Category Archives: PARSHA

Parshas Bamidbar – Desert and Direction

The sefer of Bamidbar (or, to be pedantic, B’midar) begins with the word Vayidaber; and the Talmud Yerushalmi, I’ve seen it cited, even calls the sefer by that latter word.

Both words, as it happens, share the same three-letter Hebrew root, d-v-r, even though one means “desert” and the other “speak.”

What common element of meaning could associate a desert with speech?

The answer may lie in yet another word with the exact same three-letter root, a word that means something else, seemingly, altogether. In Tehillim, we find the phrase yadber amim tachteinu (47:4), which can be translated “He will guide the nations under us.” Although Rashi and the Targum on Tehillim take a different approach to the word yadber, the Gemara (Shabbos 63a) understands the word to mean “guiding,” and the context of the pasuk supports that understanding. The Radak and Ibn Ezra also translate it that way.

Speaking (especially the sort of speech with which the word dibbur is associated: clear, strong words) guides the one spoken to in a particular direction, to hearing the meaning or directive of the speaker. So it isn’t terribly farfetched to imagine that yadber and vayidaber are subtly related.

Midbar, though, seems a puzzle.

What occurs is that a midbar is a desolate, featureless place, usually dangerous, for lack of food and water, and the presence of snakes and such.  But the challenges and dangers may not be what inheres in the word midbar; certainly, the desert through which the Jews were wandering lacked those threats; the well of Miriam, the maan and the cloud of protection made it a safe place.

But it remained one without distractions, and was the path, if a convoluted one, leading the people, guiding them, to their goal, Eretz Yisrael.

Might the word midbar’s essential meaning reflect not desolation nor danger, but the idea of an open path leading to a goal beyond it, toward  which one is being guided?

And, even in our own lives, might obscuring the distractions around and within us help us perceive where we are supposed to go?

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Two Paths to the Happy End of History

Between the lines of the terrible description in parshas Bechukosai of what will happen if Klal Yisrael abandons the mitzvos of Hashem lie subtle hints to the limits and end of those curses.  The land will not yield produce (making it inhospitable to occupiers); there will be years of barrenness (but as an atonement for the unobserved shemitos); we will be scattered throughout the world (making it impossible for our enemies to isolate and destroy us – Rabbeinu Bachya).

And, of course, after the long, painful recounting of the tragedies that might befall us, Hashem offers the assurance that “But despite all this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted by them, nor will I have rejected them or obliterated therm, to annul My covenant with them” (Vayikra 26:44). And that He “will remember My covenant with Yaakov and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also my covenant with Avraham…” (26:42).

So even within the curses are blessings; and when the evil passes, what will remain will be Hashem’s covenant with our forefathers, and our salvation as a people through its merit. 

So what the Torah is saying is that there will be a happy end to history but that there are two ways it can be reached: We can choose good and get there in a direct fashion; or, chalilah, we can choose the opposite and have to endure a long, grueling and tragic galus-journey… but to the same destination.  Our forefathers’ merit ensures that all will, in the end, be well.

In other words, our suffering, should our choices make it necessary, will also have become part of Hashem’s plan.

An idea subtly echoed in the final law of the parshah, temurah.

It is a sin to attempt to transfer the holiness of a consecrated animal to another one.  And yet, the sin nevertheless effects holiness, as the second animal becomes holy as well.

Even our sins, for which we are responsible, can all the same end up yielding the fruition of Hashem’s plan.

Hu us’muraso yih’yeh kodesh. (ibid 27:10.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Emor – Embracing Our Worlds

A strange and strangely familiar phrase is found in Rashi, commenting on the Torah’s introduction of the account of the mekalel, the blasphemer, with “And he went out” (Vayikra, 24:10)

Rashi, quoting Rabi Levi in a Midrash, elaborates: “He went out of his world.”  The idea of an individual’s personal “world” is also employed by the renowned 18th century Italian mystic Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato in the very first sentence of his famous work Mesilas Yesharim. He introduces his book by stating that the essence and root of human service to the Divine begins with a person’s effort to clarify and establish “what his obligation is in his world.”

That each of us has his or her own world is a curious notion.  I think it means that each of us has a unique spiritual essence that needs to be expressed in a unique way and utilized in service to Hashem. Intriguingly, that idea resonates powerfully with the second Midrash Rashi cites about the phrase “And he went out” — that the blasphemer has just left the court of Moshe, where he had lost his case.

That case involved his claim, since his mother was Jewish (although his father was an Egyptian) that he was entitled to a portion of land in the area of his mother’s tribe, Dan. The ruling, however, was that, while he was a member of the Jewish people, he — uniquely, among the people — owned no portion of the land.

That left him with two options: Either to accept that fate, and recognize that it was “his world” – a personal situation that somehow positioned him for a particular, singular role to play in society.  Or to reject the ruling angrily.  He chose the second path, and then some.  Thus he “left” not only the court but his world.

Some people who see their life circumstances as “unfair” face a similar choice. The key to true success in life — which, of course, is unrelated to profession, wealth, fame or pleasure —  is seizing one’s individual, unique circumstance, no matter how limiting or painful or puzzling it may be, recognizing that it is his or her “own world” –what makes them special.  And then, after ascertaining what that specialness seems to demand, getting down to work.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Acharei Mos – Love Means No Matter What

My late dear friend Yossie Huttler, a”h, with whom I often studied Daf Yomi on our Staten Island ferry commute, once asked me a question about parshas Acharei Mos. 

Rashi, he pointed out, cites a Midrash on the words “that dwells among them [Klal Yisrael, even] amid their defilement.” Rashi says: “Even though they are defiled, the Shechinah remains among them” [Vayikra, 16:16].

And yet, in the very last pasuk in the parshah, on the words “Do not defile yourselves with them [major sins], I am Hashem, your G-d” [ibid 18:30], Rashi, again quoting a Midrash, comments: “But if you do defile yourselves with these sins, I cannot be your G-d; you will have cut yourself off from me… you will deserve annihilation.” 

So which, asked R’ Yossie, is it? If Klal Yisrael is deeply sinful, does the Shechina still dwell among us all the same? Or, chalilah, will we then have cut ourselves off from Hashem and deserve destruction?

What occurred to me at the time was to understand the two Midrashim as entirely in tandem. As the latter one states, our descent, if it happens, into irredeemable tum’ah is a self-cutting-off from Hashem, and leaves us deserving, chalilah, of destruction. That is a reality.

And yet, still and all, it is overridden by another reality: that, despite it all, Hashem will not ever cut Himself off from us, and will never destroy us. In fact, He remains entirely among us, even in amid our defilement.

That is because, as we say in the final brachah before Krias Shema both in Shacharis (habocher biami Yisrael biahava) and Maariv (oheiv amo Yisrael), Hashem loves us.

A child can be rebellious, even reject his parent, even deserve, as a result, a serious punishment. But a loving parent will not reject the child, or even punish him to the extent he deserves. Because the parent is loving.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Tazria – Pity the Habitual Accuser

It’s bad enough that the person whose divisive sins caused him to contract tzora’as (a physical condition conferring tum’ah and sometimes mistakenly identified with leprosy) has to sit apart from society, but he is also enjoined: “vi’tamei tamei yikra” — “ ‘And ritually contaminated! Ritually contaminated!’ he should call out” (Vayikra 13:45).

Indeed, the Talmud uses that added indignity to illustrate a popular (well, at the time) saying: “Poverty follows the poor.” (Bava Kama, 92b).

But the metzora’s prescribed announcement of his condition, says the Talmud, teaches other things too. Like the importance of letting others know of one’s sufferings, so that they might pray for him (Mo’ed Katan 5a). And it hints, too, to the need to mark a grave, so that people won’t inadvertently become tamei by passing over it (ibid).

The Shelah (Rav Yeshayahu HaLevi Horovitz, c.1555-1630), however, sees in the metzora’s announcement a hint to yet something else. Parsing the phrase differently, he reads it as saying “and those ritually contaminated will call out [about others] ‘Ritually contaminated!’ ”

In other words, people tend to project their own deficits onto others.  As the amora Shmuel said, in the context of genealogical status: “Those who assert a flaw [in others], their own flaw is what they assert” (Kiddushin 70a).

Indeed, it isn’t uncommon to see people in the public sphere who seem to make a habit of accusing others of a particular proclivity or wrongdoing being exposed as having the same proclivity or having been engaged in the same sin.

And in the private sphere, if we ever have the unpleasant experience of being accused of something by someone who is given to lobbing the same accusation at others, we might do well to pause. And, rather than take the allegation personally, realize that the accuser may, in fact, simply suffer from insecurity, and is really accusing himself.  

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Shemini – And That Could Make All the Difference

Even those of us with limited exposure to farm animals can easily differentiate between a cow and a donkey. Which leads Rashi to explain that when the Torah refers to our need to differentiate between the meat permitted for us Jews to consume and that which is prohibited, it means distinguishing between things like “a trachea [of a permitted animal] that has been cut exactly halfway across [which doesn’t satisfy the requirements of shechita] and one that has been more-than-half cut.”

A rather fine distinction, of course, a matter of a millimeter or less. 

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zt”l, sees it as a template for judgments to be made throughout our lives.  There is a mere hairsbreadth’s difference between holiness and its opposite, he notes in his sefer LaTorah V’lamoadim. He cites the Talmudic account of Rabi Meir’s recollection of Rabi Yishmael’s words upon hearing that Rabi Meir was a sofer. “My son, be very careful in your work… for if you omit a mere letter or add one [which, in certain cases could radically change the meaning of a word], you could destroy the entire world.”

Similarly, Rav Zevin notes, we are enjoined to see ourselves as if we are half-worthy and half-unworthy; and Rabi Elazar ben Rabi Shimon adds that the world itself can be dependent on its merits outweighing – even by a single mitzvah – its demerits.  And so, with each decision we make, we should imagine that only choosing correctly will preserve the world.

Even a mere momentary thought can be that crucial element, he adds, since a marriage effected by a man who betroths a woman “on the condition that I am a completely righteous person,” but whose subsequent actions indicate otherwise, requires a divorce to be dissolved.  Because, as the Gemara says, “perhaps he had a thought of repentance” when he betrothed the woman on the condition.

The words of Robert Frost, in his famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” come to mind.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

We often make decisions in our daily lives without considering that our choices could be potentially life-changing, even earth-shattering.” But, in fact, any of them could be.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Tzav – The Illness that was Egypt

The korban todah, or “thanksgiving” offering described in the parsha (Vayikra 7:12), according to the Gemara (Brachos 54b), citing Tehillim 107, is the proper response to one of four categories of danger (though other situations may well be incorporated within them) from which one has emerged safely: 1) going to sea, 2) travelling in a desert, 3) enduring a serious illness and 4) being confined to prison. Those categories are based on Tehillim 107.

Both interestingly and timely is the fact that the Jewish national thanksgiving which is Pesach involves all of those categories. A sea had to be crossed, a desert, subsequently, had to be travelled, Egypt is described as having been a virtual prison, from which no one had previously escaped, and the Jewish people are described as having sunk to the lowest spiritual level in Egypt — a sickness of the national soul — necessitating their immediate exodus from the spiritually decrepit land. 

But something is strange here. The korban todah, unique among offerings, requires as an accompaniment four groups of flour-offerings. And, equally unique, one of those groups must be chametz, leavened. (Other flour offerings, aside from Shavuos’ shtei halachem, are not permitted to leaven.)

And on Pesach, of course, chametz is forbidden not only to consume but even to own.

If Pesach is a national parallel of an individual’s korban todah, why would the latter include something that is anathema to the former?

What occurs is that the “illness” that a korban todah offerer survived was a physical one, whereas the national malady we experienced in Egypt was entirely spiritual.  The inclusion of chametz in the todah-offering might reflect the fact that the danger was to bodies (chametz being associated with physical desires); the dearth of it on Pesach, the fact that the danger was entirely to our souls. (The Alshich, in fact, identifies each of the four flour-offerings with one of the todah- obligating escaped dangers, and associates “enduring illness” with the chametz offering.)

Soon enough, we will be celebrating Hashem’s rescue of our ancestors from the illness that was Egypt, when we recount the happening at our Pesach seder tables and declare our thanksgiving in Hallel, with not a crumb of chametz to be found.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayikra – A Most Meaningful Mineral

The word “sacrifices” used for korbanos, the mainstay topic of parshas Vayikra, is a misnomer. Korban doesn’t carry the meaning of “giving up something.” Its most accurate, if awkward, translation would be “bringer of closeness.”

How closeness is effected by korbanos may have to do, at least in a simple sense, with the hierarchy of creation noted in many Jewish sources, domeim, tzomei’ach, chai, medaber: “still” (mineral), “growing” (vegetation), “living” (animal) and “speaking” (human). 

By establishing the korban-bringer as subjugating and employing the lower realms (which are all represented in korbanos), he is placing himself closer to Hashem, in Whose image he was created.

Interestingly, the “still,” or mineral component of korbanos, is a necessary component of all korbanos, both animal and vegetable (i.e. menachos, or flour offerings): salt.   “On your every offering shall you offer salt” — Vayikra 2:13).

Rishonim like Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya, who assert that salt is a combination of water and fire may have based that description on the simple observation of the fact that salt can be obtained through saltwater and that salt can “burn” vegetation and skin. Or maybe the description is meant as symbolic and is part of a mystical mesorah.

But whatever the source of their assertion, they see salt as representing a combination of opposites, of antagonists, which informs the use in parshas Vayikra of the word bris, or “covenant,” in the pasuk quoted above, to refer to the mineral.

The Kli Yakar explains that the “covenant [of opposites]” that salt represents conveys the idea that Dualist philosophies like Manichaeism are false. Hashem is King over all; what may seem like irreconcilable opposites are all ultimately under His control. 

I find it intriguing that, in the paradigm of contemporary physics, salt is indeed a compound of two disparate (if not “opposite,” whatever that might mean in the periodic table) elements: sodium and chlorine.  Both are highly reactive. (Countless chemistry teachers got the attention of their students by dropping a piece of sodium into a container of water.) 

And each is invariably fatal if ingested. Both, in other words, are poisons.

And yet, the ionic compound that results from the two elements’ “covenant” is a mineral that is necessary for life, that flavors our food, that preserves perishables… and that must be part of every korban

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayakhel – Not All Donations Welcome

Sometimes money amassed through questionable means is donated to good causes like charities or educational institutions. Perhaps the donors’ subconscious, or even conscious, intent is to somehow render their ill-gotten gains “kosher” in some way.

The Zohar informs us of the folly of such thinking.

On Moshe’s exhortation near the beginning of parshas Vayakhel that the people donate materials for the construction of the Mishkan — “Take from yourselves a portion for Hashem…” (Shemos 35:5), the mystical text states:

“From yourselves” —  from what is [truly] yours, not from [what you have obtained from] usury and not from [what you have obtained from] theft.  Because if it is [obtained through unethical means, the giver] has no merit, but, on the contrary, woe to him, as he has come to recall his sin.”  

Not only would the Mishkan’s holiness have been compromised if any of the precious metals or fabrics used for its construction were besmirched by its donor’s bad behavior in obtaining it, but also, any donation of wrongly obtained material would be a reminder of the donor’s sin.

The same point is said to have been made, particularly pointedly and wittily, by the Kotzker Rebbe, on Chazal’s statement that, at Sinai, the people saw with their eyes what normally could only be heard with ears.  That way, allegedly said the Kotzker, there would be no way for anyone to hear the lo (“Thou shall not”) in lo signov — “Thou shall not steal” — as being spelled lamed-vav, meaning, “For Him, steal.”

It would seem that the notion of justifying economic crimes with virtuous use of ill-gotten gains is nothing new. It existed in the 19th century — and even in Biblical times.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ki Sisa – Of Idols and Ideals

Describing our ancestors’ worshipping of the egel hazahav, the golden calf, the Torah relates that “Early next day, the people offered up olos [burnt offerings] and shelamim [peace sacrifices], they sat down to eat and drink, and then arose litzachek [to enjoy themselves]” (Shemos 32:6).

The legendary Novardhoker Maggid, Rav Yaakov Galinsky, zt”l, would comment in the name of an “early master” that the order of the happenings in that pasuk is significant, and has broad historical pertinence.

The egel hazahav, he explained, was the first veering of the Jewish people away from Hashem, the first Jewish pursuit of a foreign-to-Torah ideal, one that bordered on idolatry. But it is an unfortunate prototype for other such ideal-idolatries in subsequent times.

Many a social movement has been birthed or eagerly embraced by Jews. And each began with with a lofty ideal, a figurative olah, a sacrifice entirely consumed on the altar, signifying selfless devotion.

With the passage of time, though, the heady days of every “ism”’s youth give way to a more jaded, or at least “realistic,” approach, signified by shelamim, a sacrifice where the supplicant is able to enjoy some of the meat. The high ideal, of course, is still heralded as paramount, the flag of altruism still flies, but there is an expectation of some “return on the investment” in the cause.

And then come the final stages, when the loftiness of the movement’s revolutionary goal deteriorates into “eating and drinking” — where self-interest and a “what’s in it for me?” mentality reigns — and, ultimately, a litzachek frame of mind, when materialism and lust become the society’s entire foci.

The golden calf was the first worshipped ism, but it was far from the last.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran