Category Archives: PARSHA

Parshas Ki Sisa – Reasonable but Wrong

Our ancestors’ devotion, so soon after the revelation at Har Sinai, to a physical object, the egel hazahav, the golden calf, is rightly and remarkably confounding. Obviously, like so many of the Torah’s narratives, behind the simple Written Law account lies information necessary for a true understanding of things. 

Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, in his Mei Marom, offers a tantalizing thought with regard to the calf-worshiping. He suggests that the people, on the sublime level approaching prophecy that they had attained after Hashem’s revelation, perceived something shocking but true: that Hashem will speak to them in the future from something physical, something in fact made of gold. 

The truth of that perception lay in the kruvim that were part of the kapores covering the aron in the holiest part of the Mishkan.  From a point between those golden representations of children, Hashem would one day speak to Moshe (Bamidbar 7:89).

Like every actual prophecy, though (see Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 7:3), the vision required accurate interpretation. And, faced with the egel, which Chazal tell us emerged miraculously from the gold thrown into a fire, and what they felt was Moshe’s tardiness in returning from the top of the mountain, the people surmised that the egel was the golden object that would host Hashem’s future communication. 

There is a lesson there for all of us far from the level of perception of our Sinai ancestors. We often assume that what we see is to be interpreted a certain way, and that our position or actions should be based on that interpretation. Often we are right. But often, wrong. The law of unintended consequences can wreak much havoc.

Consider Sefer Esther. Imagine the Shushanites’ interpretation of Mordechai’s stubborn refusal to honor Haman with a bow to him. It was reasonable for them to conclude from that sight that Mordechai was endangering the Jews rather than subtly paving the path toward their rescue from mortal danger.

Reasonable, but wrong.

We, too, need to respect the interpretation of events and the required response that experienced elders counsel. And sometimes that requires, if not ignoring what we see, at least understanding that its implications may not be what we think.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tetzaveh – Making a Living and Making Light

Most agricultural oils are produced from seeds. The olive is one of the few fruits that produce oil. And olive oil plays a major role in the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash.

It is a component of menachos, the flour-offerings that are required in a number of situations and consigned in part to the mizbe’ach, with the remainder, in most cases, consumed by kohanim.

And, of course, olive oil is the fuel the Torah requires for the menorah that stands in the kodoshim, the penultimate holiest place in the Ohel Mo’ed and Beis HaMikdash.

Which purpose opens parshas Titzaveh, where “pure olive oil derived from thorough crushing” is to serve “to illuminate” (Shemos 27:20).

Rashi comments that such purity is only required for the oil used in the menorah, but that which is used for menachos needn’t be of that highest quality.

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin sees menachos as representing physical nourishment and the menorah’s light as representing mind nourishment, “illumination” in its nonliteral sense.

Many unhealthy substances in food can be tolerated by bodies, he notes. But foreign, untrue ideas are a more subtle, and hence more dangerous, threat to minds.

Moreover, he continues, efforts are needed to attain both our physical and spiritual sustenances. Our “daily bread” requires labor, and grasping Torah truths is earned only through mental work (“If someone says… ‘I didn’t labor but attained [Torah]’ – don’t believe him” [Megilla 6b]).

But, says Rav Zevin, there is a difference in those respective efforts. When it comes to physical sustenance, we are enjoined to labor only to the extent that yields us our needs; we are not justified in making “earning a living” some sort of high sacrament and giving it our “all.” When it comes to ascertaining truth, however, to studying Torah, we must apply our entire selves, our “hearts and souls,” to the task.

And that, he contends, is what is telegraphed by the acceptability of second-tier purity oil for menachos, but only perfectly pure oil for the menorah. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Terumah — What’s in The Name

Although there are several explanations in various midrashim for the word li in the phrase viyikchu li (“And have them take for Me”), Rashi, famously, simply comments “lishmi” – “for My sake” [literally, “for My name”].

On a basic level, Rashi is likely saying that, unlike general charity, which can be born of personal motives (e.g. “so that my son will live…” – [Pesachim 8a]), the terumah, or donation, for the Mishkan must be offered wholeheartedly lishmah, for Hashem’s sake.

But the word lishmi, as noted above, literally translates as “for My name.”  Which raises the possibility of another approach to Rashi’s comment.

Back in parshas Bishalach, after Amalek’s attack on the newly freed Jewish people, we find an abstruse pasuk: “For there is a hand on the throne [keis] of Yah, [there shall be] a war for Hashem against Amalek from generation to generation” (17:16).

Rashi there, echoing the Midrash Lekach Tov (and Midrash Tanchuma in Ki Seitzei), explains that the use of “Yah,” the first two letters of the Tetragrammaton, and the word keis for throne, missing the final aleph of the word kisei, indicates that: “[Hashem’s] name will not be complete and His throne will not be complete until the name of Amalek is completely obliterated.” 

According to the Megaleh Amukos (in his derasha for Purim), the first two letters of Hashem’s name represent His interaction in the higher realms; and the final two, in the lower realms. (The contention is alluded to in the pasuk “The heavens will be glad and the earth will rejoice” [Tehillim 96:11], where the first letters of the first phrase spell Yah and the first letters of the second one are vav and heh, the final two letters of the Tetragrammaton.) Amalek’s existence prevents Hashem’s full manifestation in the human realm.

The Gemara in Megilla (13b) recounts how Haman’s 10,000 silver ingot bribe of Achashverosh for the privilege of destroying the Jewish people was “pre-empted” –and Haman’s plan undermined – by the shekalim the Jews willfully donated to the Mishkan centuries earlier. .

Haman, of course, was an Amaleki, and sought to further the goal of his ancestors. But his plans were frustrated by the willful donation to holiness of his targets’ own ancestors. Thus, the terumah of the Jews in Moshe’s time were, quite literally, lishmi – “for My name” – for the goal of “completing” the Tetragrammaton.

May it quickly be realized.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Mishpatim – The Angels Were Right, But Wrong

When we think of the word na’aseh, “we will do,” it is usually in the context of the phrase na’aseh vinish’ma, “we will do and we will hear” – Klal Yisrael’s statement of commitment to following the Torah’s laws, whether they are understood by reason or not. 

But the word naaseh appears in this week’s (and last week’s) parsha as an independent statement, without vinish’ma following it. 

And it appears as well in the Torah’s very first parsha, Bereishis, where it is Hashem Himself using it in the sense of “Let us make,” with the words “man in Our image” following.

Intriguingly, in both places – the creation of man and the revelation at Har Sinai – we find the Gemara describing angels’ opposition. In the first case, we are told of Hashem’s asking an angelic entourage if man should be created. They say no and Hashem destroys them. A second group offers the same response as the first and it, too, is destroyed.  A third one, noting its predecessors’ fate, says: “The universe is Yours. Do with it as You wish.” (Sanhedrin 38b)

At Sinai, similarly, we find angels opposing the offering of the Torah to human beings. Hashem asks Moshe to respond to them and he argues that the Torah’s laws presuppose human inclinations. “Do you have a father and mother?” to honor, he asks, among other examples. “Have you jealousy and an evil inclination?” (Shabbos 89a). Only humans, in other words, can say “We will do.”

In both cases, the angels’ case seems predicated on the inherent fallibility of human beings, the likelihood that they will sin and are unworthy of existence or being gifted with the Torah.

And sin and rebellion indeed ensued, right after Adam’s creation and after the Torah was accepted by his distant descendants. So, in a sense, the angels were right. But they were wrong.

There can be no true win without the possibility of loss. No advancement without the potential for decline. No accomplishment of ultimate good without an accompanying possibility of evil. 

The place where a ba’al teshuvah, a penitent sinner, stands, according to Rabi Abahu, “is a place where even the perfectly righteous cannot stand.” (Berachos 34b).

An old Chassidic tune’s words may say it best:

“Why, oh, why has the soul descended? / From so high a place to so one so low? / Because the descent is necessary for ascending.”

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Yisro – The Barrel’s Secret

Last year, I noted what Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa says about the Sinaitic revelation, that “Hashem overturned the mountain above the Jews like a barrel [gigis] and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, good; but if not, there will be your burial’” (Shabbos 88a).

What I suggested then was that a law in Devarim (22: 28-29) might be pertinent to that element of coercion: If a man forces himself upon a woman, he is fined, but also must (if the woman wishes) marry her and, unlike in any other marriage, cannot ever divorce her. The implication for Hashem’s having “forced” His relationship with Klal Yisrael should be self-evident.

That same Gemara in Shabbos, though, also teaches that the element of “coercion” at Sinai stood as a “remonstration” against the Jewish People, for their seeming lack of full agency at the time. It was remedied only centuries later by the Jews in Persia at the time of Mordechai and Esther.

The “coercion,” the Maharal explains, was essentially the powerful nature of the experience itself, the interaction of human and Divine, which left no opportunity for true free choice.

Enter Purim. Then, the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive Hashem’s presence where it was not in any way obvious.  Instead of seeing the threat against them in mundane terms, they recognized it as Hashem’s message, and responded with prayer, fasting, and repentance. By choosing to see Hashem’s  hand, they supplied what Sinai lacked, confirming that the Jewish acceptance of the Torah was – and is – wholehearted, sincere and pure. 

The “barrel” of Rav Avdimi’s description, thus, may be deeply meaningful. After all, isn’t a mountain overhead not sufficiently frightening?  Who needs a barrel metaphor?

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

In Pirkei Avos (4), Rabi Yehudah HaNasi teaches us not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.” That advice may have application here. The Jewish nation’s reaction to coercion at Sinai may not have revealed our people’s truest nature. What does, though, is how we express our dedication in a state of mindless purity, like ours on Purim, when we imbibe what a gigis holds. As Rabbi Elai said (Eiruvin 65b), a person’s true character can be ascertained “in his cup.”

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Bishalach – The Measure of a Mohn

One of the strangest pesukim in the Torah is the one that ends the account of the mohn.

After stating that “the Bnei Yisrael ate the mohn for forty years, until they came to a settled land; they ate the mohn until they came to the border of Eretz Cna’an,” the Torah continues, without so much as a segment break, to state that “The omer is a tenth of an ephah” (Shemos, 16:36).

Granted, an omer-volume was the portion each person received daily. But why do we need to know its relationship to a larger volume? And why is so seemingly banal a statement the one to culminate the mohn account?

Something in the Midrash about the korban ha’omer, the offering of an omer of barley on the second day of Pesach, is enlightening here.

In Vayikra Rabba 28:1, Rabi Yanai says:

The way of the world is that a person buys a measure of meat in the market; how much effort he expends, and pain he suffers, in cooking it. And, as people sleep in their beds, Hashem brings the winds and raises clouds and causes plants to sprout and ripens crops… and all He is given in return is the payment of the omer…

So the korban called omer implies a recognition of the fact that, however we may feel about our own efforts, it is Hashem Who does the, so to speak, heavy lifting regarding our sustenance. And that, of course, is the message of the mohn, too. The miraculous all-purpose food that fell from the sky signaled that, whatever efforts we might make to sustain ourselves, it is Hashem’s will that, in the end, in fact, does that.

And so Moshe was commanded to place an omer of mohn, that mere tenth of an ephah,into a container, to be preserved for all generations (Shemos 16:32). It is a reminder not only of the mohn miracle itself, but also of its implication, that, even in the absence of a korban omer, it is not our effort, in the end, that puts food on our tables.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Bo – Choosing a Channel

Since free will is the fundamental element of the human being that places him in a realm apart from the rest of Creation, the question of how Hashem could “harden the heart” of Par’oh (e.g. Shemos 9:12) is an obvious one. 

The Rambam’s approach, echoing Resh Lakish in the Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 13:3), is that the king’s own freely chosen initial actions robbed him of his free will, like, one might say, a drug addict’s choice to use heroin might affect his ability to choose to shun it thereafter. The hardening of Par’oh’s heart only began after several plagues.

The Ramban’s and Sforno’s approach is that, on the contrary, the heart-hardening actually gave Par’oh free will. It was but a counterbalance to the will-sapping fear of the plagues. The divine steeling of his resolve was thus a corrective measure, allowing him to exercise his free-willed decision to refuse Moshe and Aharon’s demand. 

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin offers an original approach. What the Torah’s statement that Hashem hardened Par’oh’s heart means, says Rav Zevin, that he gave Par’oh an enhanced ability to be stubborn. Like every middah, talent and ability, obstinacy can be channeled toward good or bad (See Rav Ashi’s statement in Shabbos 156a about one born under the influence of Ma’adim: “[He will be] either a bloodletter, or a thief, or a shochet or a mohel.”)

Klal Yisrael, after all, is obstinate, too, an am kshei oref. Obstinacy’s import lies in what one does with it.

So Par’oh’s use of his Hashem-given special stubbornness against Moshe and Aharon and Klal Yisrael was… his choice.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vo’eira – Nobody Will Get Stoned

Slight divergences between the Torah’s words or phrases and Targum Onkelos’ rendering of them are often laden with meaning.

One such seemingly minor change is in the Targum’s translation of Moshe’s words: “Were we to slaughter the deity of Mitzrayim in their sight, will they not stone us?”

Moshe, of course, was replying to Par’oh’s suggestion that, if the nation’s Jews needed to have a festive gathering, they could hold it within Egypt’s borders. Moshe responded that, since animal sacrifices would be part of the celebration, and Egyptians worshiped sheep, the suggestion was a non-starter.

The Targum renders “will they not stone us?” as “will they will not say to stone us?”

Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, zt”l, in Mei Marom, observes that Par’oh could certainly have posted soldiers to protect the Jews celebrating in Egypt. And so Moshe couldn’t really have expressed a fear of being attacked. He was expressing instead a refusal to get people upset.

How much there is to learn from this about middos, Rav Charlop muses. “Even when it comes to the greatest mitzvah, one should not do it in a way that causes others pain, even if there are no real repercussions.”

Obviously, there are mitzvos that might in themselves upset others; they must be performed all the same. But when a mitzvah or minhag might cause pain or outrage to some – kapparos in some public places is an example that comes to my mind – concern for the feelings of others are not something to be ignored.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Shemos – Best-Laid Plans

The account of Moshe’s being placed in the river, discovered by bas Par’oh and raised in royal surroundings would seem to be of no import regarding the main narrative of Shemos – Moshe’s killing the Mitzri, fleeing as a result to Midian and being charged by Hashem with his mission.

Ibn Ezra, though, suggests that it is very much part of the larger story. He writes that “Perhaps Hashem arranged things so that Moshe would grow up in a royal house and his spirit would thereby be exalted” and he would “not possess a base spirit used to being in the house of slaves.”

That, he continues, was necessary for Moshe to be able to kill the Mitzri and intercede to help Yisro’s daughters (and, I might also suggest, to be able to receive nevu’ah, which requires a state of contentment). 

Which makes for a delicious irony: Par’oh’s decree to kill baby boys is what required baby Moshe to be placed in the river, which resulted in his being raised as a royal, which allowed him to become the agent of Klal Yisrael’s geulah, the very thing Par’oh had sought to undermine. 

“Many thoughts are in a man’s heart, but it is Hashem’s plan that will persevere” (Mishlei 19:21). It has been said that the intent of that pasuk is that those very thoughts of man can be the vehicle for the fruition of Hashem’s plan.

We see that not only in Par’oh’s ultimately self-undermining decree but in the narrative that ended Sefer Beraishis. As Yosef reassured his brothers about their plotting against him, which resulted in his elevation in Mitzrayim and his becoming the provider of food to the the nation and his family: “Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] Hashem designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive.”

We read these parshios after Chanukah, on the path to the next Jewish holiday, Purim. There couldn’t be anything more Purim-centric than the irony of how best-laid plans can themselves bring about the opposite of the plotters’s wish: “Hashem’s plan.”

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayechi – In Praise of Diaspora

Eretz Yisrael is the desideratum to which the Torah’s entire narrative leads. 

From Hashem’s promising the Land to Avraham’s descendants, to our ancestors’ exodus from Mitzrayim and years of wandering in the desert, the path of the Torah’s account leads inexorably to the Land.

Even the Torah’s description of the universe’s creation, as Rashi expounds in his very first comment in parshas Beraishis, is intended to establish that Eretz Yisrael is ours. 

And yet…

Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin (Pri Tzaddik, Vayechi) notes that the first word in our parsha indicates that Yaakov’s true “living” took place during his final 17 years in Mitzrayim, after all the challenges he had lived through. Now he was free to attain his spiritual goals. In Egypt.

Similarly, he continues, the main expansion of Torah Shebe’al Peh took place… in Bavel

Har Sinai, too, is not in Eretz Yisrael.

“In every generation,” writes Rav Tzadok, “souls decline.” Yet “we see what happened to the Jewish people especially when they were in exile… In exile they arrived to the exalted levels of holiness, because this is the will of Hashem.”

And he cites Rav Simcha Bunim of P’shischa as having said that “even though the souls of each generation progressively decline, the essence of the heart (hanekudah shebilev) becomes progressively purified and rarified (nitaheres umizdacheches yoser) in each successive generation.”

I don’t claim to know what those phrases truly mean. But that they mean something can’t be denied.

Why Jews living and developing in places other than their ancestral home is a vital part of Hashem’s plan is not something we can fathom. That fact, Rav Tzadok explains, is symbolized by the parsha’s being sasum, “closed off,” with no space before it. Spaces in the Torah indicate opportunity to absorb and understand. There can be no understanding of the need for galus.

But the need for Torah to develop outside of the Jewish homeland is clearly established, even if inscrutable. Galus and giluy (revelation), after all, share the same root letters.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran