Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Parshas Chukas – Snake Eyes

The bizarre image (Bamidbar 21:9) of our ancestors gazing at a graven image — a copper representation of a snake — to end a snake-plague born of their complaining about the mon, is contextualized by a Mishneh in Rosh Hashana (29a):

“Did the snake kill, or did the snake preserve life? Rather, when the Jewish people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed, but if not, they were necrotized [by the venom].”

Which raises the obvious question: Why not eliminate the middlesnake and just look heavenward?

Rabbeinu Bachya calls attention to the word used to introduce the (real) snakes in the account: hanechashim (Bamidbar 21:6). Not “snakes” but “the snakes.”  The definite article, he says, refers to the fact that these were the same reptiles that, elsewhere in the Torah (Devarim 8:15) are described as having been ever-present in the desert our ancestors wandered. 

Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch expands on that observation, explaining that gazing at the copper snake was meant to sensitize the people to the constancy and ubiquitousness of snakes around them — and to the realization that when the snakes hadn’t been plaguing them until then it was because of Hashem’s protection.

As Abba Binyamin taught (Berachos 6a), “If the eye were given permission to see, no person would be able to withstand [the sight of the multitude of] the demons [that surround  him].”

We moderns can easily — particularly as we emerge from a pandemic — appreciate the idea that danger — as potentially lethal as snakes and yet undetectable by our eyes — is all around us.  And that every day that the immune systems Hashem gave us function and we don’t succumb to the myriad ever-present infectious dangers that surround us, we should look heavenward in thanks.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Korach – Humility: The Mark of Leadership

Few contrasts are as striking as the one between Moshe, the “most humble of all men,” who had to be drafted by Hashem to lead the Jewish people, and Korach, who was consumed with a desire for a leadership role.

And, like deceitful populists over ensuing millennia, Korach insisted that he was merely standing up for the masses, advocating for their democratic rights. Who needs a mezuzah (i.e. a leader) if the house is filled with holy books (i.e. the magnificent masses)?

Many contemporary leaders, some more shamelessly than others, advanced their aspirations in Korach-fashion, lusting for power while claiming to be championing the people. (A rare exception was Dwight Eisenhower, the only American president who had to be drafted to run for that office.)

In the authentic Jewish religious world, true leaders are always drafted — that is to say, “elected” not by campaigns and misleading claims but rather by unsought public acclaim. I have been privileged to have spent time in the vicinities of several, and was deeply affected by their selflessness and modesty. My rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, was one; see His yahrtzeit is Shiva Asar B’Tamuz.

And, just like Moshe was accused of sins he didn’t commit, so are Gedolim today sometimes attacked for imagined misdeeds. And not only by people lacking any relationship to Torah, but even some who are meticulously observant. 

Ohn ben Peles, the Midrash recounts, a confederate of Korach’s, was saved from the latter’s fate by Mrs. Ohn. After plying her husband with enough wine to put him to sleep, she sat outside their tent and uncovered her hair. So when Korach’s supporters came to fetch her husband and saw the immodest woman, religious folks that they were, they turned on their righteous heels and left. 

Even religious people can fall victim to would-be-dictators’ lies. 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Shelach – Of Walls and Weakness

“Any lie in which a little truth is not stated at the start cannot be maintained in the end.” That is Rashi’s comment, based on Sotah, 35a, about the report of the spies who returned from reconnoitering Kenaan. They told Moshe Rabbeinu that “we came to the land to which you sent us, and indeed it is flowing with milk and honey” (Bamidbar, 13:27).

But not only was the report of the land’s bounty true, so was, at least on the surface, everything else the meraglim reported. Yes, they described the fearsome inhabitants of the land, the “men of stature,” and the burials of many of the land’s inhabitants. That negativity constituted dibah, evil speech, as the Torah itself says – as Chazal put it, lashon hara. But where was the untruth, the lie?

Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, z”l, in his sefer Mei Marom on Chumash, suggests a compelling answer.

The Midrash Tanchuma, brought by Rashi on the words “hechazak hu harafeh” (“Are they strong or weak?”) says that Moshe gave the spies a sign: “If they live in open cities [it is a sign that] they are strong, since they rely on their might. And if they live in fortified cities [it is a sign that] they are weak.” (ibid, 13:18)

And yet, notes Rav Charlop, the spies reported that “the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are very greatly fortified” (3:28). A self-contradiction, since if the inhabitants were indeed mighty, as per Moshe’s sign, they would not have needed to fortify their cities. And if their cities were fortified, that meant the people were feeble. There, the Mei Marom suggests, lies the lie. One or the other contention must be false.

Because, the bottom line is that building high walls is a sign not of strength but of weakness.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Galus and Gastronomy

Some people, like pollster James Zogby, see Israeli offerings of hummus and babaganoush as a form of  “cultural genocide.”  And cookbook author Reem Kassis says that the marketing of hummus as an Israeli food makes her feel that she doesn’t exist.

I can’t say whether hummus was originally an Arab or Israeli delicacy, only that I enjoy it with a bit of olive oil and paprika on a pita. But I have what to say about Jewish cuisine and what it teaches us.  You can read what here.

Parshas Beha’aloscha – The Pain of Exquisite Empathy

Suspecting someone who isn’t deserving of suspicion is reason for punishment, says the Talmud (Shabbos, 97a), citing the account at the end of the parsha, where Aharon and Miriam speak negatively about their brother, Moshe Rabbeinu.

Interestingly, though, the text of the Torah only relates Miriam’s punishment, her affliction with the skin disease tzara’as, and not Aharon’s:

“The cloud had departed from atop the Tent and behold, Miriam had tzara’as [white] as snow. Aharon turned to Miriam and behold, she had tzara’as” [Bamidbar 12:10].

While Rabi Akiva (in the Gemara cited above) asserts that Aharon, too, was afflicted with tzara’as, Rabi Yehudah ben Beseira disagrees. But he offers no reason for why Aharon, who also was part of the misdeed, would have been spared punishment.

What occurs is that Aharon was indeed punished, though not with his own tzara’as. His punishment was seeing his sister afflicted. Read the quote from the Torah above again. Is there a reason why we need to be told that Aharon “turned to Miriam” and saw her disease?

Perhaps there is indeed, because that was Aharon’s punishment. He was the exemplar of kindness, the “lover of peace and pursuer of peace (Avos, 1:12),” a man who was pained by strife, a man of exquisite empathy.

Thus, Miriam’s pain and shame, when Aharon witnessed it, became his pain and shame. 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Naso – An Opportunity, Not an Ordeal

I cringe when I read someone’s portrayal of the law of Sotah ritual as some sort of “trial by ordeal.”

That phrase conjures images like the 17th century Salem witch trials, when Puritans invoked “tests” to determine whether someone was a witch. The accused was subjected to an often life-threatening experience, and only perishing as a result of the ordeal would yield an innocent verdict. When a suspect survived being bound and thrown into deep water, she would be subsequently executed.  And if she drowned (the more common result), the innocent verdict was of little use to the exonerated.

By contrast, the Sotah law kicks in — or kicked in, until the Churban Bayis Rishon (and, according to one opinion in the Talmud was never used) — when a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful, warns her to not seclude herself with a particular other man, and she ignores the warning. The ritual has her drinking a concoction consisting of water, a bit of dirt from under the Temple’s marble floor, a bitter herb and the rubbed-off dried ink of the text of the Torah’s description of the Sotah ritual, including Hashem’s name.

If the woman is guilty of betraying her marriage, the Torah explains, she and the man with whom she sinned will, upon her drinking the concoction, suffer a terrible death.  If she’s innocent, she will suffer no ill effects and, on the contrary, will be blessed with healthy children.

The Sotah-drink ingredients are, if unappetizing, innocuous.  And so, it would take a divine intervention to bring about the punishment.

Interestingly, though, and tellingly, if the wife chooses to simply dissolve her marriage and forfeit the financial support promised her at her wedding, we compel the husband to grant her a divorce, and she suffers no other penalty

So there is no “trial by ordeal” here. What there is is a way to establish an accused woman’s innocence of adultery, a means of returning love and trust to her marriage.

The entire point of the Sotah ritual, in other words, is to convince a jealous husband that his wife remained faithful to him. Which explains why, unlike in every other case of a suspected crime or sin, we involve a Divine intercession – Hashem’s own assurance that the woman is innocent.  

The ritual is not intended as a way to convict, but to restore marital peace. And Hashem Himself, the “third partner” in a successful marriage (Kiddushin, 30b), has a stake here.
Which explains Rabi Yishmael’s comment (Shabbos, 116a) about the ritual: “In order to make peace between a husband and his wife, [Hashem in] the Torah says: My name that was written in sanctity shall be erased in the water.”

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shavuos – Happy Anniversary

In contrast to Pesach’s matzos and Sukkos’ sukkos and arba minim, Shavuos is unique among the Shalosh Regalim for its lack of any positive ritual-commandment.

That may have to do with the holiday’s association with Mattan Torah.

Because that experience involved no particular action; it was, in a sense, the very essence of passivity, the acceptance of Hashem’s Torah and His will. Hashem was the actor; our ancestors’ response was to receive, to submit to the Creator.

Mattan Torah is famously compared by various Midrashim to a wedding, with Hashem the groom and His people the bride. (Many chasunah minhagim reflect that metaphor: the chuppah recalls the mountain held over the Jews’ heads; the candles, the lightning; the breaking of the glass, the shattering of the luchos.)

And just as a Jewish marriage is legally effected in the kallah’s simple choice to accept the wedding ring or other gift the groom offers, so did Klal Yisrael at Har Sinai create its eternal bond with the Creator by accepting His gift of gifts.

And so, a positive, active mitzvah for the day would arguably be in dissonance with the day’s central theme of receptivity.

Shavuos’ identification with our collective identity as a symbolic bride, moreover, may well have something to do, too, with the fact that the holiday’s hero is… a heroine: Rus, whose story not only concerns her own wholehearted acceptance of the Torah but culminates in her own marriage.

It isn’t fashionable these days to celebrate passivity or submission, even in those words’ most basic and positive senses. But Judaism, unlike fashion, is eternal.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Yetzias Kaufering

Pesach Sheni is a special day in my family, because in 1945, on that day of the Jewish calendar, my father-in-law, who passed away earlier this year, was liberated from Dachau by American soldiers.

You can read about his last days in the concentration camp, and about his family’s marking of that day each year, here.

(Photo is of my father-in-law and one of his orphan charges in France.)

Parshas Bamidbar – Desert and Direction

The sefer of Bamidbar (or, to be pedantic, B’midar) begins with the word Vayidaber; and the Talmud Yerushalmi, I’ve seen it cited, even calls the sefer by that latter word.

Both words, as it happens, share the same three-letter Hebrew root, d-v-r, even though one means “desert” and the other “speak.”

What common element of meaning could associate a desert with speech?

The answer may lie in yet another word with the exact same three-letter root, a word that means something else, seemingly, altogether. In Tehillim, we find the phrase yadber amim tachteinu (47:4), which can be translated “He will guide the nations under us.” Although Rashi and the Targum on Tehillim take a different approach to the word yadber, the Gemara (Shabbos 63a) understands the word to mean “guiding,” and the context of the pasuk supports that understanding. The Radak and Ibn Ezra also translate it that way.

Speaking (especially the sort of speech with which the word dibbur is associated: clear, strong words) guides the one spoken to in a particular direction, to hearing the meaning or directive of the speaker. So it isn’t terribly farfetched to imagine that yadber and vayidaber are subtly related.

Midbar, though, seems a puzzle.

What occurs is that a midbar is a desolate, featureless place, usually dangerous, for lack of food and water, and the presence of snakes and such.  But the challenges and dangers may not be what inheres in the word midbar; certainly, the desert through which the Jews were wandering lacked those threats; the well of Miriam, the maan and the cloud of protection made it a safe place.

But it remained one without distractions, and was the path, if a convoluted one, leading the people, guiding them, to their goal, Eretz Yisrael.

Might the word midbar’s essential meaning reflect not desolation nor danger, but the idea of an open path leading to a goal beyond it, toward  which one is being guided?

And, even in our own lives, might obscuring the distractions around and within us help us perceive where we are supposed to go?

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Two Paths to the Happy End of History

Between the lines of the terrible description in parshas Bechukosai of what will happen if Klal Yisrael abandons the mitzvos of Hashem lie subtle hints to the limits and end of those curses.  The land will not yield produce (making it inhospitable to occupiers); there will be years of barrenness (but as an atonement for the unobserved shemitos); we will be scattered throughout the world (making it impossible for our enemies to isolate and destroy us – Rabbeinu Bachya).

And, of course, after the long, painful recounting of the tragedies that might befall us, Hashem offers the assurance that “But despite all this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted by them, nor will I have rejected them or obliterated therm, to annul My covenant with them” (Vayikra 26:44). And that He “will remember My covenant with Yaakov and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also my covenant with Avraham…” (26:42).

So even within the curses are blessings; and when the evil passes, what will remain will be Hashem’s covenant with our forefathers, and our salvation as a people through its merit. 

So what the Torah is saying is that there will be a happy end to history but that there are two ways it can be reached: We can choose good and get there in a direct fashion; or, chalilah, we can choose the opposite and have to endure a long, grueling and tragic galus-journey… but to the same destination.  Our forefathers’ merit ensures that all will, in the end, be well.

In other words, our suffering, should our choices make it necessary, will also have become part of Hashem’s plan.

An idea subtly echoed in the final law of the parshah, temurah.

It is a sin to attempt to transfer the holiness of a consecrated animal to another one.  And yet, the sin nevertheless effects holiness, as the second animal becomes holy as well.

Even our sins, for which we are responsible, can all the same end up yielding the fruition of Hashem’s plan.

Hu us’muraso yih’yeh kodesh. (ibid 27:10.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran