Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Parshas Ki Savo – Happiness Doesn’t Happen

What is arguably the most shocking pasuk in the entire Torah is in this week’s parshah. No, it’s not any of the descriptions of horrors in the portion of the parshah we call the tochacha, although it does lie within that portion.

It is the pasuk that identifies why the horrors can happen: “Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, with happiness and joy of heart amid abundance” (Devarim 28:47).

Some commentaries parse that pasuk to mean, in effect, that “you did not serve Hashem, which you should have done with happiness amid abundance.”

But Rabbeinu Bachya (and the Rambam seems to regard the pasuk similarly) reads it very differently, as effectively saying: “You served Hashem, yes, you did His will, but without happiness, despite the abundance.”

In other words, the tochacha’s terrors are the result not of any lack of mitzvos, davening, acts of chesed or studying Torah, but rather of doing all those things, but doing them joylessly.

The importance of simchah is actually presaged in the parshah in its opening law, bikkurim. There, the bringing of first fruits is accompanied with a command to “rejoice in all the goodness that Hashem your G-d has given you” (Devarim 26:11).

How, though, can one be commanded to be happy?

The question is based on a falsehood, that happiness is something that happens to us, not something that we can choose.

To be sure, it is not always easy. The key to achieving joy lies in the words “amid abundance” and “all the goodness” in the pesukim above.

That is to say, in pondering – seriously, deeply and constantly – all that we have. The trees and the rain, the laughter of children, the beating of our hearts, the roofs over our heads.

In stopping, when we find ourselves grumbling over the supermarket being out of the particular brand of hot sauce we prefer and marveling instead at the wild bounty of foods filling the store’s scores of shelves, utterly unimaginable to someone living a mere century ago. In thinking, as we enjoy a luscious piece of dark chocolate, that 99% of humanity over millennia never even had the chance to experience that taste.

Knowing that heat in the winter is available to us with the push of a button. That we have air conditioning, computers, cars, indoor plumbing… There is no limit to the list.

Happiness doesn’t happen. It is achieved. And we are commanded, indeed privileged, to achieve it.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Shoftim – We’re All in This Together

Why, of course the elders of the nearest city didn’t kill the man! So what is the meaning — in the case of a person found murdered on the road, where the ritual of egla arufa is prescribed — of their requirement to say, “Our hands did not spill this blood”? (Devarim 21:7)

As the Mishneh (Sotah 45b) explains, what the elders must affirm is that they did not even send the visitor off without food or accompaniment as he left their city. 

And so, by their declaration, they are guiltless even of that. So why is an “atonement” — which the egla arufa is called — necessary? For whom does it atone? The murderer? Certainly not. If he is subsequently discovered and convicted in court, he is executed (ibid 47b).

It seems clear that, as the pasuk itself states starkly, the atonement is for “Your people Yisrael” (Devarim 21:8). What could that mean? What did the Jewish people do to the victim?

There are interpersonal actions that Chazal equate in some way to more obvious crimes. Lashon hara, for instance, is characterized by Chazal as “killing” (Arachin 15b).

Rav Dessler notes that when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Yehoshua’s conquest of Canaan, it is described as the sin of the entire people (Yehoshua 7:1). Had the people as a whole, he explains, been sufficiently sensitive to the commandment to shun the city’s spoils, even if they did not violate it themselves, Achan would not have been able to commit his sin.

Perhaps here, too, even if no particular person was directly responsible for the wayfarer’s murder, what enabled so terrible an act to happen might have been the reaching of a “critical mass” of murder-insensitivity on the part of many others, or their commission of things that Chazal liken to murder. 

If so, the murder understandably requires a communal atonement.

It’s a timely thought. Entering the period of the Jewish year when we recite the “Ashamnu” litany, we might ponder the use of the first-person plural in that confession of sins, and recognize that even if we are individually innocent of the actual sin, we might still, in subtle ways, have contributed to the ability of a fellow Jew to actually commit it. We’re all in this together.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Re’ei – What’s With the Wealth?

Affluence isn’t something extolled by the Torah. In Judaism wealth is neither a praiseworthy aspiration nor a meaningful achievement.

Which makes Rabbi Yochanan’s homiletic interpretation of the Torah’s words “A tithe shall you tithe [te’aser]” (Devarim 14:22) somewhat puzzling. 

The Torah, he says, is hinting “Take a tithe [asser] so that [in the merit of your charity] you will become wealthy [tis’asher]” (Taanis 9a).

Even aside from the unduplicated-elsewhere promise of wealth here, we are taught that a person’s financial state is something that is decreed at the beginning of the Jewish year and cannot be changed by things he or she may do.

As Rabbi Tachlifa (Beitzah 16a) put it: “All of a person’s income [for the coming year] is determined for him [during the ten days] between Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, except for the money he spends for Shabbos and holidays, and to pay for his children’s Torah education. If he spends less [for any of these] he is given less, and if he spends more he is given more.”

So what’s with the wealth? Why is it suddenly offered as a reward for a mitzvah?

What occurs is that Chazal define wealth elsewhere, and it does not mean a large bank account or abundance of possessions.

“Who is wealthy?” asks Ben Zoma in Avos (4:1). “The one who is happy with his lot.” 

Wealth — with apologies to Wall Street — is not a tangible thing; it is a state of mind.

The millionaire who is pained by his lack of a larger yacht isn’t wealthy. The pensioner who hasn’t the slightest desire for a boat and finds joy in his modest possessions is.

And so perhaps the Torah is promising those who invest wisely in charity true wealth: joy in what one has. Quite a reward indeed.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Eikev – Does Heaven Play Favorites?

Well, does He or doesn’t He?

Hashem, that is. Does he show special favor to some or not?

That question is placed by Rabbi Ami or Rabbi Asi (Berachos 20b) in the mouths of angels, who asked the Creator about the description of Him (Devarim 10:17) in this week’s parsha: “Who favors no one and takes no bribe.”

But yet, the angels said, “You, nevertheless, show favor to Yisrael, as it is written: ‘Hashem will show favor to you and give you peace’” (Bamidbar 6:26).

Hashem’s reply: “How can I not show favor to Yisrael? I wrote for them in the Torah: ‘And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless Hashem your G-d’ (Devarim 8:10) [meaning that only if one is satiated is there an obligation to recite birchas hamazon, the blessing after a meal], yet they recite it even if they have eaten a mere olive’s or egg’s volume!”

What a strange reply. Firstly, reciting a bracha when it isn’t required isn’t permitted – so by what right did the rabbis of the Talmud allow it for a sparse meal? And secondly, the response doesn’t answer the question! Isn’t Hashem still showing favoritism?

Unless… reciting birchas hamazon even on a small amount doesn’t represent any changing of the requirement itself for saying the bracha but is rather a new sort of fulfilment of that requirement – in other words, an embrace of being “satisfied” with less.

If we are “satisfied” with any small degree of Hashem’s blessing – if we recognize what a divine kindness even a minimal amount of sustenance is, and feel sincere gratitude for it – then our own declining to demand a more literal satisfaction, full stomachs, may be what allows Hashem to be “satisfied,” so to speak, with less from us.

In which case, His “showing favor” to Yisrael is not really that at all but rather something of a midda kineged midda, a quid pro quo – an act of perfect justice.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vo’eschanan – Living Martyrdom

The Jewish credo, “the Shema,” declares Moshe’s directive to love Hashem “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources” (Devarim 6:5).

And, famously, Chazal understand “all your soul” as meaning even if being faithful to Hashem means dying as a result (Berachos 54a).

That command has been honored over the millennia in countless acts of Jewish martyrdom at the hands of enemies who sought to force their victims to violate one of the precepts for which a Jew is to die rather than transgress, or in times when such evildoers sought to uproot Torah observance from Jewish people.

Martyrdom is the ultimate self-abnegation. It is, though, not the only expression of selflessness. 

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter noted that the directive to love Hashem with all our souls encompasses not only readiness to lose our entire souls (the ultimate negation of self) but any overlooking of self-interest in the service of the Divine. 

Every situation, in other words, whereby “negation” of one’s self serves a higher purpose.

It happens often that one is faced with a situation that violates one’s sense of self, or self-image.  It might be a slight, or an open insult; a usurping of a turn or an unwarranted deprivation.

If such situations are not legally actionable (like suffering a financial loss or damage due to another’s misdeed), it is commendable to recognize that it is only one’s “self” that has been put at stake, and that “dying” a little — overlooking the slight — is not only proper but an actual act of Kiddush Hashem, a mini-martyrdom.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Devarim: Timeless

Sefer Devarim begins with Moshe Rabbeinu’s recounting of the Jewish People’s history since the exodus from Egypt, through the years of desert-wandering.

And our communal reading of the beginning of the sefer coincides yearly with our own annual survey of millennia since, our lookback at the myriad travails our forebears endured; parshas Devarim always precedes Tisha B’Av.

Abba Shaul (Shabbos, 133b) tells us to emulate certain name-descriptions of Hashem: “Just as He is compassionate and merciful, so too should you be compassionate and merciful.”

I’ve wondered about the fact that Hashem’s most “descriptive” name, the Tetragrammaton, implies “timelessness,” its letters signaling “Was, Is and Will Be.” In what way might we even think of emulating His temporal omnipresence?

Perhaps, though, in a way, we can.

Jews have history on their hearts. We are exquisitely sensitive to the past, not only the recent, but the long-ago.

On Tisha B’Av, we will fast and mourn the tolls taken by our people’s travails over time. We will sit low for much of the day, and read about the destruction of the Batei Mikdash, reciting poetic dirges about those Jewish catastrophes and many others, down through the Middle Ages to more proximate collective Jewish tragedies.

The fact, though, that most of the events we will mourn took place hundreds, even thousands, of years ago does not make them less timely. We live in the past no less than the present.

And so, perhaps, combined with our determination to live meaningfully in the here-and-now and our relentless pining for the ultimate future – Tisha B’Av is pointedly followed by the “Seven of Consolation,” when the haftaros read in shul consist of Divine reassurances that there is an end-point to history — we imperfectly parallel Hashem’s existence outside of time.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran