Category Archives: PARSHA

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

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