Category Archives: PARSHA

Parshas Devarim: Timeless

Sefer Devarim begins with Moshe Rabbeinu’s recounting of the Jewish People’s history since the exodus from Egypt, through the years of desert-wandering.

And our communal reading of the beginning of the sefer coincides yearly with our own annual survey of millennia since, our lookback at the myriad travails our forebears endured; parshas Devarim always precedes Tisha B’Av.

Abba Shaul (Shabbos, 133b) tells us to emulate certain name-descriptions of Hashem: “Just as He is compassionate and merciful, so too should you be compassionate and merciful.”

I’ve wondered about the fact that Hashem’s most “descriptive” name, the Tetragrammaton, implies “timelessness,” its letters signaling “Was, Is and Will Be.” In what way might we even think of emulating His temporal omnipresence?

Perhaps, though, in a way, we can.

Jews have history on their hearts. We are exquisitely sensitive to the past, not only the recent, but the long-ago.

On Tisha B’Av, we will fast and mourn the tolls taken by our people’s travails over time. We will sit low for much of the day, and read about the destruction of the Batei Mikdash, reciting poetic dirges about those Jewish catastrophes and many others, down through the Middle Ages to more proximate collective Jewish tragedies.

The fact, though, that most of the events we will mourn took place hundreds, even thousands, of years ago does not make them less timely. We live in the past no less than the present.

And so, perhaps, combined with our determination to live meaningfully in the here-and-now and our relentless pining for the ultimate future – Tisha B’Av is pointedly followed by the “Seven of Consolation,” when the haftaros read in shul consist of Divine reassurances that there is an end-point to history — we imperfectly parallel Hashem’s existence outside of time.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Matos: Being There

At first read, the tribes of Gad, Reuvein and half of Menashe seem to be making an entirely unreasonable request of Moshe: Let us remain on the east side of the Jordan River, where grazing is widely available for our large flocks of sheep, while the rest of the tribes cross the river and fight the idolaters in Cna’an for possession of the Holy Land.

But two factors need to be taken into account. Firstly, from the moment that the waters of Egypt turned to blood, through the ensuing nine plagues, through the splitting of the Red Sea and the moving well of water and the maan – not to mention the revelation at Sinai – the first years of the Jewish people’s history were rife with miracles.

So Hashem would be the One delivering Cna’an’s inhabitants into the hands of Klal Yisrael. There was no need for the sheep-laden tribes to be involved in the conquest of the land. It could have been taken with only Yehoshua marching in by himself.

And secondly, it was divinely preordained that the land east of the Jordan was intended for Gad, Reuvein and part of Menashe. That is clear from what eventually happened in the end, and there are deep mystical reasons brought in sources for that fact. So why shouldn’t those tribes just stay there?

The questions seem strong but their answer is right in the text, in Moshe’s response: “Shall your brothers go out to battle while you settle here? Why do you dishearten the Jewish people?” Bamidbar 32; 6-7).

The petitioning tribes indeed belonged where they were, and the military campaign indeed needed them not a whit. But their remaining behind would dishearten their fellow Jews. Simply by the lack of their presence alongside them.

All of us readily recognize the powerfully positive value of an encouraging word or act (and, sadly, the destructive power of discouraging ones).

But there is something else that provides people encouragement and strength, and whose absence can deprive them of the same: being there with them.

One doesn’t have to say anything or do anything. But physically being at the side of someone who is facing adversity or tragedy provides them comfort, encouragement and strength. It is a gift of the most wondrous sort.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Pinchas – Perfect Timing

How despondent Pinchas could have easily felt when his grandfather, father and uncles, and all their future descendants, were chosen by Hashem to be cohanim (Shemos, 28:1). He himself, having been born before that moment, was not among that role’s grantees.

He probably did not mind, though. Because his subsequent action (at the end of parshas Balak), the killing of Zimri and Cozbi, could only be a proper act – and Hashem confirmed its propriety – if it had been committed by an utterly selfless person. One needs a sense of self to feel slighted.

How ironic, though, is the fact that, had Pinchas actually been a cohein at the time of his violent act, the act, justified though it was, would have rendered him unable to serve in that special role. Because a cohein who has killed a person, even properly or accidentally, is disqualified to serve as a cohein.

Hashem made Pinchas a cohein only after – in fact, because – of his act (Zevachim 101b). Pinchas’s ultimate status as a cohein, in the end, depended on his having been “left out” when his relatives were granted that status.

Few of us are truly selfless, and many of us are easily slighted. When we are, we do well to recall Pinchas’ experience. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 230:5) actually states as halacha that “One should be accustomed to say: All that Hashem does is for the best.”

Sometimes we are fortunate, as Pinchas was, to live to see how that is true.

But even when we don’t, it still is.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Balak – Invitation to Murder

Were a donkey to suddenly develop the power of speech and address me, I would, I’m quite sure, be flabbergasted.

Faced with just such an asinine address, though, Bil’am isn’t struck silent and doesn’t collapse in shock. In fact, he seems entirely unfazed, and simply reacts to his donkey’s protest — “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?” — by responding “Because you mocked me!” (Bamidbar 22:28-29). 

What occurs to me as a possible explanation of his nonchalance is that he had become so oblivious to the difference between animals and humans — and indeed related to his beast as a partner in life — that the shock factor simply wasn’t there. True, the donkey had never spoken before, but maybe the animal simply hadn’t had anything to say until then.

The view of man as a mere fur-less ape is evident, too, at the end of the parsha, where the idolatry of Ba’al Pe’or celebrates the base physical functions that humans and lower creatures share in common. 

The idea that humans are a mere subset of the animal kingdom has been taken by celebrated “ethicist” Peter Singer to its logical conclusion. Human infants, he has said, are “neither rational nor self-conscious,” and so, “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.”

Equating humans and animals, which is common in our times as well as in ancient ones, isn’t just a means of legitimating debauchery. 

It is nothing less, when truly internalized, than a prelude to murder.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Chukas – Snake Eyes

The bizarre image (Bamidbar 21:9) of our ancestors gazing at a graven image — a copper representation of a snake — to end a snake-plague born of their complaining about the mon, is contextualized by a Mishneh in Rosh Hashana (29a):

“Did the snake kill, or did the snake preserve life? Rather, when the Jewish people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed, but if not, they were necrotized [by the venom].”

Which raises the obvious question: Why not eliminate the middlesnake and just look heavenward?

Rabbeinu Bachya calls attention to the word used to introduce the (real) snakes in the account: hanechashim (Bamidbar 21:6). Not “snakes” but “the snakes.”  The definite article, he says, refers to the fact that these were the same reptiles that, elsewhere in the Torah (Devarim 8:15) are described as having been ever-present in the desert our ancestors wandered. 

Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch expands on that observation, explaining that gazing at the copper snake was meant to sensitize the people to the constancy and ubiquitousness of snakes around them — and to the realization that when the snakes hadn’t been plaguing them until then it was because of Hashem’s protection.

As Abba Binyamin taught (Berachos 6a), “If the eye were given permission to see, no person would be able to withstand [the sight of the multitude of] the demons [that surround  him].”

We moderns can easily — particularly as we emerge from a pandemic — appreciate the idea that danger — as potentially lethal as snakes and yet undetectable by our eyes — is all around us.  And that every day that the immune systems Hashem gave us function and we don’t succumb to the myriad ever-present infectious dangers that surround us, we should look heavenward in thanks.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Korach – Humility: The Mark of Leadership

Few contrasts are as striking as the one between Moshe, the “most humble of all men,” who had to be drafted by Hashem to lead the Jewish people, and Korach, who was consumed with a desire for a leadership role.

And, like deceitful populists over ensuing millennia, Korach insisted that he was merely standing up for the masses, advocating for their democratic rights. Who needs a mezuzah (i.e. a leader) if the house is filled with holy books (i.e. the magnificent masses)?

Many contemporary leaders, some more shamelessly than others, advanced their aspirations in Korach-fashion, lusting for power while claiming to be championing the people. (A rare exception was Dwight Eisenhower, the only American president who had to be drafted to run for that office.)

In the authentic Jewish religious world, true leaders are always drafted — that is to say, “elected” not by campaigns and misleading claims but rather by unsought public acclaim. I have been privileged to have spent time in the vicinities of several, and was deeply affected by their selflessness and modesty. My rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, was one; see His yahrtzeit is Shiva Asar B’Tamuz.

And, just like Moshe was accused of sins he didn’t commit, so are Gedolim today sometimes attacked for imagined misdeeds. And not only by people lacking any relationship to Torah, but even some who are meticulously observant. 

Ohn ben Peles, the Midrash recounts, a confederate of Korach’s, was saved from the latter’s fate by Mrs. Ohn. After plying her husband with enough wine to put him to sleep, she sat outside their tent and uncovered her hair. So when Korach’s supporters came to fetch her husband and saw the immodest woman, religious folks that they were, they turned on their righteous heels and left. 

Even religious people can fall victim to would-be-dictators’ lies. 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Shelach – Of Walls and Weakness

“Any lie in which a little truth is not stated at the start cannot be maintained in the end.” That is Rashi’s comment, based on Sotah, 35a, about the report of the spies who returned from reconnoitering Kenaan. They told Moshe Rabbeinu that “we came to the land to which you sent us, and indeed it is flowing with milk and honey” (Bamidbar, 13:27).

But not only was the report of the land’s bounty true, so was, at least on the surface, everything else the meraglim reported. Yes, they described the fearsome inhabitants of the land, the “men of stature,” and the burials of many of the land’s inhabitants. That negativity constituted dibah, evil speech, as the Torah itself says – as Chazal put it, lashon hara. But where was the untruth, the lie?

Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, z”l, in his sefer Mei Marom on Chumash, suggests a compelling answer.

The Midrash Tanchuma, brought by Rashi on the words “hechazak hu harafeh” (“Are they strong or weak?”) says that Moshe gave the spies a sign: “If they live in open cities [it is a sign that] they are strong, since they rely on their might. And if they live in fortified cities [it is a sign that] they are weak.” (ibid, 13:18)

And yet, notes Rav Charlop, the spies reported that “the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are very greatly fortified” (3:28). A self-contradiction, since if the inhabitants were indeed mighty, as per Moshe’s sign, they would not have needed to fortify their cities. And if their cities were fortified, that meant the people were feeble. There, the Mei Marom suggests, lies the lie. One or the other contention must be false.

Because, the bottom line is that building high walls is a sign not of strength but of weakness.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Beha’aloscha – The Pain of Exquisite Empathy

Suspecting someone who isn’t deserving of suspicion is reason for punishment, says the Talmud (Shabbos, 97a), citing the account at the end of the parsha, where Aharon and Miriam speak negatively about their brother, Moshe Rabbeinu.

Interestingly, though, the text of the Torah only relates Miriam’s punishment, her affliction with the skin disease tzara’as, and not Aharon’s:

“The cloud had departed from atop the Tent and behold, Miriam had tzara’as [white] as snow. Aharon turned to Miriam and behold, she had tzara’as” [Bamidbar 12:10].

While Rabi Akiva (in the Gemara cited above) asserts that Aharon, too, was afflicted with tzara’as, Rabi Yehudah ben Beseira disagrees. But he offers no reason for why Aharon, who also was part of the misdeed, would have been spared punishment.

What occurs is that Aharon was indeed punished, though not with his own tzara’as. His punishment was seeing his sister afflicted. Read the quote from the Torah above again. Is there a reason why we need to be told that Aharon “turned to Miriam” and saw her disease?

Perhaps there is indeed, because that was Aharon’s punishment. He was the exemplar of kindness, the “lover of peace and pursuer of peace (Avos, 1:12),” a man who was pained by strife, a man of exquisite empathy.

Thus, Miriam’s pain and shame, when Aharon witnessed it, became his pain and shame. 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Naso – An Opportunity, Not an Ordeal

I cringe when I read someone’s portrayal of the law of Sotah ritual as some sort of “trial by ordeal.”

That phrase conjures images like the 17th century Salem witch trials, when Puritans invoked “tests” to determine whether someone was a witch. The accused was subjected to an often life-threatening experience, and only perishing as a result of the ordeal would yield an innocent verdict. When a suspect survived being bound and thrown into deep water, she would be subsequently executed.  And if she drowned (the more common result), the innocent verdict was of little use to the exonerated.

By contrast, the Sotah law kicks in — or kicked in, until the Churban Bayis Rishon (and, according to one opinion in the Talmud was never used) — when a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful, warns her to not seclude herself with a particular other man, and she ignores the warning. The ritual has her drinking a concoction consisting of water, a bit of dirt from under the Temple’s marble floor, a bitter herb and the rubbed-off dried ink of the text of the Torah’s description of the Sotah ritual, including Hashem’s name.

If the woman is guilty of betraying her marriage, the Torah explains, she and the man with whom she sinned will, upon her drinking the concoction, suffer a terrible death.  If she’s innocent, she will suffer no ill effects and, on the contrary, will be blessed with healthy children.

The Sotah-drink ingredients are, if unappetizing, innocuous.  And so, it would take a divine intervention to bring about the punishment.

Interestingly, though, and tellingly, if the wife chooses to simply dissolve her marriage and forfeit the financial support promised her at her wedding, we compel the husband to grant her a divorce, and she suffers no other penalty

So there is no “trial by ordeal” here. What there is is a way to establish an accused woman’s innocence of adultery, a means of returning love and trust to her marriage.

The entire point of the Sotah ritual, in other words, is to convince a jealous husband that his wife remained faithful to him. Which explains why, unlike in every other case of a suspected crime or sin, we involve a Divine intercession – Hashem’s own assurance that the woman is innocent.  

The ritual is not intended as a way to convict, but to restore marital peace. And Hashem Himself, the “third partner” in a successful marriage (Kiddushin, 30b), has a stake here.
Which explains Rabi Yishmael’s comment (Shabbos, 116a) about the ritual: “In order to make peace between a husband and his wife, [Hashem in] the Torah says: My name that was written in sanctity shall be erased in the water.”

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Bamidbar – Desert and Direction

The sefer of Bamidbar (or, to be pedantic, B’midar) begins with the word Vayidaber; and the Talmud Yerushalmi, I’ve seen it cited, even calls the sefer by that latter word.

Both words, as it happens, share the same three-letter Hebrew root, d-v-r, even though one means “desert” and the other “speak.”

What common element of meaning could associate a desert with speech?

The answer may lie in yet another word with the exact same three-letter root, a word that means something else, seemingly, altogether. In Tehillim, we find the phrase yadber amim tachteinu (47:4), which can be translated “He will guide the nations under us.” Although Rashi and the Targum on Tehillim take a different approach to the word yadber, the Gemara (Shabbos 63a) understands the word to mean “guiding,” and the context of the pasuk supports that understanding. The Radak and Ibn Ezra also translate it that way.

Speaking (especially the sort of speech with which the word dibbur is associated: clear, strong words) guides the one spoken to in a particular direction, to hearing the meaning or directive of the speaker. So it isn’t terribly farfetched to imagine that yadber and vayidaber are subtly related.

Midbar, though, seems a puzzle.

What occurs is that a midbar is a desolate, featureless place, usually dangerous, for lack of food and water, and the presence of snakes and such.  But the challenges and dangers may not be what inheres in the word midbar; certainly, the desert through which the Jews were wandering lacked those threats; the well of Miriam, the maan and the cloud of protection made it a safe place.

But it remained one without distractions, and was the path, if a convoluted one, leading the people, guiding them, to their goal, Eretz Yisrael.

Might the word midbar’s essential meaning reflect not desolation nor danger, but the idea of an open path leading to a goal beyond it, toward  which one is being guided?

And, even in our own lives, might obscuring the distractions around and within us help us perceive where we are supposed to go?

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran