Category Archives: PARSHA

Vayeishev – Gone, But Not Forever

When Yaakov Avinu is shown his son Yosef’s blood-soaked coat, “All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted” (Beraishis, 37:35).

Quoting the Midrash Rabbah (84:20), Rashi explains that, under normal circumstances, there is a Divine decree that people will come to terms with the loss of someone they love. Life would be unbearable without the diminishment of the pain of such a loss (Rashi, Pesachim 54b).

But the Divinely ordained reality of consolation, the Midrash explains, is only operative when the person being mourned is in fact deceased. Hence, Yaakov’s inability to be comforted, as Yosef was still very much alive.

Intriguingly, there is another person who similarly could not be comforted. In fact, it is Yaakov’s wife, Rachel, centuries later, lamenting from heaven the exile of the Jewish people.

A cry is heard in Ramah

Wailing, bitter weeping

Rachel weeping for her children.

She refuses to be comforted

For her children, who are gone. (Yirmiyahu, 31:14)

There, too, her inability to be comforted, like her husband’s when shown Yosef’s coat, stemmed from the fact that she was lamenting a people who only seemingly “are gone,” but are in fact only temporarily lost but destined to be found.

As the navi continues, with Hashem telling Rachel: 

Restrain your voice from weeping,

Your eyes from shedding tears;

For there is a reward for your labor

declares Hashem.

They shall return from the enemy’s land. (ibid, 15)

Just as Yosef ends up being reunited with his father, so will all of Klal Yisrael “return to their borders” (ibid, 16). 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayishlach – A Poisonous Prescription

Number one on my list of brilliant people’s brilliantly wrongheaded ideas is something that the late British polymath/physician/comedian Jonathan Miller once said:

“I feel that the Jew must constantly re-adventure and re-venture himself into assimilation… I just think it’s the nobler thing to do, unless in fact you happen to be a believer in Orthodoxy, in which case there are self-evident reasons to keep [apart]. But if it’s done for the sole purpose of making sure that in the future you’ll be able to say the prayers for the dead when the holocaust is finally inflicted again, then I think it is a damnable device.”

Coming of age shortly after the European Jewish Holocaust, Dr. Miller might have ruminated a bit on the fact that the horror was unleashed from the country with most assimilated Jewish population on earth at the time. That most German Jews were indistinguishable from their Christian fellow-citizens didn’t prevent the Nazis from going generations back to find Jewish ancestries. In fact, in the eyes of great Jewish thinkers, just the opposite is true: when we seek to assimilate, we will be rudely reminded that we are, and must always be, different. 

When Yaakov meets his brother Esav, the latter kisses him on his neck. Whether that kiss was originally intended as a vicious bite, as one Midrash has it, or represented a momentary interruption of hatred by a sincere pang of kinship, as Rashi cites, Esav remains the progenitor of those who harbor animus for Yaakov’s progeny, the Jews.

And Yaakov, invited by his brother to accompany him forward, politely declines, making excuses for why the two must go their own ways.

That self-isolation of Jews reflects what the Torah later, through the mouth of Bil’am, states, that the Jews are destined to be an am livadad yishkon, “A nation that will dwell in solitude” (Bamidbar 23:9).

Jews are to respect and interact in good will with all peoples, but are also intended to remain, in a fundamental way, separate. We are not to absorb societal ideals that are antithetical to the Torah’s; we are to marry only other Jews; we are to maintain our Jewish observances, even if they may set us apart from others. We are not to assimilate – to dissolve into larger society.

Dr. Miller’s prescription is poison.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayeitzei – Haters Gonna Hope

In a short, biting comment, the Chasam Sofer makes a trenchant observation about antisemites, whom he sees as following in the footsteps of Lavan, Yaakov Avinu’s father-in-law.

When, after being tricked into working for Lavan for 14 years (and then forced to work another six to earn flocks of his own) and being constantly taken advantage of, Yaakov suggests a deal, asking for only the sheep and goats that are patterned a certain way.  

“Any among the goats that is not speckled or spotted,” Yaakov tells his father-in-law, “or among the sheep that are not brownish, if in my possession, is stolen.” (Beraishis, 30:33).

Lavan responds, in happy acceptance of the seemingly lopsided deal: Lu yehi kidvarecha — “If only it will be as you say.”

The Chasam Sofer sees those words as referring not only to the deal but to the specific phrase that immediately precedes them: “if in my possession is stolen.” He reads the “if only” as a wistful hope that, indeed, Yaakov will be found with sheep and goats to which he isn’t entitled.

That, the Chasam Sofer explains, reflects the mindset of all throughout history who hate Yaakov’s descendents. They salivate at the prospect that a Jew might do something dishonest, so that they can shout the fact from the rooftops and share their animus.

Occasionally, a Jew is found guilty of dishonesty. As a great man once said, “Lavan unfortunately, is part of our yichus too.” But no one thinks of generalizing from an Italian or British or Catholic or Hindu wrongdoer to his entire nationality, ethnicity or religion. 

It’s only Jews that some pine to see disgraced, today as always.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Toldos – Confining Minds

A word often translated as “hunting” is used by the Torah to characterize Esav — “a man who knows hunting” (Beraishis 25:27). Likewise, earlier, to describe Nimrod — “a powerful hunter” (10:9). 

Rashi explains that the word in Esav’s case refers to his ability to mislead his father Yitzchak. Regarding Nimrod, similarly, Rashi comments that he employed language and subterfuge to amass followers.

But the Hebrew word used in both cases, tzayid, doesn’t really mean hunt, but, rather, “trap,” as per the definition of tzad, one of the actions forbidden on Shabbos. And, as per Rashi’s comments, the idea of trapping fits well — colloquially, we might say of a good debater that he “trapped” his opponent. 

Trapping, in hilchos Shabbos, is defined as “confining” an animal — closing the door to a room, for instance, that a deer has entered (Shabbos 106b). 

In its own way, misleading a person does much the same: it confines the victim to a particular mindset, disallowing him to consider other ways of thinking. That is how con men and demagogues operate, by cutting off their casualties’ ability to regard things objectively, leaving them “trapped” in a slyly manufactured perspective.

Much of our world today suffers from being “confined” to particular ways of thinking. Whether it is a mullah convincing followers that Jews are evil or a political leader persuading masses that his enemies are theirs and that he alone can save them, Esavs and Nimrods, unfortunately, still abound, perniciously confining minds.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Chayei Sara – What to Tell the Shadchan

When parents of young people seek proper husbands or wives for their sons or daughters (or when the young people do the seeking themselves), one or more of a number of factors are usually considered. For some people, the “quality” of the family of the prospective mate is paramount. For others, his or her yichus, or ancestry, plays a major role. 

Others, still, look for someone of financial means, if only to ensure that the potential couple won’t be overly pressured by legitimate economic needs. 

At the beginning of Klal Yisrael’s development, we find Eliezer, the servant of Avraham Avinu, tasked with finding a proper life partner for Yitzchak. Eliezer was a wise and accomplished man, someone who was not only wholly dedicated to Avraham but who (as per a drasha based on the adjective “damesek” used before Eliezer’s name [Braishis 15:2]) “would draw up and teach” (“doleh umashkeh”) all that he had learned from Avraham to others (Yoma, 28b). He is described by Chazal as “an elder who sat [and studied] in yeshiva” (ibid).

In fact, were it not for the fact that, at the start of Klal Yisrael, a Cna’anis would be unfit to be one of the Imahos, Eliezer’s own daughter would have fit the bill.

So, at least at that point in history, at least general yichus mattered. As did family, since Avraham asked Eliezer to look for Yitzchak’s shidduch among his kinfolk.

But we don’t find Avraham offering his servant any further guidance about how to find the right person. Avraham, it seems, knowing Eliezer’s high level of wisdom and character, relied entirely on his faithful servant’s judgment.

And what Eliezer clearly sought out in a mate for Yitzchak, as per his prayer that he be guided to a young woman who will gladly give him and his camels water (Beraishis 24:14), was a person exemplifying chesed — kindness. 

Beyond all other priorities, whether worthy or less so, what most matters when it comes to shidduchim, is the character of the potential life partner. 

All else, even if it may seem important, is secondary.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayeira – The Will IS the Way

Inordinate attention is afforded the menu that Avraham Avinu offered the angels disguised as nomads whom he welcomed to his home: Water, fine-flour bread, cream and milk; and, according to the Gemara, the tongues of three calves, served with mustard (Bava Metzia, 86b). 

And yet, it was all a futile feast, as angels don’t eat, and the visitors only pretended to do so (teaching us the Talmudic equivalent of “When in Rome…” [ibid]).

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin points out that a similarly ineffectual effort ends the parsha too: The Akeidah, where Yitzchak is bound in preparation for his sacrifice at the hand of his father — something that not only didn’t take place but was never even considered by Hashem (Taanis 4a).

The bookend narratives, says Rav Zevin, teach us that it is the will that matters most. To be sure, actions are indispensable. But the intention motivating our behavior is what gives it its greatest value.

And, what’s more, as Rav Yitzchak Hutner notes, when the goal we imagine is not reached, the value of the will is undiminished. For we invoke and rely upon the merit of the Akeidah to this day, despite the fact that its intent, blessedly, never came to fruition.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Lech Lecha – The Meaning of Magein

“I am a shield for you,” is the common translation of what Hashem told Avram after the war of the kings (Beraishis 15:1). And Rashi, referencing the Midrash (Midrash Rabbah, 44:4), explains that the assurance was that Avram would not be punished for having killed people during the war in which he rescued his nephew Lot.

But the word magein, as that Midrash makes clear (paraphrasing it as “chinam”), does not mean “shield” at all, but rather “for free.” It is a cognate of the Aramaic word for “without cost,” as in assia dimagein bimagein magein shaveh — “A doctor who heals for nothing is worth nothing” (Bava Kamma, 85a). The intention being that Avram has received a “free pass,” so to speak, for his actions; he has incurred no “debt” for what he had to do during the war. Any deaths he caused will take no toll on his heavenly account.

Which might be understood as a middah kineged middah, a befitting Divine response of chessed (the suppression of din, strict justice, the offering of something unearned) to the chessed that is Avraham’s middah, his defining characteristic.

Avraham helps others “for free”; Hashem exempts him from punishment “for free.”

The first brachah of the Amidah, “Avos,” mentions the three Jewish forefathers, but concludes “Magein Avraham.” And, fittingly with the above, the brachah references zocher chasdei avos, “Who remembers the chessed-acts of the forefathers.”

Avos is the only one of the Amidah’s brachos where concentrated intent is technically required even post-facto. And so, the meaning of “magein” matters. The word can indeed, of course, mean “shield.” But, perhaps, in the context of how it relates to Avraham, conceiving of it as meaning “treating with chessed” might be more to the point.

And it would thus be an understandable introduction to tefillah. We ask for many things throughout the Amidah. But we have to realize that olam chessed yibaneh (Tehillim 89:3), that whatever we receive, in the end, if only because we were given life “for free” to begin with, comes from Divine suppression of din.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Noach – Our (Temporarily) Un-Whole World

The word “toldos” introducing the “account” of Noach is spelled in a subtly different way than its first appearance in parshas Beraishis, where “eleh toldos hashamayim vi’ha’aretz” (Beraishis 2:4) concludes the account of the creation of the world. There, in its first usage, it is written malei, “full,” with two vavs, one after the tav and one after the daled.

Gershon Zev (William) Braude was a respected Jewish studies scholar who befriended me, a much younger man, when my family and I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, from, roughly, the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s.

He once asserted that there are 13 places in Tanach where the word toldos is used. Only in two of those places, he averred, is the word written malei: The first usage, in parshas Beraishis, and at the very end of sefer Rus (4:18), where the genealogy leading to the birth of David, the progenitor of mashiach, is recounted.

Thus, Gershon Zev Braude suggested, “wholeness,” or perfection of human history, existed at the creation of the world and will emerge again with the arrival of mashiach.

In the interim, though, as we all vividly sense, the world remains unfulfilled, imperfect, un-whole.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Beraishis – J’accuse, J’apprécie

Sometimes an unspoken “thank you” can be hidden within a sentence, even, perhaps, within an accusation.

Famously, Resh Lakish (Shabbos 87a) sees in Hashem’s reference to the luchos that Moshe shattered as he descended Har Sinai — asher shibarta, “that you broke” (Shemos 34:1) — a hint of approval for the act, by expanding the word asher, “that,” to y’yasher kochacha: “may your strength be true.” (Presumably, the exegesis is based on the fact that the simple prefix-letter shin could have stood in for the word asher.)

The same word asher (again, unnecessarily) occurs in a pivotal statement by Adam in parshas Beraishis. Accused by Hashem of eating from the forbidden tree, the first man blames his wife, saying, “The woman whom You gave to be with me gave me from the tree” (Beraishis 3:12). The word translated “whom” in that pasuk is asher.

Could there be some subtle acknowledgment of rightness, like Hashem’s of Moshe’s act, in Adam’s blaming of Chava? It’s interesting that, immediately after the punishments for the sin are recorded, Adam gives his wife a name, Chava, that reflects appreciation: “because she has become the mother of all life” (Beraishis 3:20).

Adam, moreover, for his blaming reaction, is called a kafui tova, “one who covers over a good thing” (Avoda Zara 5b).  But “covering over” a good implies knowledge that it is indeed good. 

There are indeed times when an assignment of blame is wrapped around a hidden kernel of valuing the blamed. A good amount of antisemitism reflects that fact. Some who accuse “the Jews” of nefarious plottings harbor an inner realization that Jews are in fact special. A child might rail against his mother for her cruelty in not giving him the treat he wants, but hidden in his anger — he wouldn’t demonstrate it against a stranger, after all —  is the recognition that she is… his mother, the one who loves him dearly.

Might that be true, too, in interpersonal relations? Might Adam have, amid his blaming of Chava, been acknowledging the immeasurable gift that she was to him? And might some of those who lob complaints against us be subtly communicating appreciation?

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas V’zos Habracha – Spacewarps

A Roman emperor, according to a Midrashic account (Sifri, Devarim 357), sent two army units to find Moshe Rabbeinu’s burial site. When they stood above it on a hill, they saw it below. When they descended the hill, they saw it above them.

“So, they split up, half above and half below; those above saw it when they looked down, and those below saw it when they looked up.” But neither group could reach the grave.

Which reflects the Torah’s text “No one knows his burial place to this day” (Devarim 34:6).

The space warping recalls that of the aron in which Moshe’s luchos lay.

Rabi Levi (Yoma 21a) notes a mesorah that “the place of the aron is not included in the measurement” – that the kodesh hakadashim measured twenty amos by twenty amos, yet a beraisa states that there were ten amos of space on either side of the aron.

It was there, to be sure, but took up no space.

And Moshe’s grave exists but flips in and out of space.

The idea that space is a given, and cannot be interrupted or bent in any way, was the dominant scientific assumption… until Einstein. Today we know that space, like time, is not a simple unchangeable grid. It can be warped, even torn. And the fact that the assigned place of the Law and the final resting place of the G-d-sent human Lawgiver don’t “fit” space as we know it may mean to telegraph the truth that the Torah, while it was given us in our cozy, seemingly three- (or four, counting time) dimensional universe, encompasses it but exists outside it.

It’s a fitting thought as we transition to the beginning of the Torah, where the first pasuk states that “heaven and earth” were brought into being. Or, as a modern astrophysicist might put it, that space and time themselves came to be, expanding from an unknowable singularity into what we call our universe.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran