness – the burial of Moshe Rabbeinu (Sotah, 14a).

Another “beginning and end” aspect of the Torah is noted by the Chasam Sofer. The very last word in the Torah, “Yisrael,” shares four letters with the very first one, “Bereishis”: aleph, shin, resh and yud. And those letters spell ashrei.

Ashrei can be translated as “praiseworthy” or “fortunate.”  That latter meaning may be the key to the “bridge” connecting the end of the Torah and its beginning, which we seek to connect on Simchas Torah, when we complete the yearly Torah-cycle and begin it anew.

Jews are called Yehudim because of Leah’s statement when she named Yehudah, that Hashem had given her “more than her share” of sons. We are defined by a declaration that what we have is a gift, one we haven’t earned and about which we must feel fortunate.

And rain first fell, allowing the already-created vegetation to sprout, only after Adam was created and was able to “recognize the good of rain and pray for it” (Rashi, Beraishis, 2:5). He had to express how fortunate he would be to merit the rain and the ensuing growth.

Recognizing the good that Hashem bestows upon us is central to Judaism. And, perhaps, that is what is hinted at in the letters of the word ashrei that appear at the end and beginning of the Torah.

And, indeed, from the beginning of our day – Modeh Ani – until its end – Hamapil – we are to express that recognition. And birchos hanehenin throughout the day.  And Asher Yatzar, a brachah for our medically advanced time (the more we know, the more thankful we must be).

Our recognition of how truly fortunate we are – to have been granted existence and the opportunity to play a role in the Divine plan, to daily receive Hashem’s gifts of life and sustenance, to be part of Klal Yisrael – should inform every Jew’s outlook and attitudes. 

And the joy it yields should be front and center of our minds during z’man simchaseinu and Simchas Torah.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ha’azinu — And Zaidy Makes Three

Parshas Ha’azinu

And Zaidy Makes Three

The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) quotes “a certain Galilean” as having said “Blessed is the Merciful One, Who gave a three-fold Torah [in the broad sense, Torah, Neviim and Ksuvim] to a three-fold nation [Cohanim, Levi’im and Yisraelim] by means of a third-born [Moshe]  on the third day [of separation of men and women] in the third month [Sivan].” (“Galilean,” interestingly, in Hebrew, contains the gematria letter for “3” and – twice – “33”)

The stress on threes concerning the giving of the Torah, it occurs to me, may reflect the essence of mesorah itself, that is to say, its transmittal. Just as the most elemental physical chain needs three links, so, too, the conceptual one. Each of us is a middle link; we must have received the mesorah and then transmitted it. And our recipients then become middle links themselves.

In parshas Haazinu, we read, similarly:  “Ask your father and he will tell you, your grandfather and he will say to you” (Devarim 32:7). The threesome chain again.

And, intriguingly, the word employed for the father’s telling is “viyagedcha”, from the root lihagid — which Rashi elsewhere (Shemos 19:3) says implies an element of harshness; and for the grandfather’s telling, the word is viyomru – whose root, omer, Rashi (ibid) characterizes as a “soft” communication.

The Torah may mean to teach here that a father must be an authority figure, and his transmittal of the mesorah more demanding, while a grandfather’s guidance is to be, well, grandfatherly, imparted with a more gentle touch.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Who By Tongue

There’s an often overlooked irony in the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, whose poignant tefillah “U’nesaneh Tokef, describing the Ultimate Judge’s opening the book of our deeds and deciding our fates, is solemnly recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. 

It is a chilling passage to recite – and the haunting melody to which it is traditionally sung only adds to its poignancy. And its final words, “But repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree,” chanted loudly by the entire tzibbur, are a fount of inspiration and hope for the new year.

The story behind the composition is from the 13th century halachic work Ohr Zarua, written by Rabbi Yitzchok ben Moshe of Vienna.

Rabbi Amnon was pressured by the Archbishop of Mainz to convert to Christianity and refused, finally, as a stalling tactic, asking for three days’ time to consider the offer.

When Rabbi Amnon didn’t visit the clergyman at the end of the three days, he was forcibly taken to him and, adamant in his refusal, was tortured on the Archbishop’s orders. Rabbi Amnon’s fingers and toes were amputated one by one, and he was returned to his home with his twenty amputated limbs.

On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried, along with his body parts, into shul, and before Kedushah, intoned U’nsaneh Tokef, dying shortly thereafter. Several days later, one Kalonymus ben Meshulam, according to the account, had a dream in which Rabbi Amnon taught him the words of the prayer.

According to the account, when Rabbi Amnon was brought before the archbishop, the rabbi told the clergyman that he wanted to be punished – not for refusing the conversion offer but rather for having given the impression that he had even considered such a thing.  “Cut out my tongue,” he told the archbishop.  The clergyman, however, seeing Rabbi Amnon’s refusal to convert as his sin, chose his own punishment for the rabbi, the one meted out.

And so the priest, while he tortured the Jew grievously, left his victim’s tongue in place.

And therein lies the irony. That tongue was what yielded us U’nsaneh Tokef.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Nitzavim – Turning Pain to Gain

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) at the start of parshas Nitzavim sees in the parsha’s opening words, “You are standing today” the message that, despite the sins and travails of Klal Yisrael up to that point, and the klalos enumerated in parshas Ki Savo, the nation is still standing. Indeed, the Midrash continues, “the curses strengthen you [ma’amidos es’chem].”

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that physical systems naturally degenerate into more and more disordered states. 

Living systems, though, seem to act otherwise. A domeim, a non-living item like a rock or mineral, is indeed entirely subject to entropy. A tzomei’ach, though, a plant, which grows, less so. And an animal, a chai, even less so, as it can also move around to promote its wellbeing.

And a living human is even more able to defend against entropy, manipulating his environment, using intelligence, tools and creativity to protect himself.

The highest rung on the hierarchy, according to sefarim, is Yisrael, the Jewish nation. Perhaps we are particularly entropy-resistant – especially able to turn challenges that would naturally wear away other people, leaving them feeling dejected and hopeless, into not just perseverance but renewed strength. Haklalos ma’amidos es’chem.

The churbanos of the Batei Mikdash, for example, were followed with determined and successful Jewish renewal, as was the most recent churban, that of Jewish Europe. Parts of Klal Yisrael have returned to Eretz Yisrael, and Torah study and practice thrive throughout the world.

And in our personal lives, too, as Rav Dessler writes, our failings and fallings can, through our pain and teshuvah, become fuel for our determination to reach even greater heights. 

A timely thought during these waning days of Elul.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Remembering Rav Aharon Schechter’s Smile – and a Phone Call

The sorrow I felt at the news that Rav Aharon Schechter, zt”l, had been niftar from this world eventually gave way to the comforting image of his radiant smile and the memory of his personal warmth. And to a particular personal memory of a long-ago, unexpected phone call.

The Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin Rosh Yeshiva’s smile wasn’t born of any calculated forcing of will. It was simply his “default” expression, the physical manifestation of his simchas hachaim and ahavas Yisrael.  It receded only when he was deep in thought, saying a shiur, pondering a she’eilah or formulating a response to a question, then giving way to a look of concentration. As soon as the contemplation was complete, the smile quickly, naturally, reasserted itself, coming again to the fore.

Rav Schechter’s brilliance and scholarship were recognized by Rav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, who tapped him to take his place in the yeshiva when Rav Hutner moved to Eretz Yisrael to found Yeshivas Pachad Yitzchak in Yerushalayim. And they are evident in “Avodas Aharon,” the sefer Rav Schechter authored back in the 1950s. And his eloquence, whether speaking in Yiddish or English, was striking.

Until illness limited him, Rav Schechter was constantly in the beis medrash, and even learned “bichavrusa” with talmidim. Under his direction and love, the yeshiva became a renowned makom Torah

But it was his smile, his kindness, his ahavas Yisrael, his concern for everyone with whom he interacted, that first come to my mind when I think of him. 

The sensitivity that characterized Rav Schechter was evident in much of what was recounted at his levayah. Although in her later years, his rebbetzin had become progressively unaware of her surroundings, her husband refused to recite kiddush on Shabbos until she was seated at the table, such was his respect for his eishes chayil, diminished in awareness or not. Once, leaving home for the chasunah of one of the rebbetzin’s relatives, he told her he was going to a chasunah. Why, he was asked afterward, didn’t he say whose chasunah he was attending. “I didn’t want her to feel bad that she isn’t able to go,” was his response.

I cannot claim the honor of having been a talmid of Rav Schechter’s. I first met him, briefly, in the early 1980s, when I was a rebbe in a mesivta in Providence, Rhode Island and, by then having become a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, he visited the community. (That alone said much about him.)

He observed my shiur and even offered an observation about a perplexing Rashi to me afterward. 

I wouldn’t hear his voice again for two or three years, on that phone call.

Those of a certain age might recall a controversy I inadvertently stirred up with an article I wrote in the much-missed Jewish Observer in 1986. On the heels of an earlier JO piece I had written about the radical Reform proponent Abraham Geiger, the magazine’s editor, Rabbi Nissan Wolpin, a”h, asked me if I would undertake one about the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

I said I would happily do so, but, having done some reading about Mendelssohn, knew that, despite the sad fate of his children and disciples, he was no reformer. Rabbi Wolpin insisted that all he was asking for was an accurate portrayal of the man and whatever thoughts I might have to offer about him.

The resultant article, “The Enigma of Moses Mendelssohn,” described him accurately, as having lived an observant Jewish life, even as, professionally, he moved in decidedly unJewish circles. 

Although the JO’s respected editorial board, including Rav Joseph Elias, a”h, quite the expert on German Jewish history, had approved my article, it enraged some readers, who had coddled an image of the article’s subject as the “father of Reform.”  They felt that my suggestion that Mendelssohn’s inability to keep his students or progeny within the Jewish fold lay in something subtle, a lack of true respect for gedolim of his era, was a whitewashing.

The brouhaha grew so frenzied that the question of how the Jewish Observer should respond was discussed by the members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. I was told that their ultimate decision – to have the JO express regret for having published the piece – was not favored by all the Moetzes’ members.

Far from the storm, in Providence, any bolts of lightning missed me, and I didn’t really feel its hailstones. But I was told that they were large and many. When I called the Agudah’s offices about something unrelated, the receptionist asked, under her breath, “How are you holding up?”

That’s when I realized that the storm had been upgraded to hurricane status. I was, understandably, not happy. I had, I thought, just reported facts and offered a theory. Some, though, felt I had attempted to rehabilitate a fiend.

When the JO’s apology for running my piece was published, Rabbi Wolpin called me and attempted to take the blame for the hubbub. But he had done nothing wrong. Neither he nor the members of the editorial board (nor I) had any reason to foresee the anger that had ensued. 

I was understandably disheartened, though, by the disowning of what I had worked on so long.

It was a Motzoei Shabbos when the phone rang. Caller ID wasn’t yet a thing and so I had no idea who was calling. I picked up and said “Gut voch.”

The voice on the other end said, “This is Schechter.”

“Moishy!” I exclaimed, delighted to hear from my old high school classmate in Baltimore’s Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, or “T.A.”

“No. Aharon.”

It took me a few seconds to realize whom I was speaking with. But the realization eventually dawned.

“Rosh Yeshiva!” I corrected myself. “I’m so sorry. I thought it was someone else.”

“That’s okay,” he responded. And then he got to the crux of the call. “I just wanted to wish you a gut, gebenched voch. That’s all.”

To say that the call was a balm or chizuk at a difficult time would be an understatement. I don’t recall exactly what I stammered in response to the Rosh Yeshiva’s wish, but I imagine I expressed my hakaras hatov for the call. I certainly felt it.

The kerfuffle over the Mendelssohn piece, like all storms, subsided with time. And, ironically, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, a”h, later offered me a position at the Agudah (which I initially turned down – another story there – but eventually accepted).

I’ve been with the Agudah now for some 30 years. And one of the great perks of working for the organization has been the ability to greet and speak with members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah when they have come to the office to meet.

Approximately two years ago, Rav Schechter attended one such meeting; it would turn out to be his last. He was already physically compromised, but his smile was unfaded, bright as ever. When I went over to greet him, he warmly shook my hand. 

And then he asked me if he could hold on to my arm as he made his way down the hall. I was sad that he needed support but couldn’t have been more honored. And that special memory of being able to be of some small assistance to the Rosh Yeshivah has joined the company of another special memory, of an unexpected phone call 35 years earlier.

© 2023 Ami Magazine

Ki Savo – Schrödinger’s Moon

Seizing on the fact that the Hebrew word for a granary – osem – shares two letters with the word for “obscured” – samui – Chazal make an intriguing assertion: Blessing [i.e. increase in volume] is common only in things that are “obscured from the eye” (Bava Metzia 42a).

The pasuk on which that truth is based is in our parsha: “Hashem will order the blessing to be with you in your granaries [ba’asamecha]…” (Devarim, 28:8).

Rav Dessler (first chelek of Michtav M’Eliyahu, pg. 178 in my ancient edition) explains that what we call cause and effect, the essence of physics, is really an illusion; only Hashem’s will is operative, even in what we call physical nature. And so, when something is out of sight, where cause and effect cannot be perceived, His will can cause bracha in the hidden. 

That idea of natural law’s suspension in the case of something beneath perception is vaguely, but tantalizingly, reminiscent of quantum physics’ “Schrödinger’s cat” thought experiment, where direct cause and effect is seemingly suspended – on the subatomic level, but with theoretical implications for the macroscopic world. The issue underlying Schrödinger’s paradox remains an unsolved problem in physics.

Be that as it may, though, something important will in fact be “obscured from the eye” in a few weeks: the moon, on Rosh Hashana. The moon is Klal Yisrael’s timekeeper, and time is the most fundamental element of nature. Klal Yisrael’s clock will not be visible on the first of the days of teshuva.

And time itself, in a sense, will be suspended then. Because we can interfere with its natural, relentless march forward – or, at least, with its unreachable past. Through the bracha of teshuva, which Chazal tell us can change the very nature of our pasts, traveling back, in a way, in time – turning past wrong actions done intentionally into actions done inadvertently; even, with the deepest teshuva, repentance born of pure love of Hashem, into meritorious acts. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ki Seitzei – A Puzzling Parallel

It is striking and strange that a phrase that is to be proclaimed by the yevama, the childless widow whose brother-in-law does not wish to marry her, is the precise phrase in Megillas Esther, bearing the same cantillation, used by Haman when he tells Achashverosh what should be proclaimed as “the man whose honor the king desires” is paraded through the city in royal robes on the royal horse. And is proclaimed, in the end, by Haman as he parades Mordechai.

“Thus shall be done to the man… who will not build up his brother’s house” (Devarim 25:9). 

And “Thus shall be done to the man… whose honor the king desires” (Esther 6:9). 

The phrase occurs in only those two places.

Strange, as well, is that (to my knowledge) none of the major commentaries so much as notes the parallel. 

Adding to the essential riddle is that, mere pesukim after the yibum description, are the commandments to “remember what Amalek did to you” and to “wipe out the memory of Amalek.” Haman, of course, was a scion of Amalek.

What occurs to me is that Mordechai, before whom Haman’s “Thus shall be done…” ends up being proclaimed, is “filling in,” so to speak, for the long-deceased King Shaul, who allowed the Amalekite king Agag to live, resulting in Haman. A yavam is similarly “filling in” for his deceased brother. Years ago, my daughter Shiffy Jakubowicz, then Shiffy Shafran, added at our Shabbos table that yibum is a hakamas sheim, an “establishment of an identity,” and what we are commanded to do to Amalek is mechiyas sheim, the “obliteration of an identity.”

Both my and her observations are intriguing. Although the ultimate meaning of the riddle remains elusive.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran