Category Archives: PARSHA

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

Parshas Tetzaveh – Redolence and Relationship

After the Torah prescribes the details of the various vessels attendant to the mishkan (tabernacle), of the construction of the mishkan itself, of the mizbeach (altar), of the daily lighting of the menorah, of the bigdei kehuna (kohein vestments), of the procedure of the miluim (inaugural sacrifices) and of the tamid (the two daily sacrifices), it circles back at the very end of our parshah to something that would seem to have belonged at the beginning of the mishkan-description: the mizbeach haketores — the golden incense-altar in the kodesh, the “Holies” part of the mishkan.

It is clearly a singular  entity. Not only in its placement, directly facing the Holy of Holies (in fact, the final pasuk of the parshah calls the incense altar itself a kodesh kodashim, [“holy of holies”]), but in the fact that its main purpose is for a pure aroma-offering.

While animal and flour offerings are described as producing a rei’ach nicho’ach, an “aroma of contentment,” only on the golden altar is the offering itself one of pure fragrance, the ketores.

The sense of smell is special too. It is ethereal, ill-understood by science (theories of how brains can distinguish among many thousands of odors have come and gone, with no final clarity to date) and evocative of strong emotions. Think, on the one hand, of baking bread or lilacs blooming; and, on the other, of sewage or skunks. And evocative, too, of memories — Proust’s tea and madeleine comprise literature’s most famous example of olfactory-related sensory experience, but we’ve all had similar experiences.

There’s a seeming paradox to smell. It is exquisitely sensitive, even in humans. And yet, it requires proximity to the odor-generator. One can see stars at a distance of thousands of light years, and hear a rumble of thunder from lightning that has struck miles away. But one cannot smell something unless it is relatively close.

But in truth there is no paradox there. Because our eyes and ears are perceiving only generated waves of light or sound; our noses are ingesting actual pieces of what we smell — microscopic ones, to be sure, but actual pieces all the same.

Odors, moreover, take a direct route to the limbic system, the deepest part of the brain. 

Smell thus entails the penetration of the odor-source into the organ that makes us… us. As such, the ketores might symbolize relationship of the closest sort. The word “korban,” so often translated as “sacrifice,” in reality means “closeness-causing.”

And so, the ketores may be the ultimate korban.  In fact, the word ketores itself, whose simple meaning is “burning” or “smoking,” in Aramaic can mean “bond.”

And on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the holiest man of the people, the Kohein Gadol, brings an offering in the holiest place on earth, the Kodesh HaKodashim. 

That korban, the only one ever offered there, is ketores.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Terumah — Inside, Outside and In-Between

The aron habris, the holy ark described in the parshah, was essentially a wooden box set into a golden one, with another golden one set inside it (Yoma 72b).

The Gemara (ibid) sees in the aron, which contains the luchos, shivrei luchos and a Torah scroll, a metaphor for the coherence of conscience and behavior that defines a true scholar. “A talmid chacham,” Rava teaches there, “who isn’t tocho kiboro,” — whose inside [essence] isn’t like his outside [the image yielded by his behavior] — “isn’t a talmid chacham.”

My revered rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, noted that the Gemara’s wording is pointed. We are not exhorted to bring our “outsides” into line with our “insides” – to first achieve purity of heart and then display its signifiers – but rather the other way around. We act properly to first emulate the comportment and behavior of those more spiritually accomplished than we are — to present an image of observance and propriety– even if our souls may not be as pure as our clothing and actions seem to declare. 

That is because, in the Sefer Hachinuch’s words, “A person is affected by his actions.” How we dress, speak and act can change who we are.

Achieving coherence of appearance and  heart should be the ultimate goal for us all. But we shouldn’t feel hypocritical or despondent if we show the world a better image of ourselves than we deserve. What matters is only that we are working to bring our inner selves into line with our outer ones.

What’s more, according to a Midrash brought by Rashi on the posuk uvicheit yechemasni imi (Tehillim 51:7), Dovid Hamelech lamented the fact that when his parents conceived him, their intent was basically selfish (a thought reflected as well in his words ki avi vi’imi azovuni, Tehillim 27:10). And yet, Dovid’s father was Yishai, who (Shabbos 55b) was without sin! 

The inescapable conclusion is that self-interest isn’t sin. The essential sense of self is inherent in being human, and no contradiction to righteousness. 

That, too, is reflected in the aron. It was gold within and without, yes, but there was wood (perhaps hinting to the eitz hadaas) between the golden layers. One’s toch and bar can be pure and consistent, but there is always a self in the middle.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Mishpatim – The Far-Reaching Import of a Vav

Your Uber driver might be pleasant to you because he values another human being, but his desire for a four-star rating likely plays a larger role in his affability. 

A sure way to anger an atheist is to challenge him to explain why anyone should be pleasant, or ethical or moral — beyond the mere utilitarian gain of a social contract. He will jump up and down and insist that goodness and badness exist; but, without a Higher Power’s guidance, those words are utterly fungible.  Good and bad behavior, sans a Divine Guide, carry no more ultimate meaning  than good or bad weather.

Parshas Mishpatim begins with the connection-letter vav, indicating that the laws that follow, many of them dealing with financial dealings, torts and other interpersonal matters, were, no less than the “Ten Commandments” and mizbei’ach laws of the previous parshah, “from Sinai,” as Rashi, quoting Midrash Tanchuma, notes.

Inherent in that vav-connector, says Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, is the fact that, for Jews, seemingly mundane business and interpersonal dealings are to be conducted ethically not as mere parts of a social contract but rather as the fulfilment of Divine command.

And, he continues, it is a distinction with a momentous difference. “Rivers of blood” have been spilled, he points out as an example, “up to and including the present,” as a result of human reinterpretation of  “Thou shall not murder.”  

When killing, or stealing, or harming others are only man-made social constructs, ways will be found to sidestep them or “clarify” their application when deemed necessary.  By contrast, one who accepts the Torah’s ethical laws as a divine charge will perforce treat them as truly binding and absolute, no matter what.

Those with the custom of saying a “lishem yichud” declaration of holy intent before putting on tefillin or taking an esrog and lulav in hand might not do so before signing a contract or treating another person pleasantly.  

But there’s really no reason not to.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Yisro – The Barrel’s Secret

Our ancestors’ acceptance of the Torah was imperfect: It included an element of coercion. 

The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) teaches that “Hashem held the mountain over the Jews’ heads like a gigis (a barrel).” The Maharal explains that the stunning nature of the experience, the terrifying interaction of human and Divine, left no opportunity for full free will. Directly interacting with Hashem, how could one possibly say no?

And that “coercion” remained a moda’ah, a “remonstration,” against Klal Yisrael, the Gemara teaches, until… the events commemorated by Purim.

In the time of Esther, the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive Hashem’s presence where — diametric to the Sinai experience — it was anything but obvious.  Instead of seeing the threat against them in mundane terms, Persia’s Jews recognized it as Hashem’s message, and responded with prayer, fasting, and repentance.  And so, by freely choosing to perceive Hashem’s hand, they supplied what was missing at Sinai, confirming that the Jewish acceptance of the Torah was — and is — wholehearted and sincere. 

The Gemara’s image of Hashem “holding the mountain over their heads” at Sinai is a striking metaphor. But why “like a barrel”? Isn’t a mountain overhead compelling enough?  Who ordered the barrel?

One of the ways a person’s true nature is revealed is “b’koso” – “in his cup” – in his behavior when his inhibitions are diluted by drink. (Eruvin, 65b).

On Purim, in striking contrast to the rest of the Jewish year, we are enjoined to drink wine to excess.  And what emerges from that observance, at least among Jews who approach the mitzvah properly,  is not what we usually associate with inebriation, but rather a holy, if uninhibited, mode of mind.

Thus the revelation of our true nature provided by the Purim-mitzvah perfectly parallels the revelation of the Jews’ wholehearted acceptance of Hashem that took place at the time of the Purim events.  With our masks (another Purim motif, of course) removed, we show our true selves.

In Pirkei Avos (4:20), Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi teaches us not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.” 

A gigis, throughout the Talmud, contains an intoxicating beverage.  

Hashem doesn’t look at the container — the coercion symbolized by the barrel held over our ancestors’ heads — but rather at how Jews act when they have imbibed its contents. He sees not our ancestors’ lack of full free will at the Sinai experience but the deeper truth about the Jewish essence, the one revealed by Purim’s wine.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Bishalach — Arms Race

The fundamental struggle of humanity, stripped of all of history’s dross, is between two views: The recognition of a Creator (and the resultant meaningfulness of human life) and the belief that life is the product of mere chance and, hence, essentially meaningless.

It is the worldview-struggle between Klal Yisrael and Amalek, introduced at the end of this week’s parsha in a military showdown.

We read how the Amalekites attacked the Jews after our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt, and how Moshe Rabbeinu, from a distance, influenced the course of the battle. 

“When Moshe lifted his arm, Yisrael was stronger; and when he lowered his arm, Amalek was stronger.” (Shemos 17:11)

The name Amalek, whose final letter is“kuf,” can be parsed as “amal kof” — the “toil of a monkey.” (Kuf and kof are spelled identically, and kof meaning monkey is found, in its plural form, in Melachim I, 10:22 and in Divrei Hayamim II, 9:21.)

Ki adam l’amal yulad — “For man is born to toil” (Iyov, 5:7).  We humans are here l’amal, for toil, to work to rise above our base natures and serve our Creator according to His will. Our lives have ultimate meaning.  This is the credo of Yisrael.

Amalek, by contrast, sees man as a mere product of chance happenings and random mutations, with no more inherent worth than any animal, including his closest “relative,” the ape.

Curiously, and perhaps significantly, only two creatures are able to lift their arms above their heads: apes and humans.

Might Moshe’s raised arms during the Amalek-Yisrael battle signify Yisrael’s anti-Amalek conviction, that there is a G-d in heaven?  

Amalek, too, denying the divine, can raise its arms, but its gesture is meaningless. It is a monkey’s mere and quite literal aping of what Yisrael is doing when it raises  its arms heavenward. 

Amalek’s “toil” is amal kof, that of a monkey, using its arms only to swing from vine to vine, without any higher aim than getting from here to there. 

The pan-historical Yisrael-Amalek struggle is thus a pitting of dedication to Hashem, signified in our parsha by Moshe’s raised arms, against the meaningless toil of human creatures who deny what being human truly means.

While we cannot know the identity of the Amalekites today, the philosophy identified with that people is everywhere around us.  But Yisrael and its understanding of life’s meaningfulness will prevail in time.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Bo – Letter from Egypt

Chazal describe the Jewish people as a miracle. Our foremothers, for instance, were physically incapable, the Midrash informs us, of bearing children. Yet, despite the laws of nature, they did.

Jewish history, no less, testifies to the miraculous existence of Klal Yisrael. Despite the vicissitudes of our history, our repeated scatterings and exiles, and the insane but ever-present desire of some to wipe us out, we have persevered, and persevere, as a people. 

The alpha-point of our peoplehood is in our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt, their leaving behind of their servitude to men for the holy calling of servitude to Hashem. And in this week’s parshah, we read of the preparation for doing that, which includes the first Pesach sacrifice and, perplexingly, the placing of some of the animal’s blood on each Jewish home’s doorposts and lintel — a ritual referred to as an ōs — a “sign” (Shemos, 12:13).

But ōs can also mean a letter of the aleph-beis, the Hebrew alphabet.

The celebrated 16th century Torah luminary, Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel, the Maharal, famously associates the number seven with nature, and the next number, eight, with “above” or “beyond” nature — what we would call the miraculous.

Picture the Jewish doorways in Egypt just before the exodus. Imagine away the edifice itself, leaving only the sign of the blood, in two vertical parallel lines along the doorposts and one horizontal one, above and connecting them.

The image is that of a ches, the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vo’eira – A Partnership of Opposites

Only one of the Ten Plagues visited upon Par’oh and Mitzrayim elicits a declaration of guilt and admission of Hashem’s righteousness from the Egyptian leader.“

This time I have sinned,” Par’oh admits. “Hashem is the righteous One, and I and my nation are the wicked ones.” (Shemos 9:27). 

It is the plague of hail. Why, of all the other punishments, that one?

What occurs is that the answer may lie in the Midrash brought by Rashi (ibid, 24), that each piece of hail contained a flame, and that water and fire “made peace with each other” in order “to do the will of their Creator.”

Par’oh was an idolater.  The Egyptians worshipped the Nile and, according to historians, the sun.  Idolatry entails choosing a “team” to be on.  One can be on Team Nile, Team Sun, Team Water, Team Fire…

Monotheism entails the recognition that all the “teams” (elohos) are subservient to the one Creator of all the elements (Elohim).

Perhaps Par’oh was forced to confront and internalize that fact by having witnessed, during the plague of hail, the “partnership” of opposites.

Truth be told, we are all comprised of opposites: souls and bodies.  Each has its own desideratum. The only way to “make peace” between them is doing the will of our Creator, which requires both elements to work together.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

parshas Shemos: Pathetic Persecutors

As the Jewish population in ancient Egypt swelled, the Torah tells us that vayakutzu — The Egyptians “were disgusted” (Shemos 1:12).  Rashi explains that “they were disgusted with their [own] lives.”

A superficial reading of vayakutzu would lead to a simpler understanding, that the Egyptians, out of fear (as pesukim 8 and 9 describe), found the Jews, not themselves, disgusting. What is the significance of Rashi’s comment?

The Mei Marom (Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlop, 1882-1951) posits that the pasuk is teaching a psychological truth: It is impossible to embitter the life of another unless one is embittered with himself. Anyone who appreciates and cherishes his own life will perforce be concerned about the lives of others.  

And so, Rabbi Charlop concludes, if one sees someone oppressing another, one can surmise that the oppressor’s cruelty is fundamentally sourced in self-loathing.  

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayechi – The Real Man in the Moon

In a good example of Talmudic humor, Rav Nachman reacted to Rav Yitzḥak’s recounting of what Rabi Yochanan said, that “Our patriarch Yaakov did not die,” with a wry question: “So was it for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him and the embalmers embalmed him and the buriers buried him?” (Taanis, 5b).

The way to understand the contention that Yaakov didn’t die, I think (and it’s borne out of the verses quoted in that Gemara), is that he lives on — as the patriarch whose children, all of them, became the progenitors of Klal Yisrael — through the eternal Jewish people.

The Midrash in Vayeishev, commenting on Yosef’s dream about the sun, moon and stars bowing to him, has Yaakov wondering, “Who revealed to him that my [secret] name is ‘sun’?”

It’s interesting to reflect (pun intended) on the fact that the moon — the symbol, in its waxing and waning, and in its role in the Jewish calendar, of Klal Yisrael — reflects the light of the sun.  We reflect Yaakov, are the continuation of his life.

Even more interesting, according to the Tikkunei Zohar, “the image of Yaakov is carved out [i.e. visible] in the moon.”

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran