Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Tzav – Finding Fervor

“And for generations,” the Midrash, quoted by Rashi, adds to its assertion: “The word tzav [‘command’] implies ziruz [‘fervor’ or ‘zeal’] immediately…”

The context of the Midrash’s statement are the laws of terumas hadeshen and the olas tamid (the daily removal of a small portion of ashes from the heap on the mizbei’ach and the daily burnt offering). And, indeed, the Chasam Sofer notes, when something is done daily, it can easily devolve into a rote action, hence the need to consciously summon “fervor” – hislahavus, fiery ardor.

But the “for generations” addition implies even a future when there may be no Beis Hamikdash or offerings. And so the late fifteenth century Akeidas Yitzchak applies the exhortation to what takes the place of offerings when there is no Beis Hamikdash: tefillah, prayer.

It’s indeed all too easy to merely “recite” the five minute amidah, the essential tefillah offered thrice daily. For a prayer to be most meaningful, though, ziruz is essential.

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, presumably because tzav is a word used by the Torah in a number of contexts, stresses the need for fervor in all mitzvos (which word, of course, is formed from tzav).

He notes further that when Haman slandered the Jews, he said “They sleep through the mitzvos” (Megilla 13b). Not “they neglect the mitzvos,” but rather “they perform them “as if asleep” – i.e. as rote, lacking fervor. 

Indeed, Amalek is the root cause of such spiritual nonchalance. In Parshas Zachor, we read that Amalek karcha baderech, “happened upon you on the road” (Devarim 25:18). The word “happened” can be read to mean “cooled you off” (see Rashi, ibid).

Purim, when we focus on Haman’s defeat, is an ideal time to capture fervor, hislahavus, for the moment and the future.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran 

Parshas Vayikra – Love and Coercion

The Rambam famously explains how, in a case where a Jewish court has determined that a couple must divorce, the court can force the husband to hand the get, or divorce document, to his wife. A get, after all, must be given willfully, not under coercion.

The Rambam spells out that, once a valid court has decided that a divorce is necessary, the divorcing becomes a mitzvah and, no matter how unwilling the husband may be, since part of every Jew wishes to do what is required of him, that undetectable but existent will is sufficient to make the handing of the get, even with the husband’s other arm being literally twisted, valid. 

The idea of a coerced act being considered willful appears as well at the start of our parshah, with regard to korbanos, “sacrifices.”  Commenting on the word lirtzono, “willingly,” about the offering of a required korban olah (Vayikra 1:3), Rashi quotes Rosh Hashanah 6a: “We force him, until he says ‘I want’ [to do the act].” Even forced, in other words, he also wants.

But the Rambam’s explanation of how a modicum of will exists even in a recalcitrant Jew, while relatively understandable in the case of an action like the handing over of a geht, is much less comprehensible in the case of a korban. Because even if the will to do the right thing lies somewhere in the heart of the sacrifice offerer, a korban must be accompanied by repentance. How can a feeling like that co-exist with coercion?

What might be pertinent here is the observation of Rav Eliyahu Dessler, that love, rather than being something one “falls into” or “is in,” is in fact something generated. By giving. When, for instance, a parent gives to a child, or a spouse to a spouse, love is not only expressed but created

So, if repentance can be understood as an expression of love for Hashem (and korban, after all, is rooted in karov, closeness), perhaps, the very offering of the korban itself creates a step of repentance, and the supplicant’s “I want” extends meaningfully not only to doing, but to feeling, what is right as well.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Vehemence Virus

You never know what sets some people off.  Back in 2015, when I dared to write that the U.S. remaining as a partner in the Iran Deal might be better than what might happen if we withdrew from it (how’d that work out?), I received a bit of pushback. But it was nothing like the raw outrage that was expressed in the wake of my recent Ami Magazine piece about, of all things, the Ottawa trucker protest.

Letters emailed to Ami and me were strikingly strident. They included comments like “How can Ami write such a false liberal article?”; “I was horrified”; “First they came for the Truckers….”; “Omg. I just read this article. What a pack of lies!!!!!”; “I’m shocked Ami would post this without fact checking.  Shame on you!”; “Does Avi Shafran  work as Justin Trudeau’s press secretary?   Did he actually do any research or did he just copy paste from the msm news?”; “I have never experienced such straight out propaganda”; and “If the AMI [sic] cannot have the moral courage to remove Mr. Shafran from the pages then I will have no choice but to not bring it into my home.” (Talk about cancel culture.)

Accelerating Godwin’s Law, which only expects Nazi accusations to be the eventual yield of electronic discussions, one writer wasted no time in immediately raising the Third Reich: “Avi my friend, you are this generations [sic] Joseph Goebbels.”

Needless (I hope) to say, my article was entirely factual. Unlike a number of the letters, which made demonstrably false assertions (some of which will be debunked in a response to them planned for Ami’s next issue).

All that I had dared to reveal in my Ami piece was that there were people in the truckers protest movement (including the person who conceived it) with unsavory backgrounds; that a Nazi flag and Confederate flags had appeared over the weeks when truckers snarled downtown Ottawa; and that some protesters had engaged in rather ugly acts. I thought that such facts were worthy of readers’ consideration.

I conceded in the piece that “It isn’t hard, at least in theory, to summon some understanding of, if not quite sympathy for, the protesters, who don’t want to be made to vaccinate against their will.”

But, I continued, “it must be conceded, ‘freedom’ has morphed considerably from when it meant the desire of slaves to live normal lives or the goal of colonists to throw off the yoke of King George III to… the refusal to help stem the spread of a disease.”

That really riled up some people – vaccine skeptics, conspiracy theory adherents and one apparent racist, who took umbrage at my mention of slavery. 

I’ve written in public forums for many years, and have grown a thick skin. I am amused, not bothered, by verbal brickbats, especially when they are hurled by people who are clearly uninformed, filled with fury but short on facts.

But what does concern me, and deeply, is how part of the Orthodox world has not only become unhinged from reality, choosing to glom on to certain media and personalities to the exclusion of all others, but has also adopted the “outside world”’s enthusiastic embrace of outrage and acrimony over rational discussion. 

Anyone, of course, can disagree with me on anything, including my take on the protests. One can reasonably contend that the majority of the protesters were good people, that those who abused national monuments or called for violence against the government were outliers, that the right to protest a vaccine requirement for travel outweighs the effect of snarled traffic and noise.

But there is a civilized way, not to mention a Jewish way, to take issue with something.  And, distressingly, it seems that there are otherwise observant Jews who seem unable to digest that most important fact.

I offer no solutions to that unfortunate development. I just hope that more people, especially those infected with the vehemence virus, come to recognize it for the plague it is. That will be a vital first step to curing it.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Pekudei – Disoriented

The pair of verbs describing Moshe’s placing of the luchos, the second set of tablets he received at Sinai, in the aron, or ark, to be placed in the Mishkan, is unusual: Vayikach. Vayiten, “he took and he placed” (Shemos 40: 20).

Those words likely reflect the fact that the luchos were being transferred from the temporary aron that they occupied into the one Betzalel made (See Rashi, Devarim, 10:1). Moshe “took” them from that earlier repository and “placed” them in the new one.

The dimensions of the final aron are specified: “two and half cubits its length; a cubit and a half its width; and a cubit and a half its height.” (Shemos 25:10-11). It was thus oriented like a trunk, not upright like a wardrobe closet (though modern Hebrew uses aron to mean a closet). 

The aron itself was open at its top, and placed upon it as a cover was the gold kapores: “And you shall make an ark cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits its length and a cubit and a half its width” (Shemos, 25:17).

It is presumed that the aron hakodesh in a shul, which houses Torah scrolls, is intended to reflect the aron in the Mishkan. 

I recall as a child hearing some older people in shul refer to the paroches, or aron hakodesh curtain, as a kapores. I assumed that they had inadvertently mixed up the words paroches and kapores. But several years ago I saw, gracing a yeshiva’s aron hakodesh, just above the paroches, the pasuk about the kapores.

Which got me thinking. Indeed, if one were to lay a shul aron hakodesh on its back, so that it was oriented like the Mishkan’s aron, then its top, its opening, would be where the kapores was placed. So the paroches, in a way, was filling the role of the kapores in the Mishkan’s aron.

But that leaves me with a question: Why, indeed, do we orient our aronos hakodesh as we do, resembling a wardrobe, not a trunk – like the original one? Why do we take the sifrei Torah out of the aron instead of lifting them up from it?

I have no answer.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayakhel – The Muddle of Our Motives

A miscalculation made by the Nesi’im, or tribal leaders, during the collections made in the desert for the building of the Mishkan resulted in the word “Nesi’im” being written in a diminished form – lacking the two “yud”s that belong in the word (Shemos, 35:27).

Rashi notes that fact – explaining that those leaders decided to wait until the common folk finished bringing their donations for the Mishkan, so that they, the Nesi’im, could then make up the shortfall. He cites Bamidbar Rabbah (12:16) that the truncated spelling reflects the Nesi’im’s lethargy, their declining to make their donations immediately, along with all the other Jews.

But wasn’t their intention, to make up the shortfall, a laudable one?

Apparently, even with that good intent, their lack of initiative remained  inexcusable. 

Rav E. E. Dessler explains that our actions are often, almost always, born of a jumble of intentions. A man putting on tefillin aims to fulfill a Divine commandment. He wishes to please Hashem. But also to not incur punishment for shunning a mitzvah. He also is aware of how he would look to his fellow shul-goers were he to not don tefillin; so there is an element of peer pressure involved. Then there is force of habit, which, while not technically an intent, nevertheless is a factor in what he is doing. 

And “lethargy,” apparently, also played a role in in the Nesi’im’s decision.

Rav Dessler has a unique understanding of the famous Gemara “A person should always involve himself with Torah and mitzvos even with imperfect sincerity (lo lishmah), since from [literally, “from the midst of”] the imperfect intent, [one] comes to lishmah, perfect intent” (Sotah 47a).

He reads the statement to mean: from the midst of the multiple intentions that we have when we do something good, we should endeavor to bring out the singularly valuable lishmah. In other words, we should aim at focusing on the perfect intent, to raise it from amid the jumble and make serving Hashem the only intent.

Successfully doing so, the Rambam (Pirush HaMishnayos, Makkos 3:16) famously writes, fulfilling one mitzvah entirely lishmah provides entrée to chayei olam haba.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Ki Sisa – 13+13=1

Beginning with Hashem’s name stated twice, the “thirteen middos”(“aspects” or “attributes”) of Hashem’s compassion and love are sourced in our parsha.

The formula was taught to Moshe Rabbeinu by Hashem Himself after the sin of the golden calf.  Its pertinence then is obvious, but the thirteen middos are for the future, too. 

“When trouble comes upon the Jews because of their iniquities,” Hashem told Moshe (Rosh Hashanah 17b) “let them stand together before Me and recite” them. 

Oddly, the same phrase “thirteen middos” is used in an entirely different and seemingly unrelated context. Namely, for the list, cited by the Sifri in Rabbi Yishmael’s name, enumerating the “hermeneutical” rules shehaTorah nidreshes bahem, by which laws are derived from the Torah’s words.  Some of that methodology, more completely known as the “Thirteen Middos Through Which the Torah is Interpreted,” is logical, some of it not obviously so; all of it comprises a sacred part of Torah Shebe’al Peh, the Oral Law, itself.

That both the expressions of Hashem’s benevolence and of the hermeneutical principles number thirteen, and that both are described as “middos,” is intriguing.  And meaningful.

The Creator, to our limited perception, seems to present two different “faces.”  On the one hand, He is the Merciful, Life-Giver, Forgiver and Bestower of blessings.  And, on the other, He is the Lawgiver, instilling the laws of nature in the universe, and charging humanity with the foundational “Noachide” laws – and Klal Yisroel, with the laws of the Torah.  

Christianity’s founders were disturbed by that seeming dichotomy, and embraced the Creator as Merciful, but considered the Torah’s “ceremonial and judicial” laws to be no longer binding. 

But Judaism recognizes that the same Creator is the Source of both love and demand.  He is “Avinu Malkeinu,” “our Father and our King” – both a merciful Parent and a demanding Sovereign. The Source of mercy and patience is the very same Source of law and obligation.  

Indeed, Divine law itself is a product of Divine mercy, as the laws we have been given  reflect Hashem’s concern for our own ultimate wellbeing.

A fact that might be reflected in the fact that the sum of the two thirteens is twenty six, the gematria, or “letter value” of Hashem’s “name of rachamim,” His name of mercy.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Tetzaveh – Flour and Oil in the Afternoon

One of the two places in the Torah that mandate the offering of an olas tamid twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, is in our parsha (Shemos 29:39).

Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi (Berachos 26b) maintains that our daily tefillos of Shacharis and Mincha correspond to the offering of those two sacrifices (with Maariv corresponding to the overnight burning of the olos’ meat).

We are so accustomed to the names of our daily tefillos that an obvious question may not, but should, occur: Why is the afternoon prayer called “Mincha”?

A mincha offering, consisting of flour and oil, accompanies both the morning and afternoon daily olos. So why would the word for that offering be tapped as the name, specifically, of the afternoon prayer?  Following the pattern of the other daily tefillos, whose names reference their times of day, one would expect it to be called acharei tzaharayim, or, following the Torah’s words, bein ha’arbayim.

In Melachim I, 18:29, in the account of the false prophets of Baal, the word mincha is indeed used to refer to the afternoon tamid: “And they pretended to prophesy until the time of the sacrifice of the mincha.” That certainly reflects our usage of Mincha as the tefilla corresponding to the tamid shel bein ha’arbayim. But it begs the question of why. Why should the afternoon korban olah – and, thus, its corresponding tefilla – be defined by its accompanying flour/oil offering? 

An assortment of answers are offered, but each is problematic. One approach, though, might be suggested by the other opinion in Berachos 26b, that of Rabi Yosi, who maintains that our three daily tefillos were initiated by the avos, as a word signifying prayer is used in the Torah regarding each of them.

In that approach, Mincha corresponds to Yitzchak.  While all of the avos had flocks of sheep, only Yitzchak is described as having engaged in agriculture: “And Yitzchak sowed in that land, and he found in that year a hundredfold, and Hashem blessed him” (Beraishis 26:12).

So perhaps that informs the choice of the word for the “land-grown” sacrifice brought with the tamid, the mincha, for the tefilla he initiated.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Terumah – Space, Matter and Meaningfulness

The building of the Mishkan, according to a beraisa in Middos and the Sefer Habahir, mirrors the creation of the world. Both accounts in the Torah, in fact, evidence parallel wordings.

Much noted by meforshim is the change of object in the pasuk “And let them make for Me a Mikdash and I will dwell among them (Shemos 25:8).

The implication is clear: Building the Mishkan, called here Mikdash, is to result in Hashem’s “dwelling” within His people. We are to be mekadshei shem Shamayim in the world.

The idea of a structure somehow “housing” Hashem is something that even Moshe himself, the Pesikta tells us, found flabbergasting. It is simply beyond our ability to imagine.

But it leads, nonetheless, to an interesting thought. 

I claim no grasp of the “hidden things” understood by those initiated into the realm of kabbalah. But a mystical concept that is well-known, if also not truly comprehensible to us uninitiated, is tzimtzum, or “contraction” – Hashem’s intentional “withdrawal” at creation that allowed space, energy and matter – the physical universe – to come into being. 

The ultimate upshot of tzimtzum, however, involves the reason for the universe: man. Namely, Hashem’s granting humans free will, His “withdrawal” that allows us to act independently, to make – and be responsible for – our own decisions, good or bad.

So, at the universe’s creation, Hashem “withdrew” His omnipresence to allow for space, energy and matter; and He, likewise, contracted His omnipotence, allowing for human free will. 

And so, in our parshah, a parallel: “Make for Me a Mikdash” implies Hashem’s somehow “confining” His presence to an edifice; and the rest of the pasuk, and “I will dwell among them,” implies the specialness of the people, our responsibility to use our free will, born of His “withdrawal” from determining our actions, His granting us the ability to make choices, to meaningfully choose to be mekadshei shem Shamayim

Tzimtzum at the Mishkan and at the creation of the universe that the edifice parallels allowed, and continues to allow, for the existence of space, matter… and meaningfulness. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Mishpatim – Mundanity is a Myth

What an abrupt transition, from the miracles and wonders of the earlier parshios of Sefer Shemos to this week’s list of prosaic, painstaking laws. 

But, just as every letter in the Torah is necessary for it to be kosher, so are life’s seeming banal interactions, in reality, opportunities for holiness. When we conduct our personal and business lives properly, not as rote or out of a self-generated sense of right or wrong but in fulfillment of Hashem’s commands, that is no different from the mitzvos that recall kri’as Yam Suf.

Anshei kodesh, “people of holiness” (Shemos 22:30), is our divine prescription. The Kotzker Rebbe is said to have remarked that “Hashem has more than enough angels; He wants people of holiness.” He wants our humdrum human lives to be infused with holiness. 

A corollary of that thought lies in the realm of Hashem’s hashgacha, which covers our every experience. Not only when it’s readily evident, in seemingly “miraculous” happenings, but no less in our “mundane” lives.

A friend of one of our daughters once shared a powerful story with her, about a woman scheduled to fly to a distant city for an important job interview. The lady found herself stuck in unexpected traffic and arrived at the airport in barely enough time to park her car. She ran to the check-in counter, only to discover that she had missed her flight by mere seconds, and that there were no others that would get her to her interview on time. Dejected, she headed home.

Several hours later, the plane on which she was to have flown began its descent to its destination, the woman’s reserved seat empty… As the plane descended, there was some turbulence, and the captain told the passengers to make sure their seat belts were securely fastened…

And then, the plane… touched down, safely. The passengers disembarked. End of story.

The lady never discovered any reason for having lost the chance of the job, and ended up taking a less lucrative one in her home city.

But there was a reason. 

Whether we perceive it or not, there always is.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran