Category Archives: PARSHA

Behar – Don’t Serve Servants

“They are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt” (Vayikra 25:55).

Although the Talmud’s comment on the phrase “They are My servants” – “but not the servants of servants” (Bava Kamma 116b) – has a technical, halachic meaning, it also hints at a broader one.

In other words, not only does it say that a Jew cannot own another Jew, it also signals that Jews are not to indenture themselves to causes other than the Jewish mandate. Not to a political party, social cause or personality. A Jew’s exclusive ultimate role is to be a servant of Hashem.

Because the freedom we were divinely granted from Egyptian bondage was not what many consider “freedom” – libertinism, the loss of all fetters. It was a passage from being “servants to servants” – to Egyptians and Egyptian mores – to becoming servants of Hashem. As Moshe, in Hashem’s name, ordered Pharaoh: “Let my people go so that they may serve Me” (Shemos 9:1).  

The Hebrew word for freedom, cherus, the Mishna (Avos, 6:2) notes, can be vowelled to render charus, “etched,” as the Aseres Hadibros were on the luchos.  “The only free person,” the Mishna concludes, “is the one immersed in Torah.”

True freedom doesn’t mean being retired and moneyed, lying on a beach with sunshine on one’s face and a cold beer within reach, without a care or beckoning task. 

In the words of Iyov, “Man is born to toil” (5:7).  True freedom, counterintuitively, comes from hard work.  Applying ourselves to a higher purpose liberates us from the limitations of our inner Egypts, and is what can bring true meaning to our lives.

Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

“I have on my table a violin string. It is free to move in any direction I like. If I twist one end, it responds; it is free.

“But it is not free to sing. So I take it and fix it into my violin. I bind it, and when it is bound, it is free for the first time to sing.”

A timely metaphor, as we progress from Pesach, the holiday of our release from bondage, to Shavuos, the day we entered servitude to the Divine. And when, like on Pesach, we will sing the words of Hallel.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Emor – Crime and Punishment

The first of the Torah’s two cases of imprisonment– that of the mekalel, the blasphemer, is in the parshah (Vayikra, 24:12). The second is in parshas Shelach (Bamidbar 15:34), regarding the mekoshesh eitzim, the Shabbos wood-gatherer.

It is noteworthy that in both cases, the imprisonment of the violator is not a punishment but rather a temporary restraint until a Divine verdict is obtained.

Longtime societal norms become parts of our default assumptions, and so, the contention that sentencing a criminal to jail is an appropriate punishment for a serious crime is seldom questioned.

In the Torah, though, it isn’t. Punitive prescriptions for intentional crimes take the form either of monetary compensation or of corporal punishment – flogging or execution.

American prisons are not only overpopulated (upward of 2 million people), overcrowded, expensive and rife with violence and abuse but also serve as fertile environments for some criminals to hone their skills and “network” with one another. 

An idea that seems impolite to raise but is worth considering all the same is whether corporal punishment might serve as a more effective response and deterrent to crime than incarceration.

Flogging wouldn’t likely fly these days. But carefully regulated but painful experiences, like, for instance, tasing (which is currently acceptable for disabling threats), perhaps combined with requiring post-punishment location anklets, might be an option to consider.

Under current norms, purposely inflicting pain is labeled torture and considered contemptable. But long-term imprisonment is torturous and contemptable in its own right. 

As in so many other realms, here, too, the Torah might be an illuminative guide to larger society. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Kedoshim – Skin in a Zero-Sum Game

Although, in the end, all tattooing is forbidden by halachah, one opinion in the Mishna (Rabi Shimon ben Yehudah in Rabi Shimon’s name) sees the prohibition as referring specifically to tattooing the name of an idolatry. The pasuk can be read as hinting to that approach: “And a tattoo you shall not place upon yourselves – I am Hashem” (Vayikra, 19:28) – as if to say “Nothing else is.” The contest, so to speak, is zero-sum.

And the Rambam, in fact, places the prohibition in his “Laws of Idolatry.” 

So it would seem reasonable, if seeking some message in the tattoo prohibition, to imagine that it might be a negation of designating something, anything, other than Hashem as an ultimate object of dedication.

And, in fact, tattooing is, at least in many cultures, not a mere “decorative” practice but rather a demonstration of devotion – whether to “Mom,” “Jane,” “Jim” or “Semper Fi.”

Or to any less-than-holy ideal, no matter how worthy. What to an idolater is his deity’s name or symbol is, to a contemporary potential tattoo-ee, any of the broad assortment of “isms” – socialism, capitalism, Zionism, environmentalism… that are popular at any given time. Rav Elchonon Wasserman indeed referred to isms as the idolatries of the current historical era.

And so, what the Torah is forbidding may be understood as inscribing one’s utter dedication to any such concept. In fact, the Hebrew for “upon yourselves” can be read just as easily as “in yourselves”; and Rav Hirsch contrasts the use of that word with the “in your flesh” language used regarding making mourning-cuts.

Political isms are still popular these days, but the most widespread ism of the nonce, I suspect, is the one beginning with the word “material.” Not easily depicted in a tattoo, perhaps, but it’s a most consuming (pun intended) idolatry all the same. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Acharei Mos – “No. You Do ME”

“Propriety” was apparently a theme of the Sadducees, or Tziddukim, one of the camps of Jews during the Second Temple period that rejected the the Torah’s “Oral Law,” the key to understanding the true meaning of the Written one. The former, of course, reveals things like that “An eye for an eye” means monetary compensation, and that “totafos” means what we call tefillin.

And so, the Tziddukim rejected the Oral Law’s direction that “Sabbath” in the phrase “from the day after the Sabbath,” directing the beginning of the Omer-counting period, means the first day of Pesach. They felt, they explained, that having two days in a row of rest and festivity – Shabbos and Shavuos, the fiftieth day of the count – would be a nice and proper thing.

And they advocated, too, a change in the Yom Kippur service described in the parsha, at the very crescendo of the day, when the Kohein Gadol entered the Kodesh Hakadashim. The Oral Law prescribes that the incense offered there be lit only after the Kohen Gadol entered the room. The Tziddukim contended that it be lit beforehand. While they offered Written Law support for their position, their true motivation, the Talmud explains, was the “propriety” of doing things differently. 

“Does one bring raw food to a mortal king,” they argued, “and only then cook it before him? No! One brings it in hot and steaming!”

The placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems most appropriate” – above the received truths of the mesorah is the antithesis of Torah, whose foundation is not “you do you” but “you do Me.” 

Our very peoplehood was forged by our forebears’ unanimous, unifying declaration at Sinai: “Naaseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will hear!” – “We will accept the Torah’s laws,” in other words, even amid a lack of ‘hearing,’ or understanding, even  if we think we have a better idea.”

Naaseh v’nishma” stands in stark contrast to society’s fixation on not only having things but having them “our way,” and to Jewish groups that want to bring Torah “in line” with contemporary sensibilities.

But from Avraham Avinu’s “ten trials” to 21st century America, Judaism has never been about comfort, enjoyment or personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter emerges from a holiness-centered life). It has been about Torah and mitzvos – about accepting them not only when they sit well with us but even – in fact, especially – when they don’t.

With apologies to JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson (Jewish mother’s maiden name: Annis Chaikin), Judaism is not about what we’d like Hakadosh Baruch Hu to do for us, but rather about what we are privileged to do for Him.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Metzora – Not Just the Kitchen Sink

I once witnessed an amusing exchange between a mother and her four- or five-year-old daughter. The former, trying to do some cooking with the child underfoot, told the little person, “You need to leave my kitchen now.” Which elicited the indignant, forceful response: “It’s my kitchen too!”

But, of course, it wasn’t either of the disputants’ kitchen, at least not ultimately. 

Addressing the man whose house has exhibited a nega, the Torah refers to him (Vayikra 14:35)as asher lo habayis, which, rendered literally, means “[the one] that there is to him the house.” 

“Is to him.” Chazal attribute nega’im to various sins, the appearance of the nega being a signal for the need to do better.  And the nega’im that appear on the walls of a house signal tzarus ayin, literally “narrow-eyedness,” or, better, stinginess. (See Arachin 16a and Maharsha there.)

Thus, the man is commanded to remove all the furniture and utensils from the house before it is pronounced tamei – letting all see things he has that he may have been asked to lend but claimed he didn’t have.

And that, explains the Kli Yakar, is reiterated by the words that translate as “that is to him.” The phrase reflects the mindset of a tzar ayin, a miser, that what he has is really his. Which is not true, since all we have is only temporarily in our control, on loan, so to speak, from Hashem.

Everything we think we have isn’t really ours at all. 

Everything, down to the kitchen sink. For that matter, to the kitchen itself.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tazria – The Little Man Who Wasn’t There

“On the eighth day yimol b’sar arlaso – the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Vayikra, 12:3).

Rather than directly command circumcision, the Torah here employs the future passive tense – “it shall be done” – instead of just “do it.” That might hint to the fact that, while the baby’s father is the one responsible for his son’s bris, in the absence of the father, other paternal relatives are then obligated. And, in the absence of such relatives, the bris becomes a communal responsibility (Kiddushin 29a).

But the Talmud Yerushalmi (Kiddushin 1:7:2) seems to understand the word yimol to mean not “shall be circumcised” but rather “he should circumcise,” with the subject being not the foreskin but the father. (The Talmud Bavli derives the fact that the father is the initial responsible party from the example of the commandment that was given Avraham [Kiddushin 29a].)

But there is no previous mention of the father as the pasuk’s subject. The Yerushlami, in other words, perceives in the text a person who isn’t there.

There’s a similar “missing subject,” interestingly, in the brachah that the baby’s father makes at a bris: “Blessed are you Hashem… Who sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us to enter him into the covenant of our forefather Avraham.”

Who is the “him”?  Presumably the baby. But there has been no previous mention of the baby during the ceremony.

What gives? Why would there be missing subjects in the Torah’s text about milah and the same mitzvah’s brachah? Might there be some connection between the two “missing men”?

I pose the question but have no answer.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shemini – Feel the Burn

Fire descending from heaven was something our ancestors in the desert experienced nightly for decades, as the daytime pillar of cloud was replaced by one of flame. It had surely become an expected, regular event.

And so the question has been asked: Why, in our parshah, at the dedication of the Mishkan, when fire descended “from before Hashem” and consumed the korban olah on the mizbe’ach, did the nation react so passionately, by “rejoicing and falling on their faces” (Vayikra 9:24)? Fire from heaven? Was that not a daily occurrence?

One approach might be that this fire descent took place during daytime – think of how we might react were the sun to suddenly appear for a few moments at midnight. Or, as Emerson wrote: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore…”

But the Shem MiShmuel points to something else here. The pillar of flame, like its daytime counterpart, the cloud, he notes, essentially served a destructive purpose, preceding the nation as it traveled and consuming any obstacles or threatening creatures in the Jews’ path. Here, though, the divine-directed fire’s consuming was of a korban, from the root meaning “closeness,” and thus was, beyond all else, a demonstration of Hashem’s love for Klal Yisrael. That is what so struck the people and brought forth their rejoicing.

Fire, indeed, is the obvious symbol of all that can be either powerfully destructive or constructive. In its natural, unbridled state, it is the former. Properly harnessed and directed, though, it can be the latter. And fire, in many midrashim, symbolizes the yetzer hara, the inclination to do what is wrong (see Kiddushin 81a). 

Left unfettered, it leads to doom. But it is also what allows the world to work. 

Rav Shmuel bar Nachman said that “Were it not for yetzer hora, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children” (Bereishis Rabbah 9:7). When the chachamim tried to prevent the yetzer hora from operating, disaster resulted (Yoma 69b).

But, “pulled to the beis medrash” (see Kiddushin 30b), when its power is harnessed for good – it is invaluable.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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