Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Chayei Sara – Death and Marriage

That a man’s gifting of something of worth to a woman can effect a marriage if both parties agree is derived through exegesis from, of all places, Avraham’s purchase of a burial site for his wife Sarah (Kiddushin, 2a).

A strange derivation, to be sure. But since techias hameisim, revival of the dead, is a tenet of Jewish belief, burial, through Jewish eyes, should be seen not as the disposal of a body but rather a safekeeping or, better, a “planting,” for eventual “regrowth.”

(For millennia, the idea of rejuvenating a physical body seemed a notion beyond credulity… until the discovery of DNA and, more recently, the successful cloning of higher organisms.)

Thus, the burial/marriage comparison is somewhat more comprehensible than it might have been at first thought. For marriage is the means of “seeding” the next generation. (The term kever, “grave” used as a euphemism for rechem, “womb,” as in Niddah 21a, further supports that idea.)

The earliest burials at the Me’aras Hamachpeila were of Adam and Chava, the latter of whom was given her name, which means “the source of all life,” ironically, only after she and her husband had made death part of nature. Immortality of  a sort, even before techyas hameisim, can be achieved through the creation of future generations.

And so, it is meaningful that the parsha describing the burial of Sara is called by its opening words, Chayei Sarah – the Life of Sarah. 

For just as children are keys to generational immortality, so is burial a prelude to life. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeira – More Intimate Than Prophecy

Avraham experiences a communication from Hashem at the start of the parsha (Beraishis 18:1, 18:13). And it culminates with Hashem’s informing our forebear of the impending destruction of S’dom (18:20-21). 

Then, the Torah tells us, vayigash – “and [Avraham] then came forward” – to appeal for a rescinding of the divine decree (18:23). The “coming forward,” as Rashi explains, implies tefillah, prayer.

Which leads to a striking observation, recounted by Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus, zt”l, in the name of Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, zt”l: Prayer can create a closer connection to Hashem than prophecy.

Avraham was already conversing with Hashem when he “came forward” to try to intercede on behalf of the citizens of S’dom. “Coming forward” implies a more direct, more intimate relationship.

“Reciting prayers” is a common phrase, and a telling one. Unfortunately if understandably, praying daily, especially when, as we are required to do, we use a particular formula of words, can lead to mindless recitation of the words, to “praying” by rote.  

True tefillah, though, where the supplicant infuses his words, oft-repeated though they are, with intent and heart, is anything but “recitation.” In fact, it has the potential of constituting a human-divine connection, stronger and more intimate than prophecy.

Something to have in mind, especially these challenging days, when taking those three steps forward.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Lech Lecha – Jewish Influence

Stars aren’t visible during the day. 

Yosef Chaim Cara, a 17th century Polish rabbi, points out in his sefer Kol Omer Kra that after Hashem tells Avram, concerning his future progeny, to “Look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them” (Beraishis 15:5), the Torah goes on to say that “the sun was ready to set… (ibid, 15:12). 

So “count the stars,” it seems, was spoken during daytime.

Rav Karo perceives in that fact a poignant idea. The Jews have never been as multitudinous as the stars – and have never even comprised a population of major proportions. Hashem’s message to Avram, says Rav Karo, was not about numbers but rather about impact

It was: “Are you able to count the stars of the heavens when the sun is shining? Even though the stars are there, they are invisible because of the powerful light of the sun.”

Your progeny, Hashem was telling Avram, will not be many in number but will, like the sun’s light, be overwhelming in importance.

“All the nations,” explains Rav Karo, “will learn from [the Jews] what is proper and just. Without them, he continues, “the world would only continue to sink into darkness.”

Paul Johnson, in the epilogue of his “A History of the Jews,” writes about his subject:

“To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life, and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice… [of] monotheism.

“It is almost beyond our capacity to imagine how the world would have fared if they had never emerged.”

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Noach – Symbols Gone Astray

It’s intriguing that two separate images from parshas Noach have been turned by contemporary society into widely used symbols – and each one is decidedly off the mark. 

A dove holding an olive branch in its mouth has become employed as a symbol of peace. To be sure, the sign that the flood was receding was certainly a happy one. But the message of the dove, according to Jewish tradition – the source, after all, of the Torah’s account itself – was not about peace.

It was, in the words of the Gemara (Eruvin 18b), an expression of willful dependence on the Creator. “The dove,” the passage states, “said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: ‘Master of the Universe, let my food be bitter as an olive but given into Your hand, rather than sweet as honey but dependent upon flesh and blood’.”

The dove had been well-fed by Noach throughout the months of the flood. But it is described as grateful for the opportunity to be fed directly by the Divine, without a human intermediary. So, rather than “peace,” the dove and its bounty are a symbol of striving for closeness to God.

And then we have the rainbow, the Divine “sign” given to Noach, and to all humanity, adopted of late as a symbol of “pride” in flouting the Torah’s directives to humanity regarding human sexuality. The dove being misguidedly co-opted as a symbol of peace is disappointing. But it pales beside the rainbow’s employ to promote things profoundly at odds with Torah and truth.

The rainbow, according to the Torah’s text, is a sign that Hashem will not destroy His world again – even if humanity is deserving of such, which may be one reason for Chazal’s admonition to not gaze exceedingly at a rainbow; it would be embarrassingly uncouth.

The flood itself came about in part because of sexual immorality (Rashi, Beraishis 6:11).

Nothing could be more woefully misguided than employing the rainbow as a celebratory symbol of what played a role in causing the world’s destruction in the time of Noach.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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