Category Archives: PARSHA

Metzora – Miserly Mindset

We instinctively think of nega’im as born of lashon hora, “evil speech,” and we’re not wrong. But there is another birther of the condition, one that is evident in the very word metzora: tzarus ayin, “miserly eye” – selfish narrowmindedness, begrudging others one’s possessions.

That is particularly evident in the fact that, in the case of nig’ei batim, the tzara’as that afflicts walls of a house, the owner, before the house is declared tamei by a kohein, is told to take the home’s vulnerable vessels outside, exposing them to public view. What’s more, the Torah’s concern for the owner’s possessions stands as a lesson to him about caring for others’ needs.

Jews, as a people, are famously generous. We may be frugal, but that bespeaks something positive, our recognition of the worth of even small things. When it comes to charity, though, U.S. Jews per capita are more philanthropic than any other ethnic or religious community.

But tzarus ayin can manifest itself in a realm apart from charity. The Kli Yakar sees in the phrase “asher lo habayis” – “that is to him the house” (Vayikra 14:35) – an indication of a miser’s mindset: he thinks the house is truly his, when, in reality, it, like all we may think we “own,” is only temporarily in his control, on loan, so to speak, from Hashem.

Chazal created an entire class of imperatives based on that reality: birchos hanehenin, “blessings to be made before indulging.” When we recite a brachah before enjoying food or even fragrance, we are acknowledging that what is about to benefit us is from Hashem.

It’s ironic that a society like ours today, so blessed with such plenty, is not more careful when it comes to acknowledging our blessings. “Bruchanoi” may be somewhat reminiscent of the first three words of a brachah, but only somewhat. And quickly mumbling a brachah as some sort of irksome incantation without thinking about what its words mean is no replacement for summoning the gratitude the brachah is meant to express.

Even generous eyes can be miserly. Ours shouldn’t be.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tazria – Speech Pathology

Tum’ah, or “ritual defilement,” is invisible but consequential in many contexts, especially, though not exclusively, with regard to kodoshim, material holding holy status.

And, in most cases of tum’ah impartation, the defilement happens as a matter of course, through contact of one sort or another with a source of tum’ah.

Tzara’as, the skin condition that occupies the bulk of parshas Tazria, is different. It is wholly dependent on the judgment, based on the detailed laws in the parsha, of a kohein

And not just his judgment but his pronouncement of “tamei.”

Hence, we have the law that a groom with a sign of tzara’as is to be given seven days of wedding celebration before presenting his condition to a kohein; and anyone with such a sign does not bring it to a kohein during a holiday (Rashi Vayikra 13:14, based on Moed Katan 7b). No pronouncement of tum’ah, no tum’ah.

At least in the case of skin tzara’as, which, it is taught, results from lashon hara, speaking ill of others, the oddity of the tuma’ah being dependent on a pronouncement might telegraph a subtle message to the afflicted person: Speech is powerful. It can be destructive, as in lashon hara, the source of tzara’as. And withholding it can be consequential in a positive way, preventing  tum’ah from manifesting. It is what sets humanity apart from the animal world. 

It’s fitting, in other words, that the status of a condition brought about by speech is dependent on speech.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Beware Phony Frumkeit

When describing the camel and pig, animals that lack either of the two signs required for their species to be considered consumable by Jews, the Torah’s wording is odd. 

Kosher species require cud-chewing and split hooves, yet the camel, the text states, is forbidden “because it chews its cud, but does not have a [completely] split hoof”; and the pig, “because it has a cloven hoof that is completely split, but will not regurgitate its cud.” The “becauses” are seemingly misplaced, since the reason for the species’ forbiddance is for the lack of one kosher sign, not the presence of one.

Similar wording is used regarding the two other “one sign only” species mentioned, the hyrax and the hare.

The Kli Yakar perceives something poignant in the placement of the kosher signs after the “becauses.” He writes that “their pure sign adds extra impurity to their impurity, as we find that Chazal compared Esov to a pig that sticks out its hoofs when it lies down to make it appear as if it is kosher, but its inside is full of deceit. This represents anyone whose inside is not like his outside, in the manner of the hypocrites … Therefore, the pig’s split hoof is a sign of impurity because the split hoof can deceive people and make it appear as if it is kosher.”

The Chashmonai king Yannai, before he died, told his wife “Don’t be afraid of the Perushim [Torah-faithful Jews] or of those who are not Perushim, only of the hypocrites who present themselves as Perushim, for their actions are those of Zimri while they ask for reward like Pinchas received” (Sotah 22b).

Presenting oneself as a better version than that of one’s reality, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, once told me, isn’t wrong – if one aspires to that better version. As the Chinuch put it, “what is on the outside can awaken the inside.” 

But pretension for the sake of pretension is being, well, piggish. 

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tzav – The Constancy of His Kindnesses 

Among the various karbanos called shelamim, two are very limited regarding when their meat and accompaniments must be consumed – the day they are offered. Regular shelamim are permitted double that window of time.

The two are the korban Pesach and, in our parsha, the korban todah, the “thanksgiving” offering. The latter, like the former, is offered in response to having been saved from a dire situation. The Gemara (Brachos 54b), citing Tehillim 107, gives the examples of 1) going to sea, 2) traveling in a desert, 3) enduring a serious illness and 4) being confined to prison. 

Interestingly, the Jewish national thanksgiving which is Pesach involves all of those categories. A sea had to be crossed, a desert, subsequently, had to be traveled, Egypt is described as having been a virtual prison, and the Jewish people are described as having sunk to the lowest spiritual level in Egypt – a sickness of the national soul.

Why the one-day limit? Rav Yitzchak Meir Alter, the Gerer Rebbe known as the Chidushei HaRim, explains that it is to impress upon the offeror – and all of us – that heavenly salvations are daily occurrences. Whether we perceive them or not.

All of us can recall close calls we’ve had in our pasts. Each was a salvation.  

But getting up in the morning rather than expiring in our sleep is also a salvation. Making our way through our day without tripping and hurting ourselves or being mugged or worse is a salvation. Driving from point A to point B without an interaction with a drunk driver is a salvation…

As we recite in Modim, the Amidah’s bracha of “acknowledgment” or “thanksgiving”: “[We thank You] for Your miracles that are with us every day…”

So needing to eat the korban todah within one day – according to the chachamim, in order to avoid problems, by midnight – impresses us with the constancy of Hashem’s kindnesses.

Something to think about on the seder nights as we rush to consume the afikoman – the stand-in for the korban Pesach – before midnight.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayikra – Prelude to Prayer

Inordinate stress is put by the Talmud on being somech geulah litfillah, placing a reference to redemption immediately before prayer, i.e. the amidah (Berachos 9b). It isn’t clear why that is so important, but what has always occurred to me is that, before praising and beseeching Hashem, a consciousness of hakaras hatov, recognition of His favor toward us, embodied in the concept of geulah, is essential.

Hakaras hatov, of course, is a fundamental – perhaps the most fundamental – Torah concept.

At the very beginning of history, we read that the vegetation created on the third day would not sprout from the ground until the sixth, because it was necessary that man be created first, to “recognize the good’ of rain and pray for it (Rashi, Beraishis, 2:5).

Hashem, of course, didn’t need Adam HaRishon’ recognition of His kindness to bring rain. It seems that the concept is of such import that it had to be stressed at the beginning of humanity (as well as at the beginning of Klal Yisrael, when the striking of the Nile and the ground in Mitzrayim to effect plagues had to be performed by Aharon, because Moshe Rabbeinu had to feel hakaras hatov to the river and earth that had benefited him).

Which is why Jewish days begin with Modeh Ani and end with Hamapil, and why they are filled throughout with the recitation of birchos hanehenin and birchos hoda’ah.

What occurs, as we end sefer Shemos and begin sefer Vayikra, is that the idea of being somech geulah to tefillah is hinted at by that very juxtaposition. 

After all, geulah is exemplified by Shemos, the book that revolves around the redemption from Mitzrayim and travel toward Eretz Yisrael.  And the sefer segues into the building of the Mishkan, leading to korbanos, the essential theme of Vayikra. “Sacrifices” (or, better, “closeness creators”) are replaced in our day (and even in ancient times were accompanied) by prayer.

So Shemos’ geulah leads immediately to Vayikra’s tefillah. The Torah itself, it seems, is somech geulah to tefillah.

And so the unexpected use of the word “adam” when korbanos are introduced (Vayikra 1:2), explained by the midrash brought by Rashi as a reference to Adam HaRishon, may also hint at something else we know from the first man: that hakaras hatov needs to precede prayer.  

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Pekudei – Panic Today, Joy Tomorrow

The parallel in wordings between the Torah’s account of the universe’s creation and of the building of the Mishkan has been noted by commentaries. I won’t cite examples here but they abound.

The late British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks well phrased the upshot of that parallel, writing that “Genesis begins with G-d creating the universe as a home for humankind. Exodus ends with human beings, the Israelites, creating the Sanctuary as a home for G-d.”

A little-known Midrash, I believe, also adds to the parallel.  The Midrash Hagadol, on the parsha’s final pasuk (Shemos 40:38) – which states that “For the cloud of Hashem was upon the Mishkan by day, and there was fire within it at night, before the eyes of the entire house of Israel…” – recounts the following:

“When the Jews saw the cloud resting on the Mishkan, they rejoiced… [but] when night came and fire surrounded the Mishkan, they were anguished and cried ‘All our work was for naught!’ When they awoke the next morning and saw the cloud enveloping the Mishkan again, they rejoiced an even greater rejoicing…”

That account is strongly reminiscent of the Gemara (Avodah Zara 8a) that tells of how:

“On the day that Adam Harishon was created, when the sun set upon him, he said: ‘Woe is me, as because I sinned, the world is becoming dark around me, and the world will return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven.’ He spent all night fasting and crying, with Chava crying opposite him. Once dawn broke, though, he said: ‘Evidently, the sun sets and night arrives, and this is the order of the world.’ He arose and offered a sacrifice…”

Both  accounts illustrate that, even when it seems that all is lost, that the world is bearing down and no hope is in sight, reason to rejoice may lie around the corner. 

Living as we are in precarious times and headed toward Purim, when we will read of how a seemingly dire, threatening situation was turned on its head, it is a timely and trenchant message.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayakhel — Just Do It

It might be because last Shabbos was the yahrtzeit of my mother, Puah bas Rav Noach HaCohein, a”h. But, whatever the reason, she came to the fore of my mind when reviewing parshas Vayakhel, in particular the missing yud in the word nesi’im

The word for those tribal leaders of Klal Yisrael is spelled without a letter yud where there should be one (Shemos, 35:27).

Rashi, channeling Bamidbar Rabbah (12:16), notes that the truncated spelling reflects the Nesi’im’s declining to make their donations immediately, along with all the other Jews. Although their intention was to make up any shortfall, an undeniably laudable goal, their lack of alacrity is still held against them.

Two years ago, I offered one approach, based on Rav Dessler’s writing, to why that might be so. But this year, the memory of my mother suggested another possible explanation for why the Nesi’im are held accountable despite their good intention.

My mother was well known in Baltimore for warmly engaging everyone she met – and that was many people, since she was a shul rebbetzin. And she made constant efforts to find matches for unmarrieds. Try, though as she did, no marriages resulted from her efforts. 

At least not directly. Because when one makes an effort to do something meritorious, it advances the goal, contributes to the realm of good. No hishtadlus is without worth.

What occurs is that the Nesi’im’s lapse may have been the lack of effort. Instead of acting, even though they left open the door to future action should it be needed, they held back. That missing yud may thus signal the fact that effort is inherently meaningful, no matter the odds of success or the calculus for inaction. The effort itself is a success.

In the end, Hashem’s will will be done. As Mordechai told Esther when he chastised her for hesitating to engage the king on behalf of her fellow Jews, “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere.” 

What he was saying was: Hashem has His plan and it will persevere, with or without your effort. But your effort will be meaningful, will advance the goal, and accrue to your everlasting credit.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ki Sisa — Knot Theory

The Hebrew words panim and achor (as in lifnei and acharei) are used in both a spatial and temporal sense – either as “front” and “back” or as “before” and “after.”

One approach to the  mysterious revelation of Hashem’s glory to Moshe as he gazed from a cleft in a rock (Shemos 33: 18-23) sees forms of those words as referring not, as they most simply read, to the dimension of space but, rather, that of time.

“You will see My ‘back’ but My ‘face’ [or ‘front’] will not be seen” is what Hashem tells Moshe. The Chasam Sofer and Rav Tzadok HaCohein both understand that along the lines of “You may understand My ways when they are behind you in history, but the future (and even present) will not be perceptible.”

I wonder if what permeates and drives both the past and the future might lie in what Chazal comment on the word for “My back”: “He showed Moshe the kesher shel tefillin, the ‘knot at the back of the phylactery [placed on the head]’” (Berachos 7a). 

And indeed, the Gemara (ibid, 6a) says that Hashem, in some sense, “wears tefillin.” 

What occurs is that the word kesher can mean not only knot but also “bond.” The Gemara tells us that, while our own tefillin contain pesukim praising Hashem, the divine tefillin contain a pasuk praising His people (ibid).

Might “kesher shel tefillin,” here, be a pun of sorts, referring to the eternal bond binding Hashem to Klal Yisrael? And may that bond be the essential thread that runs through human history – past, present and future?

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tetzavah – Divine Right vs. Divine Role

There’s really no such thing as a kohein.

At least not the way we generally pronounce the word in conversation, with the accent placed on the first syllable. In the Torah, the stress is on the second syllable, a hint to the fact that the word is not a noun but rather a verb. 

That is Rashi’s observation in the parsha (29:30), on the words hakohein tachtav, which can only be properly translated as ‘who ‘koheins’in his stead” – with kohein meaning “serves.” (The cantillation, Rashi notes, would not support translating the phrase as “who is a kohein in his stead.”)

That may be nothing more than an interesting grammatical observation. But it may also signal something deeper.

Kohanim, of course, derive their status from being descendants of Aharon. In the non-Jewish sphere, special roles can also be transferred genealogically, as in monarchies.

But the “divine right of kings,” whereby monarchs claimed authority that rendered them unaccountable for their actions by earthly laws and courts (a topic that remains germane, oddly, even today, even in democracies) could not be further from the divine role of kohanim. A kohein is as governed by the Torah’s laws as any other Jew.

Kohanim are verily defined as “servers,” as being charged to do Hashem’s will. They are not defined by a noun but a verb – referring to performing the acts they are commanded to perform.

To be sure, kohanim have a special status in Klal Yisrael and are deserving of honor. But their specialness is born of mission, not license or immunity.

Truth be told, every one of us is, each in his or her way, special, whether we happen to carry a particular title or are just the unique individuals each of us is. And we all are likewise defined not by our particular statuses or identities, but by our missions. 

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Terumah — Ulterior Merits

The aron habris, the ark of the covenant that held the luchos, the tablets of the law, consisted of three nested boxes, the middle one of wood, the outer and inner ones of zahav tahor – “pure gold.” Its kapores, or cover, was made entirely of “pure gold.”

Not so the poles that are placed in rings on the sides of the aron – and that are to remain there permanently. Like the aron itself, they are wooden but covered with gold. But only “gold,” not “pure gold” like the aron’s inner and outer boxes.

In his sefer Nachalas Tzvi, Rav Meshullam Gross notes that difference and sees in it the fact that those whose lives are dedicated to Torah-study, symbolized by the aron, must be pure-hearted and not motivated by ulterior motives. Those who support them, however, who are symbolized by the poles with which the aron was carried, may condition their support on other things.

Ulterior motives do not cancel the merit of Torah-support or other meritorious giving. As the Talmud (Pesachim 8a) teaches: “One who says: I am contributing this coin to charity so that my son will live… is a completely righteous person.”

A common ulterior motive in philanthropy is honor. That is why donors’ names on plaques in shuls, Jewish outreach centers and yeshivos, or on the edifices themselves are perfectly proper.

In fact, such displays can constitute great merits in their own rights.

One of the most generous donors to Torah causes was Joe Tanenbaum, whose name, along with his wife Faye’s, graces wonderful institutions not only in his adopted city Toronto but across the globe. As a child, he hadn’t received a thorough Jewish education and he wanted others to have every opportunity to Jewishly educate themselves.

He was, though, by all accounts, a most modest man. A story that made the rounds many years ago is that he was once asked why he wanted his and his wife’s names to be prominent on the facades of the countless Torah-promoting buildings.

His reply was that, in the event that one of his future descendents should for some reason not receive a Jewish education or fall away from the Jewish path, he hopefully imagined the young person seeing the name Tanenbaum on an edifice and, carrying the same surname or knowing it was in his or her genealogy, becoming sufficiently intrigued to enter its doors.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran