Category Archives: PARSHA

Eikev – Mandate and Magnificence

Carl Sagan once observed that “If you wish to make apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

There was a long period of history when the idea that the universe had a beginning was shunned by philosophers and scientists, when apple pie didn’t require any universe-inventing.

The upshot of (and perhaps impetus for) believing in such a “steady state” universe was that, without a creation, there was no need for a Creator.

Current scientific belief, based on observational evidence from the 1960s, is that there was indeed a beginning, confirming the truth of the Torah’s very first sentence.

Those bent on keeping a Creator out of the picture resort to fantastical ideas like an “expansion-contraction” model or a “multiple universe” one. They “fear Hashem” – the idea of Hashem.

But objective human beings naturally understand that Hashem exists. Just looking around us, at the miracle called nature, is sufficient proof.

The mitzvah of loving Hashem is repeated in our parshah (Devarim 10:12). And the Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 2:2) explains that it is fulfilled when one meditates on what Hashem has created, on our surroundings and their wonders.

But in Sefer HaMitzvos (Asei 3), he describes love of Hashem as resulting from meditating on His mitzvos. So, is “the way toward love of Hashem” to contemplate His universe, or His commandments?

Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, explained that one statement might be describing the lens; the other, the view. As Rav Mordechai Pogramansky, zt”l, put it in a parable: A visitor to a museum is shown beautiful works of art but is entirely unimpressed. Until someone wipes the thick dust off the fellow’s eyeglasses. Then he’s in awe of the art.

Before one can perceive Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s grandeur in the astounding magnificence of His creation, one must first approach Creation as something other than an accident, as something containing meaning. And the way to attain that foundational, vital recognition is to understand the concept of… mitzvos. That is the lens.

Once we recognize that we have a mandate, it is obvious that there must be a Mandator.

And then, peering through that clear lens at our Mandator-created world, we can perceive its astounding wonders. And thereby come to love the One who created it.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vo’eschanan – No Mere Miracle

The centerpiece, if such a word can be used in the context of a parshah, of Vo’eschanan is generally assumed to be the Aseres Hadibros, the Decalogue.

But I think that the even more fundamental element of the parshah is the recounting of history at 4:32-36, beginning, “For ask now about the early days that preceded you…” In particular: “Has any people heard a Divine voice speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived?” and “From the heavens [Hashem] let you hear the Divine voice to torment you…”

Every religion on earth touts a miracle or miracles as its basis. Judaism is different, something the Rambam explains in Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 8:1-2). 

While there were many miracles in Egypt and the desert, he notes, only the revelation at Har Sinai truly cemented, without reservation, in the minds and hearts of the Jews, the fact that Hashem was real and had been the author of the miracles they had experienced.  Because, the Ramban observes, any “miracle” could in fact be trickery or sorcery, engineered by a talented magician or sorcerer.

So what made Har Sinai qualitatively different from the splitting of the sea or the mon? The fact, it would seem, that our ancestors directly interacted with the Divine there. The Sinaic experience wasn’t mediated by the senses. The Jews “saw” the thunder; the normal senses were bypassed (See Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:15:1). 

It was a meeting, so to speak, of the minds – or, better, minds and the Mind.

Which is what the phrase “to torment you” above refers to. The experience – “Face to face Hashem spoke to you” (5:4) – was so wrenching to mere mortal men and women that the nation, after the first two dibros, begged Moshe to continue receiving the revelation, with the people continuing as bystanders, witnesses, but not direct recipients (See 5:22-24). The need for the initial “torment” or “torture” was to establish, which no mere miracle could, Hashem as Hashem. 

And that establishment of relationship is absolutely singular. No similar claim to a mass Divine-to-mortals revelation is, or can be, claimed by any other people or faith. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Devarim – Starry, Starry Night

It’s rare for city dwellers to truly see the night sky. Only once, many years ago, driving on a moonless night in West Virginia, did I fully perceive the vast number of stars – nearby planets and distant suns – that were a regular part of people’s lives before the advent of electrical lights.

Although I also (to my shock and delight) saw the Milky Way, the galaxy of which our solar system is part, the billions of individual stars within it cannot be differentiated by the naked eye.

How many stars can be seen with the unaided eye? Hundreds, for certain, maybe even thousands. 

Which leads me to a puzzle. Why are the “stars of the heavens” used by the Torah to mean truly huge numbers? Like in Beraishis 22:17 and Devarim 28:62 and in our parshah (1:10)?

Rashi makes the puzzle even more puzzling: “But were they [the Jewish people] on that day as [many as] the stars of the heavens? Were they not only six hundred thousand?”

In fact, including women and children, they were at least two million. Certainly many more than the stars that our eyes can make out on the starriest of nights.

There are midrashim and commentaries that see the Torah’s star/Jewish People comparisons as indicating something qualitative, not quantitative, like the midrash cited by Rashi on the pasuk in our parshah, which sees the reference indicating Klal Yisrael’s eternal nature. Or Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook’s suggestion that, just as stars are used for navigation, so are the Jews to live lives to guide other nations, to be a “light unto” them. Perhaps he saw the word larov, “in abundance,” as implying larav, “as a teacher.”  But the word’s simple sense cannot be ignored.

I don’t have an answer to the puzzle, only an observation. Namely, that today we know the Milky Way isn’t a “heavenly river,” as might be the meaning of Nehar Dinur (the “river of light” referenced in Chagigah 14a), some undifferentiated band of light, but rather a collection of billions of stars. And that science, most recently the Webb space telescope, has already revealed unimaginable numbers of stars in untold numbers of galaxies far, far beyond our own.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Mas’ei – A Historic Killing’s Echo

One of the most – if not the most – confounding laws in the Torah is that of the go’el hadam, the relative of someone who was accidentally killed, who is permitted (in some opinions commanded) to pursue the unfortunate killer and dispatch him.

So much to unpack here. Personal revenge is far from a Jewish concept. In fact, the Torah unequivocally forbids it in all other situations: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against those of your people” (Vayikra 19:18). Why the exception here? And when the offense being avenged wasn’t even intentional? That would seem to violate even common sense.

Adding to the oddity of the go’el hadam law is the fact that the pursued can find safe haven in any of the “cities of refuge”– six designated ones plus another 42 Levi’im cities that also provide the accidental killer a safe base, where the pursuer has no right to harm him.

Sefer Devarim is called Mishneh Torah – a “review of the Torah.” Although it does contain laws not found earlier, it is, in some sense, an “addendum” to the prior four sefarim. Which would make Bamidbar, at least in a way, the final sefer of the Torah, its conclusion.

The Torah begins its account of human history with a killing, an exile and a protection. Kayin killed his brother, but no one had ever been killed before, so he may be considered a shogeg, an “accidental” killer, even if he intended violence. Or even his intentional act, by bringing killing into the world, may have been what “allowed” for accidental death at the hands of humans.

And Kayin was a bechor, a first-born, whose role the Levi’im come in time to replace. After his act, Kayin is forced to wander, bereft of a territory. The Levi’im, the assumers of the bechor-role, are also deprived of a tribal section of Eretz Yisrael. Instead, they are to dwell in designated cities. To which a killer-by-accident can find refuge. Cities force people to interact interpersonally. An antidote, perhaps, to the Kayin-attitude of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

There is much more to explore here, but let it suffice it to say that the elements of the first killing in history seem to echo in the law of go’el hadam at the “end” of the Torah. Might the law’s import be not in its actual use but rather (as various tannaim hold in the cases of the bayis hamenuga, ir hanidachas and ben sorer u’moreh – see Sanhedrin 71a)) on another level? 

Certainly worth deeper thought.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Pinchas – Self Changes Everything

The law of kana’im pog’im bo – “the zealous ones can attack him” – that Pinchas acted upon to dispatch Zimri and Kozbi is a highly unusual, if not singular, one: If one poses it as a halachic query, it is rendered a forbidden act; but if acted upon without consultation, it is meritorious. How can something prohibited be a mitzvah? We find yibum rendering what was an aveira (relations with one’s brother’s wife) a mitzvah, but there the situation has changed, with the death of the brother. Here, the same act under the same circumstances is both wrong and right.

In physics, there is something called the “observer effect,” referring to the fact that the act of measuring something affects what is being measured. For instance, a thermometer placed in a liquid can’t truly measure the liquid’s temperature, since the thermometer’s own temperature changes the liquid’s (and using a thermometer with the same temperature as the liquid would require knowing the liquid’s temperature beforehand).

The observer effect is even more pronounced in quantum physics, where even the most basic act of observation disturbs the state of subatomic particles.

I wonder if something like the “observer effect” may exist in the halacha of kana’im pog’im bo. The act itself, in its essence, is proper; it is the introduction of self that changes the status of the law, rendering the act forbidden. 

If the aspirant to the status of “zealous” has the presence of mind to query whether he should act, the answer is that he should not. Once a he has entered the situation, it changes what was permitted, even meritorious, into something forbidden. With the introduction of self, everything changes.

When an act of kana’us is performed automatically, though, devoid of “self”-consciousness, without consideration of its potential impact on oneself, it is praiseworthy. And Pinchas, who acted out of pure dedication to Hashem, with no concern for self, is rightly praised.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Balak – Life in Three Dimensions

I’m not entirely sure why eyepatches are often associated with dangerous characters like pirates. But the only character in the Torah who is described as having a single eye is Bilaam (Bamidbar 24:3, although, according to Rashi, his missing eye was unpatched).

The significance of that physical trait is the subject of considerable commentary, much of it focused (forgive me) on two eyes representing two ways of seeing things.

What occurs to me is something else, namely, that having two eyes doesn’t just afford a broader field of vision; it allows us to perceive depth, something beyond the two-dimensional picture we perceive with one eye shut.

That, of course, is because each of our eyes sees a slightly different image (demonstrable by alternating closing each eye while looking at an object; the object shifts), and our brains miraculously combine the two images into a much more informative three-dimensional scene. We see not just a picture but the entirety of the object of our view itself.

Chazal tell us that there are three partners in the conception of every human, a father, a mother and Hashem (Niddah 31a). Bilaam’s monovisioned state, the Gemara, later on the same page, relates, resulted from his disapproving reaction to Hashem’s role during the act of conception:

[Bilaam] said: “Should Hashem who is pure and holy, and whose ministers are pure and holy, peek at this matter?” Immediately his eye was blinded as a divine punishment (ibid).

What was lacking in Bilaam’s purview was an appreciation of the deeper meaning that can be part of a physical act that, if viewed only “two-dimensionally,” or superficially, can seem carnal, even profane. He showed a lack of being able to perceive something beyond the shallow in the physical manifestation of something sublime, a meaningful relationship of love. What he lacked might well be described as depth of vision.

And the result was, in his purely physical life, a physical impediment to seeing anything three-dimensionally.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Chukas – Vocabulary and Venom

In the only instance of a pun in the Torah (isha from ish doesn’t count), we find Moshe forging the nachash hanechoses, the “snake of copper,” out of that particular material because nechoshes sounds like nachash (Rashi, Bamidbar 21:9). If I am being ordered to make a replica of a nachash, a snake, Moshe reasoned, I will make it out of nechoshes, copper, .

The only problem being that Hashem didn’t command Moshe to make a nachash, but rather a saraf, a “venomous creature” (21:8). The intention was a snake, to be sure, but the pun Moshe used was itself based on a synonym.

No metal in Hebrew sounds remotely like saraf, and so Moshe “translated” it into nachash, which then led him to nechoshes.

A rather complicated linguistic procedure.

Language is the hallmark of being human, and synonymizing and punning are the sort of things that put human communication into an entirely different universe from the animal sort. A bee can dance information to its fellows, and whales can send greetings to one another over great distances, but words, and playing with them, is something uniquely human. It is the province of a qualitatively higher realm of aptitude.

And it exists in tandem with another singularly human ability: to recognize our Creator and what we owe Him. The first rain, without which nothing could grow, needed to await Adam’s arrival and recognition of the “goodness” of Hashem’s gift from the heavens (Rashi, Beraishis 2:5).

The copper snake, meforshim explain, served to inspire those gazing upon it to recognize how they had, until that point, been protected for all their years of desert-wandering from the snakes, and other dangers, ubiquitous in such arid places.

Might the human uniqueness signified by Moshe’s wordplay be meant to reflect the other fundamental and singular human ability, that of feeling gratitude?

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Korach – The Nature of Nature

My late friend and once-Staten Island Ferry chavrusa Yossie Hutler, zichrono livrachah, once posed an insightful question about parshas Korach.

“[In the] morning,” Moshe tells Korach and his entourage, Hashem will make His will known. And Rashi (Bamidbar, 16:5), quoting the Midrash (Tanchuma 5, Bamidbar Rabbah 18:7), has Moshe telling  those adversaries that “Hashem assigned limits to His world. If you are able to change morning to evening, so would you be able to change this [decree of Aharon and his sons as kohanim].” 

The Midrash strengthens its point by noting that the same root of bdl (“separated”) is used both regarding day and night at creation and regarding the Jewish people and Aharon as the kohein and progenitor of kohanim.

So the point Moshe made was that, just as nature cannot be changed, neither can Hashem’s choice of Aharon as kohein.

But, asked Yossie, isn’t that blatantly discordant with the final judgment of Korach, which was, of all things, a change of nature – the opening of the earth to swallow him and his people?

What occurred is that, as various Jewish thinkers (Rav Dessler prime among them) have explained, there is no such thing as “nature.” All there is is Hashem’s will. His will regarding some things is ongoing; we call the results nature. But, in the end, there is only His will.

In fact, the Midrash’s wording (“Hashem assigned limits…”) is pointed. It’s not that “nature” cannot change. It’s that Hashem’s will cannot be changed by humans. 

And so, the earth’s opening to swallow Korach and company was indeed no less “natural” than the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. It was simply Hashem’s will. And humans cannot change that will.

Which might be why the Midrash (cited by Rashi, 16:30) notes that the “mouth of the earth” that opened that day was created “during the six days of creation,” along with the rest of all that we like to call “nature.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shelach – The Importance of Feeling Unthreatened

The idea that the prohibition against lashon hora, “speech of evil,” includes speaking negatively about a thing, not just a person, is surprising.

But the sin of the meraglim, the scouts who were sent by Moshe Rabbeinu to spy out the land of Cna’an, who returned with a demoralizing report, is characterized as precisely that: slander of the Holy Land. The Torah describes the scouts’ sin as spreading dibah (Bamidbar 13:32), which Onkelos renders “shum bish,” or “a bad name.” 

And Rabbi Elazar ben Parta, in the Talmud, uses the scout narrative to emphasize the gravity of lashon hora in its more common usage:

“If one who defames the wood and rocks of Eretz Yisrael received so severe a punishment, then with regard to one who defames another person, all the more so will he be punished severely.” (Arachin, 15a)

Several of the meraglim’s names include words meaning animals. Might something about lashon hora be implied by that?

The most basic instinct of any animal is self-preservation. (Human beings are the only creatures that can choose, and have chosen, to die willingly for a higher cause.)

And the prime engine of self-preservation is fear. Which is what the meraglim felt, and instilled in the people, by describing the inhabitants of the land as, well, fearsome.

Perhaps lashon hora, too, has at its roots a misguided sense of self-preservation. Slandering another is often the result of feeling a threat – if not against one’s life, then in some less violent, more subtle way.

Which raises the possibility that cultivating one’s self-worth – immunizing oneself, so to speak, against feeling intimidated by others or seeing them as competitors – might be a worthy strategy for undermining the human tendency toward negative speech.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Woe Isn’t Us

The reflexive form of the word k’mis’onenim (“The people were mis’onenim [complaining] bitterly before Hashem” – Bamidbar 11:1) indicates that our ancestors were self-focused in their grumbling. They were mourning themselves, sorrowful (as per the Ramban, who cites the phrase ben oni, Beraishis 35:18) over their lot.

Entering the desolateness of the desert, they felt pangs of worry or fear.

But, aside from the construct of the word, there is its prefix, the k’, which indicates “like” or “as.”

Rav Chaim Vital understands that qualifier as conveying the fact that the complaint was not verbalized, but rather (perhaps this, too, indicated by the reflexive) internal, silent.

Another possibility occurs. Namely, that complaining, mourning, feeling sorry for one’s lot, as easy and common as it may be, is in conflict with the essence of a Jew.

Our purpose in life is to serve Hashem, and doing so goes hand in hand with simcha, joy – the opposite of aninus. As in Mizmor LeSoda that we recite daily, we are to “Worship Hashem in happiness; come into His presence with joy.” (Tehillim 100:2)

So to call Jews mis’onenim isn’t an option. If we feel sorry for ourselves and bemoan our lots, it is born of something extraneous to our essence. We can be K’mis’onenim” – like complainers. But the Jew in his essence is a makir tov, a discerner of blessings, an acceptor of his lot with joy, a bearer of a korban Todah.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran