Category Archives: PARSHA

Vayeishev – What’s Wrong?

When we read the account of Yosef’s unfair imprisonment – and his eventual release after the Egyptian ruler is informed by the sar hamashkim, the butler, of Yosef’s G-d-given ability to interpret dreams – there’s something that’s easily overlooked: the particular action that set Yosef’s liberation into motion.

Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l, points out that the genesis of Yosef’s release from prison and ascension to the position of viceroy in Mitzrayim lies in his having noticed that his fellow prisoners, the king’s baker and butler, were crestfallen one morning.

He didn’t ignore that fact. “Why do you appear downcast  today?” he asked them (Beraishis 40:7). And they proceeded to tell him of their dreams, which he then interpreted.

“Come and see,” Rav Kaminetsky advises, “the greatness of Yosef,” who, after being wrongly imprisoned by other Egyptian officials, nevertheless, when he saw these officials in a state of depression or angst, was so concerned that he immediately asked them what was wrong.

That’s a lesson for life. When we see someone out of sorts, we are often inclined to ignore the person or even steer ourselves in another direction. But it is that inclination to avoid the sad person that should be ignored. We may not have the solution to the depressed person’s problem like Yosef had for his fellow inmates’ dilemma. But asking  “What’s wrong?” or “Can I help?” are the proper responses.  If only because they are expressions of concern. 

Which  may help lift the spirits of the inquiree. 

And even, perhaps, benefit the inquirer.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayishlach – Much Vs. All

One might not expect the key to happiness to be hidden in the meeting of Yaakov and Esav recounted in the parsha. But it’s there. 

When Yaakov explains the lavish gifts he had sent ahead to his twin, the latter demurs, at least perfunctorily, and says, “I have much [already].”  Yaakov insists that Esav receive his gifts since “I have all [I need]” (Beraishis 33:9, 33:11).

Those focused on material wealth as providing happiness, explains the Kli Yakar on those sentences, can only ever claim to have “much,” not “all.” For, satisfaction will always be elusive. As Chazal say, “One who has one hundred wants 200)” (Koheles Rabbah 1:34).

In 1971, social scientists Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell coined the term “hedonic treadmill” to refer to the fact that, as a person makes more money or collects more possessions, expectations and desires rise in tandem, resulting in no permanent gain in happiness.

Happiness is born, rather, of an attitude, that of “I have all.” Whatever one has. “Who is wealthy?” Ben Zoma asks in Avos (4:1), and answers: “He who rejoices in what he has.” 

The mussar giant R’ Elya Lopian offered an enlightening parable based on the pasuk “Those who seek Hashem lack no good thing”  (Tehillim 34:11):

A man tells a visitor to his home how fortunate he is to be wealthy, and presents a cornucopia of expensive medications he has been able to amass to treat his many ailments.  The guest smiles inside at his own fortune – to have no need for any of the medications in the first place.

One can step onto the hedonic treadmill and spend one’s life fulfilling – or trying to fulfill – one’s material desires. But, just as it’s better to be healthy than to be sick even with a full medicine cabinet, so is it better to be happy with one’s lot rather than spending life in a never-ending spiral of striving. 

Those who seek to serve Hashem lack nothing. Their perspective on life and why they were created provides them the understanding that, whatever they have, they have everything. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeitzei – Stairway to Peoplehood

Sometimes an idea can only be possible after a certain point in history. One example might have to do with the imagery of Yaakov’s dream at the start of the parsha.

The message delivered to our forefather during that prophecy was “To you shall I give [Cna’an], and to your children.”  And: “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you, and through your children.” Yaakov, in his dream, is being reassured that, unlike Avraham and Yitzchak, all of his children will comprise the Jewish nation.

Even the stone on which he rested his head that night and later made into a monument to the revelation he received carries that message. According to the Midrash, it had originally been many stones, which fused into one, a metaphor for the family unity he would achieve. Rashi even comments elsewhere (Beraishis, 49:24) that the word for “stone” (even) itself is a contraction of the words av and ben, “father” and “son.”

But then there is the sulam, usually translated “ladder,” which plays the central role in Yaakov’s dream imagery.

The word occurs only this one time in the Torah, and its etymology is unclear.  But an Arabic cognate of the word refers to steps ascending a mountain.  The easiest way to ascend a mountain is a spiral path. That fact, and the possibly related Aramaic word “mesalsel” – to twist into curls – might lead one to imagine Yaakov’s ladder as something akin to a spiral staircase.

Which speculation leads to a fascinating thought that couldn’t have been thought until the 1960s.

Considering that the assurance given Yaakov in his dream was essentially a “genetic” one – that all his progeny would be part of Klal Yisrael — might the sulam have been not a simple ladder but rather something reminiscent of, and symbolizing, the essential structure of the molecule that carries genetic information – a double helix? 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Toldos – Knowing That One Doesn’t Know

As the tale goes, a learned non-Jewish cleric challenges the town’s Jewish populace to have its greatest scholar meet him on a bridge over a raging river, each a heavy weight tied to his foot. The first to be stumped by a question about the Torah will be cast by the other into the waters.  

The only volunteer is Shmiel, a decidedly unlearned tailor. He insists he can better the priest and, well, he’s the only candidate.

At the appointed time, Shmiel and his opponent take their positions on the bridge, ball and chain attached to each man’s foot, a crowd on the river bank.

The non-Jewish cleric benevolently offers Shmiel the first shot. “What does ‘aini yode’a’ mean?” Shmiel booms out.

The cleric, not pausing a second, accurately answers: “I do not know!”  The crowd gasps and Shmiel, beaming triumphantly, pushes his momentarily confused opponent off the bridge into the raging waters. 

Back at the shtetl town hall, Shmiel is roundly congratulated for his ploy.  “How did you come up with so brilliant an idea?” he is asked.  Radiating modesty, Shmiel explains, “Well, I was reading the ‘teitch’ (the once-popular Yiddish translation of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah) and I saw the words ‘aini yode’ah’ in Rashi’s commentary. I didn’t know what the phrase meant, and so I looked at the teitch and saw, in Yiddish, the words ‘I don’t know’.”   

“So I figured,” Shmiel explained sagely, “if the holy teitch didn’t know what the words meant, there was no way some priest would!”

The story is good for more than a laugh. It raises the significant fact that Rashi, the “father of all commentaries,” occasionally, including in our parsha, writes that he “doesn’t know” the reason for something – in our case, about why the Torah has to reinform us that Rivka was the mother of Yaakov and Esav (Beraishis 28:5).

“I don’t know” is a phrase as important as it is rare these days, when self-assuredness seems all too often to stand in for self-respect, when opinions are routinely proffered as unassailable fact, when people are permitted – even expected – to state without doubt what they cannot possibly know to be true.

Rashi’s modest example is one we would be wise to more often emulate. As the Gemara puts it: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’” (Berachos, 4a).

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Chayei Sara – Death and Marriage

That a man’s gifting of something of worth to a woman can effect a marriage if both parties agree is derived through exegesis from, of all places, Avraham’s purchase of a burial site for his wife Sarah (Kiddushin, 2a).

A strange derivation, to be sure. But since techias hameisim, revival of the dead, is a tenet of Jewish belief, burial, through Jewish eyes, should be seen not as the disposal of a body but rather a safekeeping or, better, a “planting,” for eventual “regrowth.”

(For millennia, the idea of rejuvenating a physical body seemed a notion beyond credulity… until the discovery of DNA and, more recently, the successful cloning of higher organisms.)

Thus, the burial/marriage comparison is somewhat more comprehensible than it might have been at first thought. For marriage is the means of “seeding” the next generation. (The term kever, “grave” used as a euphemism for rechem, “womb,” as in Niddah 21a, further supports that idea.)

The earliest burials at the Me’aras Hamachpeila were of Adam and Chava, the latter of whom was given her name, which means “the source of all life,” ironically, only after she and her husband had made death part of nature. Immortality of  a sort, even before techyas hameisim, can be achieved through the creation of future generations.

And so, it is meaningful that the parsha describing the burial of Sara is called by its opening words, Chayei Sarah – the Life of Sarah. 

For just as children are keys to generational immortality, so is burial a prelude to life. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeira – More Intimate Than Prophecy

Avraham experiences a communication from Hashem at the start of the parsha (Beraishis 18:1, 18:13). And it culminates with Hashem’s informing our forebear of the impending destruction of S’dom (18:20-21). 

Then, the Torah tells us, vayigash – “and [Avraham] then came forward” – to appeal for a rescinding of the divine decree (18:23). The “coming forward,” as Rashi explains, implies tefillah, prayer.

Which leads to a striking observation, recounted by Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus, zt”l, in the name of Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, zt”l: Prayer can create a closer connection to Hashem than prophecy.

Avraham was already conversing with Hashem when he “came forward” to try to intercede on behalf of the citizens of S’dom. “Coming forward” implies a more direct, more intimate relationship.

“Reciting prayers” is a common phrase, and a telling one. Unfortunately if understandably, praying daily, especially when, as we are required to do, we use a particular formula of words, can lead to mindless recitation of the words, to “praying” by rote.  

True tefillah, though, where the supplicant infuses his words, oft-repeated though they are, with intent and heart, is anything but “recitation.” In fact, it has the potential of constituting a human-divine connection, stronger and more intimate than prophecy.

Something to have in mind, especially these challenging days, when taking those three steps forward.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Lech Lecha – Jewish Influence

Stars aren’t visible during the day. 

Yosef Chaim Cara, a 17th century Polish rabbi, points out in his sefer Kol Omer Kra that after Hashem tells Avram, concerning his future progeny, to “Look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them” (Beraishis 15:5), the Torah goes on to say that “the sun was ready to set… (ibid, 15:12). 

So “count the stars,” it seems, was spoken during daytime.

Rav Karo perceives in that fact a poignant idea. The Jews have never been as multitudinous as the stars – and have never even comprised a population of major proportions. Hashem’s message to Avram, says Rav Karo, was not about numbers but rather about impact

It was: “Are you able to count the stars of the heavens when the sun is shining? Even though the stars are there, they are invisible because of the powerful light of the sun.”

Your progeny, Hashem was telling Avram, will not be many in number but will, like the sun’s light, be overwhelming in importance.

“All the nations,” explains Rav Karo, “will learn from [the Jews] what is proper and just. Without them, he continues, “the world would only continue to sink into darkness.”

Paul Johnson, in the epilogue of his “A History of the Jews,” writes about his subject:

“To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life, and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice… [of] monotheism.

“It is almost beyond our capacity to imagine how the world would have fared if they had never emerged.”

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Noach – Symbols Gone Astray

It’s intriguing that two separate images from parshas Noach have been turned by contemporary society into widely used symbols – and each one is decidedly off the mark. 

A dove holding an olive branch in its mouth has become employed as a symbol of peace. To be sure, the sign that the flood was receding was certainly a happy one. But the message of the dove, according to Jewish tradition – the source, after all, of the Torah’s account itself – was not about peace.

It was, in the words of the Gemara (Eruvin 18b), an expression of willful dependence on the Creator. “The dove,” the passage states, “said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: ‘Master of the Universe, let my food be bitter as an olive but given into Your hand, rather than sweet as honey but dependent upon flesh and blood’.”

The dove had been well-fed by Noach throughout the months of the flood. But it is described as grateful for the opportunity to be fed directly by the Divine, without a human intermediary. So, rather than “peace,” the dove and its bounty are a symbol of striving for closeness to God.

And then we have the rainbow, the Divine “sign” given to Noach, and to all humanity, adopted of late as a symbol of “pride” in flouting the Torah’s directives to humanity regarding human sexuality. The dove being misguidedly co-opted as a symbol of peace is disappointing. But it pales beside the rainbow’s employ to promote things profoundly at odds with Torah and truth.

The rainbow, according to the Torah’s text, is a sign that Hashem will not destroy His world again – even if humanity is deserving of such, which may be one reason for Chazal’s admonition to not gaze exceedingly at a rainbow; it would be embarrassingly uncouth.

The flood itself came about in part because of sexual immorality (Rashi, Beraishis 6:11).

Nothing could be more woefully misguided than employing the rainbow as a celebratory symbol of what played a role in causing the world’s destruction in the time of Noach.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Beraishis – Marriage Medicine

The first marriage in history, which we reference in the Birchos Nesuin recited under the chuppah, differed in a fundamental way from all marriages to follow.

According to one Midrashic opinion, Adam and Chavah were created as a human fusion, a man/woman. And the “forming” of the first woman described by the Torah described its separation into two entities.

Tzela, often translated “rib,” is in fact used with regard to the Mishkan to mean “side,” so it could refer to the woman part of Adam/Chavah before Divine surgery provided each entity independent personhood.

And so, Adam’s union with his wife was actually a “reunion” – of two beings who had originally been one. As reflected in Adam’s words when presented with Chavah: “This time it is a bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” (Bereishis, 2:23).

But every subsequent marriage involves two discrete individuals becoming united, but not reunited. Marriage, after the first one, is less like reattaching a severed part than like transplanting a newly donated one.

The medical metaphor is meaningful.

Transplantation, we know, carries a risk of rejection. The body’s natural reaction to the introduction of an “other,” with its own distinct genetic identity, is to seek to show it the door. That “immune response,” of course, is essential for fighting the introduction of foreign elements that could be harmful.

Likewise, a human soul’s natural response to the intimate introduction of an “other,” with its own discrete spiritual and emotional identity, is to seek to protect itself from the new “threat.”

Doctors address the transplantation danger with immunosuppressant drugs, chemicals that prevent rejection – or, put another way, that weaken the host body’s sense of self.

That, in the context of contemporary marriage, holds an invaluable lesson. The spiritual-emotional transplant that each member of the couple undergoes needs an “immunosuppressant” of its own for the marriage to succeed. It requires, in other words, no less than in the case of an organ transplant, a weakening of self.

Here, no drug will do; what alone can work is sheer force of will and love.

Newlyweds can disagree over whether the window in autumn should be open or closed. But the chilled spouse should be the one insisting that it remain open for the comfort of the overheated one; and the latter should be running to shut it to keep the other warm.

And windows, of course, are only a mundane example.

What’s more, the medical metaphor message isn’t only for newlyweds. Because transplant recipients need to take their medication for life.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vizos Habracha — Four Fundamental Letters

The Torah begins with an act of kindness, Rabi Simlai points out – Hashem’s providing clothing to Adam and Chava; and ends with an act of kindness – the burial of Moshe Rabbeinu (Sotah, 14a).

Another “beginning and end” aspect of the Torah is noted by the Chasam Sofer. The very last word in the Torah, “Yisrael,” shares four letters with the very first one, “Bereishis”: aleph, shin, resh and yud. And those letters spell ashrei.

Ashrei can be translated as “praiseworthy” or “fortunate.”  That latter meaning may be the key to the “bridge” 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.

Jews are called Yehudim because of Leah’s statement when she named Yehudah, that Hashem had given her “more than her share” of sons. We are defined by a declaration that what we have is a gift, one we haven’t earned and about which we must feel fortunate.

And rain first fell, allowing the already-created vegetation to sprout, only after Adam was created and was able to “recognize the good of rain and pray for it” (Rashi, Beraishis, 2:5). He had to express how fortunate he would be to merit the rain and the ensuing growth.

Recognizing the good that Hashem bestows upon us is central to Judaism. And, perhaps, that is what is hinted at in the letters of the word ashrei that appear at the end and beginning of the Torah.

And, indeed, from the beginning of our day – Modeh Ani – until its end – Hamapil – we are to express that recognition. And birchos hanehenin throughout the day.  And Asher Yatzar, a brachah for our medically advanced time (the more we know, the more thankful we must be).

Our recognition of 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 – should inform every Jew’s outlook and attitudes. 

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

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran