Category Archives: PARSHA

No, Thank You

When, as they approach Egypt, Avram asks Sarai to pretend she is his sister, he explains “so that it will be good for me and I will remain alive because of you.” (Beraishis, 12:13)

Rashi’s comment on the words “it will be good for me” – “so that they [the Egyptians] will give me gifts” – puzzled me, as they surely have many, for years.  Avram, who later in the parshah (14:23) spurned even a shoelace from the king of Sdom, is concerned with gifts?

An intriguing possible understanding of Rashi’s words occurred to me. Shlomo HaMelech, in Mishlei (15:27) teaches us that “the one who hates gifts will live.”

It may be that the greatest expression of that attitude isn’t only “in theory,” in hating the idea of gifts, but in actual practice – namely, that it’s the attitude toward an actual proffered gift that helps ensure life. 

And so, perhaps Avram wanted gifts to be offered to him, so that he could “hate” the fact that he received them… with the result being that, as he continues, “I will remain alive…” – echoing Shlomo HaMelech’s words.

Postscript: Interestingly, the concept of shunning gifts as bolstering life is reflected in a snippet from a 1960s folk song:

“Some people never get, some never give;

“Some people never die and some never live.”

Yesh chachmah bagoyim.

Taking On The Divine

What were the builders of the Tower of Bavel thinking?

How could people presumably aware of Hashem think they could somehow stand in opposition to Him?

The “Mei Marom” (R’ Yaakov Moshe Charlop, zt”l) offers a tantalizing thought: The place on earth called Bavel possessed a deep spiritual nature of “overcoming the Divine” – which eventually expressed itself properly in the cases recorded in the Gemara (e.g. Bava Metzia 59b, Rosh Hashana 57b) where a beis din “overruled” Hashem – that is to say, asserted the ability He gave Klal YIsrael to do so.

Perhaps, Rav Charlop suggests, it was that spiritual reality of the place that inchoately resonated with its inhabitants, leading them to feel that, indeed, in their own way, they had the “ability” to challenge Hashem.

Plumbing the Meaning of the Torah’s First Word

The Torah’s first verse is purposely unclear.  As the Ramban, Nachmanides, points out, the deepest truths of how the universe was created are unfathomable and inscrutable, hidden, ultimately, in the realm of mysticism, not physical science.

It is intriguing, though, that the Torah’s first word, “Bereishis,” implies, as the Seforno explicitly states, that time itself is a creation – a notion that comports with traditional cosmological physics (if not with scientists who, terrified at the notion of a “beginning,” postulate a “multiverse” of universes, conveniently beyond observation).

Likewise intriguing is that, according to the Talmud, the Torah’s first word can be split into two words, “bara” and “shis.”  While the Gemara sees in “shis” a hint to an Aramaic word meaning “conduit,” hinting to an underground channel into which liquid poured on the mizbe’ach would descend (a channel created at the beginning of time – Sukkah, 49a), the word can also, most simply, mean “six.”

As in the six types of quarks, currently believed to be the fundamental particles of which all matter is, ultimately, comprised.

“He created six”? 

The Devarim-Beraishis Bridge Idea

The Chasam Sofer notes that the Torah’s last word, “Yisrael” and its first one, “Braishis,” share the letters aleph, shin, resh and yud… spelling ashrei.

Ashrei can be translated as “praiseworthy” or “fortunate.”  That latter meaning may be the key to the “bridge idea” connecting the end of the Torah and its beginning, which we seek to connect on Simchas Torah when we complete the yearly Torah-cycle and begin it anew.

Because central to the very idea of the Torah and the people to whom it was given is the need to recognize how truly fortunate we are – to have been granted existence and the opportunity to play a role in the Divine plan, to daily receive Hashem’s gifts of life and sustenance, to be part of Klal Yisrael. That recognition should inform every Jew’s world-view. 

And the joy that it yields should be front and center in our minds during z’man simchaseinu and Simchas Torah.

The Threesome Chain

The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) quotes “a certain Galilean” as having said “Blessed is the Merciful One, Who gave a three-fold Torah [in the broad sense, Torah, Neviim and Ksuvim] to a three-fold nation [Cohanim, Levi’im and Yisraelim] by means of a third-born [Moshe]  on the third day [of separation of men and women] in the third month [Sivan].”

The stress on threes concerning the giving of the Torah, it occurs to me, reflects the essence of mesorah itself, its transmittal. Just as the most elemental physical chain needs three links, so, too, the conceptual one. Each of us is a middle link; we must have received the mesorah and then transmitted it. And our recipients then become middle links themselves.

In parshas Haazinu, we read, similarly:  “Ask your father and he will tell you, your grandfather and he will say to you” Devarim 32:7). The threesome chain again.

And, intriguingly, the word employed for the father’s telling is “viyagedcha”, from the root lihagid — which Rashi elsewhere (Shemos 19:3) says implies harshness; and for the grandfather’s telling, the word is viyomru – whose root, omer, Rashi (ibid) characterizes as a “soft” communication.

The Torah may mean to teach here that a father must be an authority figure, and his transmittal of the mesorah more demanding, while a grandfather’s guidance is to be, well, grandfatherly, imparted with a more gentle touch.

(c) 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Clock is Missing

Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday on the Jewish calendar occuring at the new moon, beginning on a night when the moon isn’t visible at all. That fact is hinted at in the posuk “Tik’u bachodesh shofar bakeseh liyom chageinu” (“Sound the shofar on the New Moon, at the appointed time for the day of our festival”) — Tehillim 81:4. The word bakeseh, “at the appointed time,” can be read to mean “covered.”

The moon is, famously, a symbol of Klal Yisrael.  It receives its light from the sun, as we receive our enlightenment from Hashem; it wanes but waxes again, as we do throughout history; and it is the basis of our calendar.

Various ideas lie in the oddity of Rosh Hashanah being moonless.  One that occurred to me has to do with that latter connection, that the moon is our marker of time, our clock, so to speak.  When we repent of a sin, Chazal teach, the sin can be erased from our past — even, if our teshuvah is complete and sincere, turned into a merit!

And so, we are particularly able on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the ten days of teshuvah, to undermine time, to go back into the past and change it. 

What better symbol of that power than to remove our “clock” from the sky?

Ksiva vachasima tovah!

Turning Pain to Gain

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) at the start of parshas Nitzavim sees in the parsha’s opening words, “You are standing today” the message that, despite the sins and travails of Klal Yisrael up to that point, and the klalos enumerated in parshas Ki Savo, the nation is still standing. Indeed, the Midrash continues, “the curses stand you up [ma’amidos eschem].” In other words, they strengthen you.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that physical systems naturally degenerate into more and more disordered states. 

Living systems, though, seem to act otherwise. A domeim, a non-living item like a rock or mineral, is indeed entirely subject to entropy. A tzomei’ach, though, a plant, which grows, less so. And an animal, a chai, even less so, as it can also move around to promote its wellbeing.

And a human is even more able to defend against entropy, manipulating his environment, using intelligence, tools and creativity to protect himself.

The highest rung on the hierarchy, according to sefarim, is Yisrael. Perhaps we are entropy-resistant, too, in a special way — in the ability to turn challenges that would naturally wear away other people, leaving them feeling dejected and hopeless, into not just perseverance but renewed strength. Haklalos ma’amidos eschem.

The Churbanos of the Batei Mikdash, for example, were followed with determined and successful Jewish renewal, as was the most recent churban, that of Jewish Europe. Parts of Klal Yisrael have returned to Eretz Yisrael, and Torah study and practice thrive throughout the world.

And in our personal lives, too, as Rav Dessler writes, our failings and fallings can, through our pain and teshuvah, become fuel for our determination to reach even greater heights. 

A timely thought during these waning days of Elul.

More Than Mere Gratitude

The very first Rashi in the Torah, quoting a Midrash, indicates the importance of Bikkurim, the first fruits offering that opens parshas Ki Savo.  Bikkurim is one of the “raishis” concepts that the word Beraishis (understood as “for the sake of something called raishis) refers to.

And Bikkurim, as evident from the words that are spoken when they are brought, is an expression of “hakaras hatov,” a truly fundamental Torah concept that is usually, though, not entirely accurately, thought of as “gratitude.”

In truth, it is something more subtle and sublime, indicated in a direct translation of the phrase: “recognition of the good.” That is why an example of the concept, as per the Gemara (Bava Kamma, 92b) is the commandment that “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land,” in last week’s parsha. And why the maxim expressing it is “Don’t throw a clod of dirt into a well from which you drank” (ibid).

So even someone who intended you nothing good, even an inanimate object, deserves hakaras hatov. How does that work?

My understanding is that the recognition, while expressed to a person, people or object, is ultimately to Hashem, for causing the good – in the case of the Egyptian slavery, the “purification” (kur habarzel) needed to prepare Klal Yisrael to receive the Torah; in the case of the well, its appearance when one was thirsty.  The action of hakaras hatov is through the Egyptians and through the well but its ultimate expression is to Hashem.

I remember having negative feelings when on rare occasions I would see a certain person who in effect once forced me to leave a job and community I loved.  But then, pondering how what resulted in the end was in fact a tremendous brachah for me and my family, I realized that I needed to feel hakaras hatov toward him.  Well, toward him, which I indeed came to feel, but as a means to truly recognizing the good that Hashem had bestowed.

Hard to Hear

When recounting in this week’s parsha, Ki Seitzei (23:6) how Balak hired Bilaam to curse Klal Yisrael, the Torah states how Hashem “refused to hear” what Bilaam wanted to say” — a seemingly superfluous phrase, considering the following one: “and He turned the curse into a blessing.”

Addressing that oddity, Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, zt”l, in his sefer Mei Marom, asks a different question, Wouldn’t it have been a better demonstration of Hashem’s power had he allowed Bilaam to utter his curses, and then simply negate their planned effect, leaving them to be a mere “barking of a dog”?  Why did Hashem choose to put blessings into the curser’s mouth instead?

Rav Charlop answers that a person who truly loves his friend will not even want to hear any negative words about him, even though they will not in any way affect his relationship with his friend.  And so, in the Divine realm, Hashem wanted to demonstrate that He didn’t want Bilaam’s words of cursing to even pollute the world’s air, even if they would, through Hashem’s will, have no effect whatsoever.

Which, the Mei Marom concludes, explains the seemingly superfluous mention of how Hashem “refused to hear” Bilaam’s curses.  He didn’t want them to even be uttered.

And that approach brings poignant meaning to the next phrase of the pasuk: “Because Hashem your G-d loved you.”

The Riddle of the Egla

This is the first of a series of short thoughts I hope, with Hashem’s help, to offer pretty much weekly about the parshas hashavua or yamim tovim, in the hope that they might be deemed worthy of discussion at Shabbos or Yomtov tables

On a superficial level, there is something disturbing about the ritual of egla arufah, which will be read from the Torah this Shabbos, parshas Shoftim.

The ritual, is commanded in a case where the body of a murder victim, presumably a wayfarer, is found between cities. The procedure, which involves the elders of the nearest city dispatching a calf, is called a kapparah, an atonement, yet there seems to be no sin for which the elders need atone. That’s because part of the ritual is their sincere declaration that they did everything they could to ensure the safety of the visitor during his visit, including supplying him with his needs before he left. 

And it certainly isn’t atonement for the killer; if he is ever discovered, he faces a murder charge and its penalty.

So whom is the atonement for?

It seems clear to me that it is for Klal Yisrael.

Rav Dessler, in Michtav Me’Eliyohu, teaches that the concept of arvus, the “interdependence of all Jews” implies that when a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people’s goodness. And the converse, too. 

Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Yehoshua’s conquest of Canaan, the siege of Yericho, it is described as the sin of the entire people (Yehoshua, 7:1). Explains Rav Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to Hashem’s commandment to shun the city’s spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.

So it may be that in the case of the murdered wayfarer, too, even if no particular person was directly responsible for the murder, what could have enabled so terrible an act to happen might have been a “critical mass” of lesser offenses, perhaps things that Chazal likened to murder, such as causing another Jew great embarrassment or indirectly causing a person’s life to be shortened.

In which case, the atonement would be for Klal Yisrael as a whole, interconnected as all its members are.

The idea, in truth, inheres in the very words to be recited by the elders.  After they declare their lack of any personal involvement in the murder, they plead with Hashem to “atone for your people Yisrael…”  

And the Baal HaTurim’s comment on that phrase makes the idea explicit: “From here we see,” he writes, “that all members of Klal Yisrael are interdependent.”