Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Vayishlach – Laws of Nature and of Human Nature

“As surely as I have established My covenant with day and night – the laws of heaven and earth – so will I never reject the offspring of Yaakov…” (Yirmiyahu 33:25-26)

There are laws of nature, and of human nature. And one of the latter is, according to Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, in a beraisa brought by Rashi (Beraishis 33:4), the “halacha” that “Esav hates Yaakov.”

When the sar shel Esav wrestles with Yaakov, our forefather asks him “Tell me your name” and Seforno comments that the question’s intent was, “What sin of mine allowed you to attack me?”

No answer to the question is recorded or, presumably, offered.

Something poignant inheres in that. When hatred of Jews is manifest, we often try to understand what begat it, what “reason” there is for it. But, even though the haters might claim there are reasons, when looked at closely, their “reasons” are illogical. There’s simply no “there” there. 

Because the hatred isn’t “caused” by anything.  It just is, as an expression of animus inherent in Esav’s and his spiritual descendants’ essence.

It is, in other words, a law of human nature. And rather than criticize ourselves for doing this or that wrong, or not doing this or that right, we do best to just smile at the demonstration of that “law,” and, even as we fight, as we must, to counter the unwarranted anger and slanders, try to accept that, at least among some people, it will absurdly persist until Mashiach arrives.

And at the same time, we must recognize, too, that, despite Esav’s evil intentions, another “law,” another reality, is that Hashem “will never reject the offspring of Yaakov,” will never allow Esav and his spiritual progeny to win.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeitzei – Love as a Mission

What a bizarre reaction Yaakov has when he first sees Rachel, his wife-to-be: He kisses her and loudly cries. (Beraishis, 29:11).

Stranger still, at least at first read, is one of the explanations the Midrash Rabbah offers (and Rashi quotes) for Yaakov’s tears: “Because he foresaw through Divine inspiration that she would not be buried with him in the cave of Machpelah.”

Not the most romantic reaction, to put it mildly. Sort of a “meet morbid.”

But it shines a blazing light on a major disconnect between how contemporary society views love between husband and wife and how the Torah does.

The disconnect is equally evident in the fact that the seven years that Yaakov worked for Lavan before being granted Rachel as a wife were to him like a mere “few days because of his love for her” (ibid 29:20).

As the Malbim notes, a typical suitor would find having to wait seven years to marry his intended interminable. But Yaakov’s experience was the opposite.

Because he saw his attainment of Rachel as his wife not as a quenching of desire but as a calling, a destiny, a mission of love.

A mission whose very end he foresaw in a prophecy, prompting his tears; and his kiss, which, in Yaakov’s mindset, was the epitome of chaste. 

As the Kotzker famously remarked, one who “loves fish” doesn’t really love fish; he loves his palate. The true fish lover is an aquarist.

So many in our world today marry out of self-love, not true love of another. They “fall” in love and thus, so often, “fall out” of love. When the two parts of a new couple see each other as partners in working toward a mutual goal, their marriage becomes not an end of love but rather its nurturing. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Toldos – Holiness and Hooves

“I’m forty years old.” Esav said to himself (Beraishis 26:34). “Father was 40 when he got married,” he rationalized, according to Rashi. “I should do the same.” (The pasuk itself just notes Esav’s age and marriage, not the rationale.)

The Mei Marom (R’ Yaakov Moshe Charlop) notes the cognitive dissonance evident in Esav’s aspiring to follow his father Yitzchak’s matrimonial path. Ever since his teenage years, after his grandfather Avraham had died, Esav’s proclivities had included murder and rape (Bava Basra 16b). And now, decades on, he sees himself as properly following in his father’s footsteps?

That seems indeed to be the case,  and that fact, says Rav Charlop, reveals a strange but real psychological truth: People can live lives entirely devoid of holiness and yet convince themselves that, somehow, by merely mimicking holy people, they thereby achieve some holiness.

We see that in, for example, the adoption of personal customs associated with revered figures when the adopters have nothing in common with the lives of those customs’ originators.

Reciting a special group of Tehillim each morning, kissing the Torah three times or insisting on a particularly rarified level of kashrus are fine things to do. But not if they are seen as meaningful in-and-of-themselves, even in the absence of true effort to achieve a higher level of actually required observance. Not if they are thought of, so to speak, as “get out of jail free” cards.

How astonishing, remarks Rav Charlop, is this element of human psychology. And how important is the real work required to achieve truly meaningful, not illusory, growth.

Esav had every right to seek a wife. Just like a pig, to which he is compared, has every right to present his split-hooves credentials. But neither the wife nor the hooves make either one kosher. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vilification Nation

We shouldn’t aim to emulate the asinine 

Regardless of whether or not all or any of the results of the recent elections pleased you, they revealed a supercharged Orthodox Jewish community in New York. Even if some secular media crazily choose to portray Orthodox participation in the democratic system as somehow nefarious, we Orthodox Jews should be proud of our neighborhoods’ impressive voting record. 

Shortly before election day, someone immersed in studying Torah and earning a living told me that he doesn’t follow political matters and, assuming (rightly or not) that I was better informed about such things, asked me for whom I thought he should vote. My response took him aback. “It makes no difference,” I said. “Just vote.”

That’s because, no matter how we might like to imagine things, no single vote, nor hundred votes, nor thousand votes, usually makes a difference in the outcome of a congressional or gubernatorial election. But what always makes a difference is the post-election map informing elected officials which neighborhoods care enough to turn out en masse. And when it comes to that map, every vote makes a difference.

And that’s what should be foremost in our minds during the months before every election, when campaign engines noisily rev up and ads and endorsements dominate the airwaves, print media, robocalls, pashkevilim and car-mounted loudspeakers.

Because, while there may well be reasons to back this or that candidate, or to support or oppose this or that proposal, there is – or should be – no place in our lives for the political tribal war mentality that has intensified immeasurably in politics over the past seven years.

Demonization of parties and individuals may excite a certain type of citizen (like the kind who enjoys watching boxers open cuts in their opponents’ faces or render them unconscious). But insulting those with whom we may disagree is not something that responsible Jews do.

Campaigns these days resemble ancient Roman gladiatorial contests, where citizens cheer their chosen heroes and signal for hungry lions to deal with those they disfavor. But that’s not what politics should be to a believing Jew. To us, an election is a means of civilly advancing our interests and what we believe is best for the city, state or country in which we live. For those in need of violent release, there’s Canadian hockey.

Getting overheated over politics is incongruous with Torah values, simple menschlichkeit and reason.

While our hishtadlus is necessary, in the end, we must remember that lev melech bi’yad Hashem, “the heart of the king is in Hashem’s hand” (Mishlei 21:1). What is decisive is the Bashefer, not the ballot box, the Creator, not the casting. Our power lies in choosing how to live, not how to vote. 

To be sure, there might theoretically be a candidate for some office who is truly deserving of vilification – say, a Nazi human trafficker with a penchant for cannibalism. But they are, I think, rare.

When it comes, though, to candidates whose positions one simply feels are wrongheaded or detrimental to our community or to society as a whole, expressions of opposition are rightly made with reason and calm, not fire and fury. 

An object lesson, I personally think, lies in the public disparagement some rained down upon Kathy Hochul. 

Whether or not one thinks she was the better candidate, the Governor has shown good will to her Orthodox Jewish constituents – in her budget’s substantial increases in allocations for nonpublic schools, security grants for Jewish institutions and funding for hate crime prevention; and in her veto of a bill that would have allowed the Town of Blooming Grove to effectively discriminate against religious Jews. 

And yet, because she didn’t endorse what we feel she should have with regard to yeshiva education, some went into full-scale attack mode.

Now that Ms. Hochul has been elected governor, how might that harsh and uncalled-for crassness sit with her?

I don’t expect Ms. Hochul, a seasoned politician with a thick skin, to turn on the community because of the thoughtless words of a few. I think she truly respects the Orthodox community. But can we at least recognize that joining the “attack mode” of contemporary American politics can backfire?

And, even more important, that it is wrong? 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Chayei Sara – What’s in a Non-Name?

A riddle I like to ask people is how many times Eliezer’s name is mentioned in parshas Chayei Sara, where his being charged with finding a wife for Yitzchak and his mission’s success are recounted at length. If a hint is needed, I offer the fact that it’s a round number.

Very round. 

Literally. It’s zero.

That’s surprising, of course, considering the important role Eliezer plays in making that crucial shidduch between Yitzchak and Rivka. His mission is in fact recounted in detail, twice – once in conversation with Avraham and again when it takes place.

Why he is only referred to as “the servant of Avraham” and not by his name seems a pregnant fact.

What occurs is that, even though Eliezer had hoped that his own daughter might be the one Yitzchak would marry (a hope hinted in the word ulai, “perhaps,” spelled eilai, “to me” – Beraishis 24:39), once he received his marching orders, he acted entirely altruistically, as a totally dedicated servant, as someone without… any sense of self. And, thus, in the Torah’s account, without a name – the reification of self.

A sense of self is a terribly hard thing to shed. As the Rambam notes in his Perush Mishnayos (Makkos, 3:16), while it is rare for anyone to do a mitzvah entirely altruistically, without any concern whatsoever for result or reward or how his act will be perceived by others, achieving that even a single time renders one a ben olam haba.

And Eliezer’s efforts on Avraham’s behalf are an example of such pure altruism, and perhaps evidenced in the dearth of his name in the parsha.

Ironically, though – or, perhaps, understandably (and certainly uniquely, considering he was a Canaanite) – his name was chosen for a tanna, and by countless Jewish parents over the centuries when naming their sons.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeira – Past is Past

As idolatrous practices go, worshiping the dirt on one’s feet certainly ranks high, along with Baal Zevuv and Baal Pe’or, on the scale of strange. 

Yet, we are informed in the parsha of “dirt of feet” idolatry, if in passing, implied by Avraham Avinu’s offer to his three visitors to wash their feet before entering his tent (Beraishis 18:4). 

Rashi, quoting the Gemara in Bava Metzia (86b), explains that Avraham “thought that they were Arabs who bow down to the dirt of their feet, and didn’t want to bring idolatry into his home.”

All idolatry is the projection of power onto a creation rather than the Creator, and dedication to that perceived source of power.  What could the dirt of one’s feet represent?

What occurs to me is the possibility that a nomadic wayfarer, like the sort of people Avraham suspected his visitors to be, might view the dirt on his feet as symbolizing where he has been, i.e., his past.  And regarded it as something powerful, to which he is beholden. He is a slave to his history, powerless to shed its influence.

The inclination to idolatry no longer exists (Yoma, 69b), yet some residue of it persists (in the form of things like good luck charms and “worship” of cultural figures).

And if my reading of foot-dirt worship isn’t too outlandish, it might persist today in the feeling that one is confined by the events and choices of his past. While examining one’s past is proper, toward the goal of repentance for bad choices, it is unhealthy to be obsessed by the past, to feel trapped by and unable to escape it. A Jew is meant to live fully in the present, and to have sights on the future.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Lech Lecha – About Face

The word “vayehi,” famously, introduces something negative or unfortunate.  Why, then, asks the Mei Marom (the polymath Meshullam Gross), does it introduce the pasuk stating that Avraham “owned sheep, cattle and donkeys” (Beraishis 12:16) – the fact that our forefather had achieved great wealth?

The obvious answer, says Rav Gross, is that, to Avraham, wealth was a burden that could only negatively affect his service to Hashem. In fact, shortly thereafter, the pasuk describes how Avraham was “very laden” with livestock, silver and gold” (ibid 13:2). The word translated “laden” – caveid – literally means “heavy” and implies a burden.

And so, Rav Gross continues, that may explain why Avraham is described in several places (including in our parsha (ibid 12:9) as traveling southward.

Because, as Rabi Yitzchak (Bava Basra, 25b) says, one who wants to become wealthy should be yatzpin, face north, when he prays; but one who wants to become wise should be yadrim, face south.  

Avraham wasn’t a seeker of wealth. On the contrary, he saw it as a burden. He pined for wisdom.

Can one have both? Certainly, and Avraham did.

But, as is clear from Rabi Yitzchak’s contention, one can only pursue one or the other; striving for both is futile. After all, it’s impossible to face both north and south simultaneously.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran