Category Archives: PARSHA

Parshas Mas’ei – A Historic Killing’s Echo

One of the most – if not the most – confounding laws in the Torah is that of the go’el hadam, the relative of someone who was accidentally killed, who is permitted (in some opinions commanded) to pursue the unfortunate killer and dispatch him.

So much to unpack here. Personal revenge is far from a Jewish concept. In fact, the Torah unequivocally forbids it in all other situations: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against those of your people” (Vayikra 19:18). Why the exception here? And when the offense being avenged wasn’t even intentional? That would seem to violate even common sense.

Adding to the oddity of the go’el hadam law is the fact that the pursued can find safe haven in any of the “cities of refuge”– six designated ones plus another 42 Levi’im cities that also provide the accidental killer a safe base, where the pursuer has no right to harm him.

Sefer Devarim is called Mishneh Torah – a “review of the Torah.” Although it does contain laws not found earlier, it is, in some sense, an “addendum” to the prior four sefarim. Which would make Bamidbar, at least in a way, the final sefer of the Torah, its conclusion.

The Torah begins its account of human history with a killing, an exile and a protection. Kayin killed his brother, but no one had ever been killed before, so he may be considered a shogeg, an “accidental” killer, even if he intended violence. Or even his intentional act, by bringing killing into the world, may have been what “allowed” for accidental death at the hands of humans.

And Kayin was a bechor, a first-born, whose role the Levi’im come in time to replace. After his act, Kayin is forced to wander, bereft of a territory. The Levi’im, the assumers of the bechor-role, are also deprived of a tribal section of Eretz Yisrael. Instead, they are to dwell in designated cities. To which a killer-by-accident can find refuge. Cities force people to interact interpersonally. An antidote, perhaps, to the Kayin-attitude of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

There is much more to explore here, but let it suffice it to say that the elements of the first killing in history seem to echo in the law of go’el hadam at the “end” of the Torah. Might the law’s import be not in its actual use but rather (as various tannaim hold in the cases of the bayis hamenuga, ir hanidachas and ben sorer u’moreh – see Sanhedrin 71a)) on another level? 

Certainly worth deeper thought.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Pinchas – Self Changes Everything

The law of kana’im pog’im bo – “the zealous ones can attack him” – that Pinchas acted upon to dispatch Zimri and Kozbi is a highly unusual, if not singular, one: If one poses it as a halachic query, it is rendered a forbidden act; but if acted upon without consultation, it is meritorious. How can something prohibited be a mitzvah? We find yibum rendering what was an aveira (relations with one’s brother’s wife) a mitzvah, but there the situation has changed, with the death of the brother. Here, the same act under the same circumstances is both wrong and right.

In physics, there is something called the “observer effect,” referring to the fact that the act of measuring something affects what is being measured. For instance, a thermometer placed in a liquid can’t truly measure the liquid’s temperature, since the thermometer’s own temperature changes the liquid’s (and using a thermometer with the same temperature as the liquid would require knowing the liquid’s temperature beforehand).

The observer effect is even more pronounced in quantum physics, where even the most basic act of observation disturbs the state of subatomic particles.

I wonder if something like the “observer effect” may exist in the halacha of kana’im pog’im bo. The act itself, in its essence, is proper; it is the introduction of self that changes the status of the law, rendering the act forbidden. 

If the aspirant to the status of “zealous” has the presence of mind to query whether he should act, the answer is that he should not. Once a he has entered the situation, it changes what was permitted, even meritorious, into something forbidden. With the introduction of self, everything changes.

When an act of kana’us is performed automatically, though, devoid of “self”-consciousness, without consideration of its potential impact on oneself, it is praiseworthy. And Pinchas, who acted out of pure dedication to Hashem, with no concern for self, is rightly praised.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Balak – Life in Three Dimensions

I’m not entirely sure why eyepatches are often associated with dangerous characters like pirates. But the only character in the Torah who is described as having a single eye is Bilaam (Bamidbar 24:3, although, according to Rashi, his missing eye was unpatched).

The significance of that physical trait is the subject of considerable commentary, much of it focused (forgive me) on two eyes representing two ways of seeing things.

What occurs to me is something else, namely, that having two eyes doesn’t just afford a broader field of vision; it allows us to perceive depth, something beyond the two-dimensional picture we perceive with one eye shut.

That, of course, is because each of our eyes sees a slightly different image (demonstrable by alternating closing each eye while looking at an object; the object shifts), and our brains miraculously combine the two images into a much more informative three-dimensional scene. We see not just a picture but the entirety of the object of our view itself.

Chazal tell us that there are three partners in the conception of every human, a father, a mother and Hashem (Niddah 31a). Bilaam’s monovisioned state, the Gemara, later on the same page, relates, resulted from his disapproving reaction to Hashem’s role during the act of conception:

[Bilaam] said: “Should Hashem who is pure and holy, and whose ministers are pure and holy, peek at this matter?” Immediately his eye was blinded as a divine punishment (ibid).

What was lacking in Bilaam’s purview was an appreciation of the deeper meaning that can be part of a physical act that, if viewed only “two-dimensionally,” or superficially, can seem carnal, even profane. He showed a lack of being able to perceive something beyond the shallow in the physical manifestation of something sublime, a meaningful relationship of love. What he lacked might well be described as depth of vision.

And the result was, in his purely physical life, a physical impediment to seeing anything three-dimensionally.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Chukas – Vocabulary and Venom

In the only instance of a pun in the Torah (isha from ish doesn’t count), we find Moshe forging the nachash hanechoses, the “snake of copper,” out of that particular material because nechoshes sounds like nachash (Rashi, Bamidbar 21:9). If I am being ordered to make a replica of a nachash, a snake, Moshe reasoned, I will make it out of nechoshes, copper, .

The only problem being that Hashem didn’t command Moshe to make a nachash, but rather a saraf, a “venomous creature” (21:8). The intention was a snake, to be sure, but the pun Moshe used was itself based on a synonym.

No metal in Hebrew sounds remotely like saraf, and so Moshe “translated” it into nachash, which then led him to nechoshes.

A rather complicated linguistic procedure.

Language is the hallmark of being human, and synonymizing and punning are the sort of things that put human communication into an entirely different universe from the animal sort. A bee can dance information to its fellows, and whales can send greetings to one another over great distances, but words, and playing with them, is something uniquely human. It is the province of a qualitatively higher realm of aptitude.

And it exists in tandem with another singularly human ability: to recognize our Creator and what we owe Him. The first rain, without which nothing could grow, needed to await Adam’s arrival and recognition of the “goodness” of Hashem’s gift from the heavens (Rashi, Beraishis 2:5).

The copper snake, meforshim explain, served to inspire those gazing upon it to recognize how they had, until that point, been protected for all their years of desert-wandering from the snakes, and other dangers, ubiquitous in such arid places.

Might the human uniqueness signified by Moshe’s wordplay be meant to reflect the other fundamental and singular human ability, that of feeling gratitude?

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Korach – The Nature of Nature

My late friend and once-Staten Island Ferry chavrusa Yossie Hutler, zichrono livrachah, once posed an insightful question about parshas Korach.

“[In the] morning,” Moshe tells Korach and his entourage, Hashem will make His will known. And Rashi (Bamidbar, 16:5), quoting the Midrash (Tanchuma 5, Bamidbar Rabbah 18:7), has Moshe telling  those adversaries that “Hashem assigned limits to His world. If you are able to change morning to evening, so would you be able to change this [decree of Aharon and his sons as kohanim].” 

The Midrash strengthens its point by noting that the same root of bdl (“separated”) is used both regarding day and night at creation and regarding the Jewish people and Aharon as the kohein and progenitor of kohanim.

So the point Moshe made was that, just as nature cannot be changed, neither can Hashem’s choice of Aharon as kohein.

But, asked Yossie, isn’t that blatantly discordant with the final judgment of Korach, which was, of all things, a change of nature – the opening of the earth to swallow him and his people?

What occurred is that, as various Jewish thinkers (Rav Dessler prime among them) have explained, there is no such thing as “nature.” All there is is Hashem’s will. His will regarding some things is ongoing; we call the results nature. But, in the end, there is only His will.

In fact, the Midrash’s wording (“Hashem assigned limits…”) is pointed. It’s not that “nature” cannot change. It’s that Hashem’s will cannot be changed by humans. 

And so, the earth’s opening to swallow Korach and company was indeed no less “natural” than the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. It was simply Hashem’s will. And humans cannot change that will.

Which might be why the Midrash (cited by Rashi, 16:30) notes that the “mouth of the earth” that opened that day was created “during the six days of creation,” along with the rest of all that we like to call “nature.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shelach – The Importance of Feeling Unthreatened

The idea that the prohibition against lashon hora, “speech of evil,” includes speaking negatively about a thing, not just a person, is surprising.

But the sin of the meraglim, the scouts who were sent by Moshe Rabbeinu to spy out the land of Cna’an, who returned with a demoralizing report, is characterized as precisely that: slander of the Holy Land. The Torah describes the scouts’ sin as spreading dibah (Bamidbar 13:32), which Onkelos renders “shum bish,” or “a bad name.” 

And Rabbi Elazar ben Parta, in the Talmud, uses the scout narrative to emphasize the gravity of lashon hora in its more common usage:

“If one who defames the wood and rocks of Eretz Yisrael received so severe a punishment, then with regard to one who defames another person, all the more so will he be punished severely.” (Arachin, 15a)

Several of the meraglim’s names include words meaning animals. Might something about lashon hora be implied by that?

The most basic instinct of any animal is self-preservation. (Human beings are the only creatures that can choose, and have chosen, to die willingly for a higher cause.)

And the prime engine of self-preservation is fear. Which is what the meraglim felt, and instilled in the people, by describing the inhabitants of the land as, well, fearsome.

Perhaps lashon hora, too, has at its roots a misguided sense of self-preservation. Slandering another is often the result of feeling a threat – if not against one’s life, then in some less violent, more subtle way.

Which raises the possibility that cultivating one’s self-worth – immunizing oneself, so to speak, against feeling intimidated by others or seeing them as competitors – might be a worthy strategy for undermining the human tendency toward negative speech.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Woe Isn’t Us

The reflexive form of the word k’mis’onenim (“The people were mis’onenim [complaining] bitterly before Hashem” – Bamidbar 11:1) indicates that our ancestors were self-focused in their grumbling. They were mourning themselves, sorrowful (as per the Ramban, who cites the phrase ben oni, Beraishis 35:18) over their lot.

Entering the desolateness of the desert, they felt pangs of worry or fear.

But, aside from the construct of the word, there is its prefix, the k’, which indicates “like” or “as.”

Rav Chaim Vital understands that qualifier as conveying the fact that the complaint was not verbalized, but rather (perhaps this, too, indicated by the reflexive) internal, silent.

Another possibility occurs. Namely, that complaining, mourning, feeling sorry for one’s lot, as easy and common as it may be, is in conflict with the essence of a Jew.

Our purpose in life is to serve Hashem, and doing so goes hand in hand with simcha, joy – the opposite of aninus. As in Mizmor LeSoda that we recite daily, we are to “Worship Hashem in happiness; come into His presence with joy.” (Tehillim 100:2)

So to call Jews mis’onenim isn’t an option. If we feel sorry for ourselves and bemoan our lots, it is born of something extraneous to our essence. We can be K’mis’onenim” – like complainers. But the Jew in his essence is a makir tov, a discerner of blessings, an acceptor of his lot with joy, a bearer of a korban Todah.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Naso – No Small Wonder

A bracha we make several times daily has an etymological connection to the nazir, the laws for whom are included in the parshah. It lies in a word in the second pasuk of that section, the word used, uniquely here, to mean “pronounce” or “articulate.”

When a man or woman shall pronounce (yafli) a special vow of a nazir to separate themselves to Hashem…” (Bamidbar 6:3).

The word is yafli; and the bracha, Asher Yatzar, which is made after the elimination of bodily waste and which ends umafli la’asos, literally, “Who causes wonders to do,” but is usually translated “and acts wondrously” or “performs wonders.” 

The word hafla’ah is hard to crack. While peleh, its root, clearly means “wonder,” in one place (Makos 13b), it is interpreted to mean “flogging.”

The Zohar (3:126a) seems to take it to mean something similar to the word nazir itself – “to separate.” Chizkuni notes that it can mean two seeming opposites: “taking apart” and “building.”

The Gemara (Nazir 34a) quotes Rabi Tarfon as rendering it as “specifying.” 

It isn’t impossible to connect the various meanings with “articulate,” since speaking a sentence means stringing different words (like a series of lashings) together, building a thought (and, with words like “but” or “however,” dismantling the previously expressed thought). “Articulate” itself is from a Latin root meaning “separate.” And speaking, of course, is itself a wonder, exclusive to the human realm. Flogging is a series of individual, distinct strikes.

But what of mafli in Asher Yatzar? 

What occurs is that the wonder of digestion is much more than the simple separation of nutrients from waste. It involves a staggering amount of retrieving myriad substances – elements, minerals, chemicals, vitamins – from what we ingest and specifying them, i.e. directing them to where they are needed for their disparate purposes to benefit our bodies, thereby allowing our lives to proceed. Our food is “taken apart,” that is to say “broken down,” so that each component of our food can be utilized to “build” in its specific realm, to keep us alive.

Wonderful indeed.

© Rabbi Avi Shafran 2022

Bamidbar – The Child Makes the Parent

The reference in the parshah (Bamidbar, 3:4) to the fact of Nadav and Avihu’s childlessness can be read as a simple explanation for why further generations of their lines are absent from the Torah’s text. But Abba Ḥanan, in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, sees it as telegraphing much more, that “A man who does not engage in procreation is liable to death” (Yevamos 64a).

There are various reasons given for the meaning of the “strange fire” that those two of Aharon’s sons brought on the altar in the desert: That they didn’t accord their father due respect (Yalkut Shimoni, 524:5); that they had decided a law themselves in the presence of their teacher (Rashi, Vayikra, 10:2); that they had drunk wine before entering the Mishkan (ibid); that they spoke uncouthly between themselves about the eventual deaths of Moshe and Aharon (Sanhedrin, 52a).

The implication of the Gemara in Yevamos, though, is that, had they married and had children, they would not have perished.

Intriguing is the Chasam Sofer’s suggestion in explanation of that fact. He writes that a person doesn’t fully relate to how he should conduct himself vis-à-vis his superiors until he has children.  Then, he feels what lack of proper honor, which a child naturally exhibits, is like, and recognizes the imperative of such honor. 

Had they had children, in other words, Nadav and Avihu would have been prevented from showing a lack of proper honor to Moshe and Aharon (and the Mishkan).

(Interestingly, our parshah also notes how even people who are biologically unable to have children can, in effect have them – by undertaking their tutelage. “Whoever teaches the Torah to the son of his fellow man is considered as if he had begotten him” (Rashi, Bamidbar 3:1, quoting Sanhedrin 19b).

And so, in addition to all the other reasons for seeing children as blessings – that having them is a mitzvah, that they hasten Mashiach, that they provide genealogical continuity, that they offer many joys, that they can eventually care for their elders, we might add one more: 

That, even as we help them grow, they do the same for us.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Bechukosai – To Know What We Don’t

It would be silly to claim a “favorite” Rashi, but one comment made in rare places, including in this week’s parshah, by the author of perfectly succinct yet brilliant glosses to not only Tanach but the entire Talmud Bavli deserves special mention – and consideration.

Noting the ungrammatical use of the word “erkecha,” where “erech” would seem to be the logical form, Rashi (Vayikra 27:3) informs the reader that he “doesn’t know” the reason for the structure of the word.

“I don’t know” is a phrase as well-deserved 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 (and, in some cases, like in contemporary politics, what clearly isn’t).

There is, of course, nothing wrong with opinions (for some of us, our stock in trade), but 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).

Some of us “know,” for example, that one political party is better for the country; others, that that the other one is; some “know” that stricter limits on abortion are proper; others “know” that they are a danger. Some “know” that the p’sukim of ma’aseh beraishis mean one thing.  Others, that they mean something else. We think a whole lot of things, but know a good many less.

To be sure, there are verities. That we humans possess a spark of the Divinity that created us, for instance.  That we have free will.  That life is precious.  That our actions have consequences. 

For Jews, there are – or should be – other certainties, among them that we have been divinely chosen to set an example for the wider world, that our carefully-preserved history includes at its apogee Hashem’s bequeathal of His Torah to us (which we will soon be celebrating again), that our mission and our peoplehood are sacred.

But there are many smaller things, no end of them in fact, that we do not know, at least not with the certainty of those essential convictions.  And so, as we consider political or social or personal issues, even if we think we have a pretty good idea of just what’s what, it’s always a good idea to pause to remember what Rashi knew, and admitted he didn’t.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran