Category Archives: PARSHA

Parshas V’zos Habracha – Spacewarps

A Roman emperor, according to a Midrashic account (Sifri, Devarim 357), sent two army units to find Moshe Rabbeinu’s burial site. When they stood above it on a hill, they saw it below. When they descended the hill, they saw it above them.

“So, they split up, half above and half below; those above saw it when they looked down, and those below saw it when they looked up.” But neither group could reach the grave.

Which reflects the Torah’s text “No one knows his burial place to this day” (Devarim 34:6).

The space warping recalls that of the aron in which Moshe’s luchos lay.

Rabi Levi (Yoma 21a) notes a mesorah that “the place of the aron is not included in the measurement” – that the kodesh hakadashim measured twenty amos by twenty amos, yet a beraisa states that there were ten amos of space on either side of the aron.

It was there, to be sure, but took up no space.

And Moshe’s grave exists but flips in and out of space.

The idea that space is a given, and cannot be interrupted or bent in any way, was the dominant scientific assumption… until Einstein. Today we know that space, like time, is not a simple unchangeable grid. It can be warped, even torn. And the fact that the assigned place of the Law and the final resting place of the G-d-sent human Lawgiver don’t “fit” space as we know it may mean to telegraph the truth that the Torah, while it was given us in our cozy, seemingly three- (or four, counting time) dimensional universe, encompasses it but exists outside it.

It’s a fitting thought as we transition to the beginning of the Torah, where the first pasuk states that “heaven and earth” were brought into being. Or, as a modern astrophysicist might put it, that space and time themselves came to be, expanding from an unknowable singularity into what we call our universe.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Haazinu — Not Bad but Best

A man once visited the saintly Chafetz Chaim and the sage asked him how things were going for him. The visitor responded, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt if they were a bit better.”

“How can you know it wouldn’t hurt?” was the Chafetz Chaim’s immediate response. “Hashem knows what is best for you better than you do. And whether or not you think he has given you the best for you, He has.” 

That idea is one of the explanations of “The Rock, perfect is His work; all His paths are justice” (Devarim 32:4).

There are things entirely unknown to us — “more things in heaven and Earth” as Shakespeare had Hamlet tell Horatio, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Sometimes adversity is punishment in this world for our benefit in the next; sometimes it is a temporary pain that will lead to a greater gain; sometimes it is the yield of mystical calculi involving previous histories of our souls.

But it is always, whether we think it so or not, for our betterment.

The Chafetz Chaim was known to tell people not to employ the word “bad” about their travails, to opt instead for the word “bitter.”

Because, he explained, medicine is often bitter, but it’s not bad; it is best. 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayeilech

Prepared to Not Progress

Children brought to shul need to be controlled by their parents, of course. They mustn’t be permitted to disturb those gathered there to daven. But, at least from an age when they can be effectively controlled, they should be brought.

Ah, but won’t controlling them perforce prevent their parents from focusing fully on their tefillos?

Too bad. That’s part of a parent’s job, being hindered.

The mitzvah of Hakhel, described in parshas Vayeilech, entails, in the time of the Beis HaMidkash, the gathering, during the first year of the Shmitta cycle, on the first day of chol hamoed Sukkos, of all the nation’s “men, women and children” (Devarim 31:12).

The men, Rashi quotes Massechta Chagiga (3a), in order to study (from the portions of the Torah the king reads); the women, to absorb the words; and the children… “to give reward to those who brought them.”

Seems rather circular. Bring them because it’s a mitzvah to bring them?

It is said in the name of R’ Nosson Adler (the first rebbe of the Chasam Sofer), and also of the Baal Shem Tov, that the meaning of the Gemara is that the parents’ reward is for bringing their children even though controlling them makes their fathers’ and mothers’ learning and listening difficult.

Chinuch, training children, in other words, is important enough to require parents’ discomfiture and loss of personal, even spiritual, opportunity.

The Amora R’ Yochanan (Chagigah 15b) said, based on a pasuk in Malachi, that only if a rebbe is similar to an angel of Hashem should one “seek Torah from his mouth.”

R’ Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz, the “Hafla’ah” (and, interestingly, another rebbe of the Chasam Sofer), suggests that, since angels are described (Zecharia 3:7) as “omdim,” “standers,” implying changelessness, R’ Yochanan means to say that a rebbe has to be prepared to not progress personally, if that is the toll of his dedication to his students.

And parents, of course, are the ultimate rabbaim, the most influential molders of their children. They must be prepared to be hindered in their personal progress for the sake of their young.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Nitzavim – The Role of Failure

Reflecting the time of year when we read Nitzavim, before the “Days of Awe,” the parshah’s major themes are sin and repentance.

And while much of Nitzavim concerns potential punishments for sin, there is also an undercurrent of assurance, of the possibility of teshuvah, repentance. “And you will return to Hashem, your G-d” (Devarim 30:2).

Even the parshah’s first words imply the power of teshuvah. Moshe addresses the Jews as nitzavim hayom, “standing upright today” (29:9), despite the fact that “much did you anger” Hashem over the years of wandering the desert, “yet He did not destroy you” (Rashi 29: 12).

Essential to teshuvah is charatah, regret of the sin. But charatah means just that, regret, wishing one had not sinned. It does not mean despondence, which can actually impede teshuvah.

Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin from 1940 into the 1970s, once wrote a letter to a student who had shared his anguish and depression over personal spiritual failures.

What makes life meaningful, the Rosh Yeshiva responded, is not basking in one’s “good inclination” but rather engaging, repeatedly, no matter the setbacks, in the battle against our inclination to sin.

“Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up,” (Mishlei, 24:16) wrote Shlomo Hamelech. That, wrote Rav Hutner, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to get up again.” What it really means, he explains, is that it is precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles — including the failures — are inherent to the achievement of eventual, ultimate success.

One of the melachos of Shabbos is mocheik, or “erasing,” the sister-melachah of “writing.” And the melachos are derived from what was necessary during the construction of the mishkan.

Erasing, Rashi (Shabbos, 73a) explains, was necessary because mistakes would be made when marking the mishkan’s beams with letters indicating their placement. But only actions intrinsic to the construction of the mishkan are melachos. Apparently, mistakes were part of the process.

It’s much more than what Big Bird taught, that “everyone makes mistakes.” It’s that everyone needs to make mistakes.

Civil engineering professor Henry Petroski captured that truth in the title of one of his books: “To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.” Initial failures, he asserts, are what drive tasks to perfection.

The same is true in life. Teshuvah is accomplished with regret, not despondency.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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 Ki Seitzei — We’re All the “Beautiful Woman”

It’s edifying to compare the larger world’s celebrations of its various New Years and the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah.

The former is characterized by revelry, drunkenness and, hat tip to Auld Lang Syne, a smidgen of sentimentality. The latter, by trepidation and regret of the past year’s missteps.

Greater society’s preparation for their New Years Days consists of buying fireworks and alcohol.  Ours is Elul, the month during which, as the Eastern European folk saying has it, even the fish in the rivers tremble.

The law of the yifas to’ar, the “beautiful woman” encountered among the enemy and fallen for by a Jewish soldier in war, is a strange one.  The captive, after a month’s time during which she, shorn of her hair, is to cry over the loss of her father and mother, is permitted to be taken by the soldier as a wife.

Much has been written in explanation of the counterintuitive law. But the Zohar Chadash has a metaphorical comment. 

Seizing on the word used in the law for “month” (“yerach”), the mystical text comments, “da he archa d’Elul” — “this is the month of Elul.”

The yifas to’ar is leaving her past behind, entering a new world. According to Rabbi Akiva in the Sifri, the “father and mother” over whom she cries refer to the idolatries of her past, as per the prophet’s rebuke: “They say to the wood, ‘You are my father,’ and to the stone, ‘You bore us’ ” (Yirmiyahu 2:27). Her tears are tears of regret, for having been in idolatry’s thrall. And, perhaps, tears of joy at entering a new world, as part of the Jewish nation.

During Elul, we mourn our pasts too, and express joy (V’gilu bir’ada — rejoice in trembling -Tehillim 2:11), as we enter a new world, a new year. 

After the night’s drunken revelry, a New Year’s Eve celebrant may find himself experiencing delirium tremens, the infamous “DT’s”. 

Jews who fully embraced Elul will wake up as BT’s.

© 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