Category Archives: PARSHA

Chayei Sara – What’s in a Non-Name?

A riddle I like to ask people is how many times Eliezer’s name is mentioned in parshas Chayei Sara, where his being charged with finding a wife for Yitzchak and his mission’s success are recounted at length. If a hint is needed, I offer the fact that it’s a round number.

Very round. 

Literally. It’s zero.

That’s surprising, of course, considering the important role Eliezer plays in making that crucial shidduch between Yitzchak and Rivka. His mission is in fact recounted in detail, twice – once in conversation with Avraham and again when it takes place.

Why he is only referred to as “the servant of Avraham” and not by his name seems a pregnant fact.

What occurs is that, even though Eliezer had hoped that his own daughter might be the one Yitzchak would marry (a hope hinted in the word ulai, “perhaps,” spelled eilai, “to me” – Beraishis 24:39), once he received his marching orders, he acted entirely altruistically, as a totally dedicated servant, as someone without… any sense of self. And, thus, in the Torah’s account, without a name – the reification of self.

A sense of self is a terribly hard thing to shed. As the Rambam notes in his Perush Mishnayos (Makkos, 3:16), while it is rare for anyone to do a mitzvah entirely altruistically, without any concern whatsoever for result or reward or how his act will be perceived by others, achieving that even a single time renders one a ben olam haba.

And Eliezer’s efforts on Avraham’s behalf are an example of such pure altruism, and perhaps evidenced in the dearth of his name in the parsha.

Ironically, though – or, perhaps, understandably (and certainly uniquely, considering he was a Canaanite) – his name was chosen for a tanna, and by countless Jewish parents over the centuries when naming their sons.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeira – Past is Past

As idolatrous practices go, worshiping the dirt on one’s feet certainly ranks high, along with Baal Zevuv and Baal Pe’or, on the scale of strange. 

Yet, we are informed in the parsha of “dirt of feet” idolatry, if in passing, implied by Avraham Avinu’s offer to his three visitors to wash their feet before entering his tent (Beraishis 18:4). 

Rashi, quoting the Gemara in Bava Metzia (86b), explains that Avraham “thought that they were Arabs who bow down to the dirt of their feet, and didn’t want to bring idolatry into his home.”

All idolatry is the projection of power onto a creation rather than the Creator, and dedication to that perceived source of power.  What could the dirt of one’s feet represent?

What occurs to me is the possibility that a nomadic wayfarer, like the sort of people Avraham suspected his visitors to be, might view the dirt on his feet as symbolizing where he has been, i.e., his past.  And regarded it as something powerful, to which he is beholden. He is a slave to his history, powerless to shed its influence.

The inclination to idolatry no longer exists (Yoma, 69b), yet some residue of it persists (in the form of things like good luck charms and “worship” of cultural figures).

And if my reading of foot-dirt worship isn’t too outlandish, it might persist today in the feeling that one is confined by the events and choices of his past. While examining one’s past is proper, toward the goal of repentance for bad choices, it is unhealthy to be obsessed by the past, to feel trapped by and unable to escape it. A Jew is meant to live fully in the present, and to have sights on the future.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Lech Lecha – About Face

The word “vayehi,” famously, introduces something negative or unfortunate.  Why, then, asks the Mei Marom (the polymath Meshullam Gross), does it introduce the pasuk stating that Avraham “owned sheep, cattle and donkeys” (Beraishis 12:16) – the fact that our forefather had achieved great wealth?

The obvious answer, says Rav Gross, is that, to Avraham, wealth was a burden that could only negatively affect his service to Hashem. In fact, shortly thereafter, the pasuk describes how Avraham was “very laden” with livestock, silver and gold” (ibid 13:2). The word translated “laden” – caveid – literally means “heavy” and implies a burden.

And so, Rav Gross continues, that may explain why Avraham is described in several places (including in our parsha (ibid 12:9) as traveling southward.

Because, as Rabi Yitzchak (Bava Basra, 25b) says, one who wants to become wealthy should be yatzpin, face north, when he prays; but one who wants to become wise should be yadrim, face south.  

Avraham wasn’t a seeker of wealth. On the contrary, he saw it as a burden. He pined for wisdom.

Can one have both? Certainly, and Avraham did.

But, as is clear from Rabi Yitzchak’s contention, one can only pursue one or the other; striving for both is futile. After all, it’s impossible to face both north and south simultaneously.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Noach – Strongmen

The closest word for “hero” in Hebrew is gibor, often translated as “a strong man.”  And its true definition is provided in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avos: “Who is a gibor? He who conquers his natural inclination, as it is said: ‘Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who rules over his spirit than a conqueror of a city’ (Mishlei 16:32).”

True strength in Judaism is evident not in action but in restraint, not in outrage but in calm.

In parshas Noach, we meet a very different kind of gibor, a gibor tzayid, a “strongman hunter” (Beraishis 10:9). His name is Nimrod, his goal was power and, as Rashi notes, based on the Targum Yerushalmi and midrashim, what he hunted was human followers, attracting them with braggadocio and bluster. 

Nimrod was the first “hero” to harness power in order to, in Rav Shamson Raphael Hirsch’s words, “trap men for [his] own egoistic purposes.” He sought to “subjugate the less strong and clear-sighted, to keep them under his yoke until he would need them…”

As such, Nimrod exemplifies, continues Rav Hirsch, “the evil of tyranny which [has] continued so perniciously through the history of nations.” 

And which remains as true today as ever.

And Nimrod was a gibor tzayid lif’nei Hashem, a strongman hunter before Hashem. Explains Rav Hirsch: “[Nimrod] misuse[d] the name of God, cloak[ed] his domination under the show of its being pleasing to God… to demand[ing] recognition of his power in the name of God.”

Indeed, today, too, we daily witness the scowls of scoundrels and liars bent on amassing personal power invoking divine “values” as a means of attracting religious followers who mindlessly regard the  speechifying would-be dictators as “heroes.”

May we be spared such gibborei tzayid.  And merit to see – and be – true gibborim, those described in Avos.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Beraishis – Of Sons and Suns

It is said in the name of the Vilna Gaon that the essential meaning of any given Hebrew word lies in the word’s first appearance in the Torah.

A traditional hope declared by those gathered for a bris milah after the circumcision is performed is “Zeh hakatan gadol yih’yeh!” – May this small one become a great [literally, “large”] one!

The words for small and large, katan and gadol respectively, first appear in parshas Beraishis, in the context of the creation of the sun and moon, the most prominent luminaries in our sky.

The midrash, quoted by Rashi (Beraishis 1:16), notes how both luminaries are at first called “large,” but then the sun alone retains that adjective, and the moon is called “small.” Both, the narrative goes, were originally equally powerful, but the moon complained, “Is it possible for two kings to use one crown?” To which Hashem replied, “Go, then, and make yourself small.”

The sun did not enter the conversation, allowing the moon its day in heavenly court. And it ended up retaining its “large” status while the moon was diminished.

A baby is entirely self-centered, demanding its food and comfort and oblivious to the needs of others (as many an exhausted parent can confirm). Perhaps our blessing that the newly circumcised boy will go from “smallness” to “largeness” is a hope that he will progress from being a demanding creature, like the example of the moon in the midrash, to a serene one, like that of the sun.  

The Talmud (Shabbos 88b) describes such people as “those who are insulted and do not insult, who hear their shame and do not respond, who act out of love and are joyful in suffering.” 

And, interestingly, it applies to them the pasuk “And they that love Him are as the sun going forth in its might” (Shoftim, 5:31).

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

V’zos Habracha – The Import of Moshe’s Tears

Imagine a man who has spent years waiting for his daughter, his only child, to get married, and then, as he surveys the lavish wedding hall on the day of her wedding, is arrested by police and dragged off to jail. What anguish he would feel.

It would be but the faintest shadow of the agony Moshe must have felt when he was shown the land promised to Klal Yisrael, the land to which he led the people for 40 years, and was told by Hashem that he will not enter it, that he is about to die.

And so, when the Midrash, quoted by Rashi, says (in response to the question of how Moshe could record the fact that he died) that Moshe wrote the words bidema, “in tears,” the simple meaning is that he wrote of his death while still alive. (Torah, being beyond time, allowed for that fact). And that his tears were over his having been deprived of entering Eretz Yisrael.

He cried. Like all us humans, imbued with emotions, do. And the “sin” that prevented him from entering the land, his frustrated hitting of a rock instead of speaking to it, also reflected an all-too-human emotion. Moshe was unique among human beings, to be sure. He was anav mikol adam, more humble than any other person. But a person, all the same; he was a mortal human being.

My rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, would often note that other religions’ heroes are described as faultless superhumans. Not so the personages who are extolled by the Torah, even Moshe Rabbeinu, who was, although closer to perfection than anyone, still human. He erred. He cried.

And that uniqueness of the Torah, Rav Weinberg would stress, is a reflection of the fact that, unlike the “holy books” of various religions, it alone is Hashem’s word, not the product of a fabulist human writer.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ha’azinu – The Secret, Unveiled

Although I appreciate most humor, even jokes about Jews, I have always found comedian Alan King’s wry summary of Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” profoundly unfunny.

Not that we Jews don’t deserve a bit of mockery for our… enthusiasm… regarding things culinary. But the “They tried to kill us” introduction is too painfully true to be even part of a bon mot. Whether the “they” tried to kill us spiritually or physically, from ancient times in Egypt and Babylonia and Persia and Greece and the Roman Empire and the Crusades to more recent history including the Holocaust and Soviet Communism, there have been just so many they’s.

Mark Twain famously observed in 1898 – even before the the USSR and the Holocaust – that “Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of…

“He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.

“The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

The secret is Hashem, of course, and the merit of our forefathers. And our eternal survival is encapsulated in the parsha, in the words “I will exhaust my arrows” (Devarim 32:23). Which the Midrash, cited by Rashi, expands upon: “My arrows will come to an end but they [Klal Yisrael] will not.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayeilech – No, No, No, It Ain’t Me

A time will come, the Torah warns, when Hashem, as a result of Klal Yisrael’s actions, will seem to “abandon them and hide My countenance from them” and “many evils and troubles will befall them” (Devarim 31:17).

And “on that day,” the people will say: “Surely it is because Hashem is not in our midst that these evils have found us” (ibid).

That common translation, however, isn’t literal. What the pasuk really says is “because my Hashem is not in my midst that these evils have found me.”

The straightforward understanding of that expression of anguish is that Hashem’s “hidden face” will cause the Jewish people to doubt His love for them. The singular possessives and object would then simply be personifications of a collective feeling of abandonment.

But the use of the singular may point to a source of behavior that can lead to the “many evils and troubles,” a singularly personal attitude: Jewish individuals – as individuals – imagining that Hashem, although He is “my Hashem,” isn’t truly in me.

That, in other words, there isn’t within me inherent holiness and the attendant ability to unlock it.

And, indeed, Torah-study and mitzvos, so many Jews think, just aren’t them. They’re fine and doable, but for others.

For rabbis.

“Orthodox” ones.

And the delusion that we don’t have momentous potential isn’t limited to Jews estranged from their religious heritage. Dedicated observant Jews are vulnerable, too, to feelings of despondency born of feeling “unholy,” incapable of what they may know the Torah asks of them, but feel just “isn’t them.”

None of us, though, is “unholy.” Hashem took the trouble, so to speak, to grant each of us existence, and that means His plan includes us as essential players, capable of holiness.

Each and every single one of us.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

NItzavim – The Holy Land Has a Name

“Hashem… will return and gather you in from all the peoples to which [He] has scattered you… and He will bring you to the land that your forefathers possessed and you shall possess it…” (Devarim 30: 3-5).

“The land.” 

Eretz Yisrael isn’t its name. It is our description of the fact that it was bequeathed to Klal Yisrael. 

But it did have a name: Cna’an. We don’t call it that anymore, but that was its name, and presumably has some meaning. And its meaning must be meaningful.

In his sefer Nachalas Tzvi, Rabbi Meshulam Fayish Tzvi Gross (who had a weekly chavrusa in Kabbalah with Rav Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn and whose sefarim had haskamos from some of the greatest Gedolim of his time; and who, as Herman Gross, patented several inventions) ventures an answer.

He sees the name rooted in the Hebrew noun hachna’ah, “deference” or “submission.” While other lands, he explains, are overseen by malachim – divine middlemen, not Hashem Himself – Eretz Yisrael is different; hence the palace of the King demands a special degree of hachna’ah.

He cites the fact that the phrase “me’od me’od” is used both to refer to the goodness of the land (Bamidbar 14:7) and to the degree to which we are to feel shfal ruach, lowly (Ravi Levitas in Pirkei Avos, 4:4).

What occurs to me as well is the idea that, when in possession of Eretz Yisrael, we Jews are to be constantly cognizant that it is a yerushah, a bequeathal, to us from Hashem. And that, even when we rightly tell the world that the land is divinely meant for us, we must ourselves always fully and humbly remember that it isn’t our political or military power that maintains our possession of the Holy Land, but Hashem’s kindness in having allowed us to return to it. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Ki Savo – Discarding Despondence

The horrors of the tochacha, the parsha’s description of what Klal Yisrael will endure should it drift from heeding the Torah, left our ancestors dejected. As Rashi writes at the beginning of parshas Nitzavim (Devarim 29:9), when they heard the 98 curses in our parshah, in addition to the 48 in parshas Bichukosai, “their faces paled” and they said, “who can possibly persevere through this?”

Significantly, in the yearly Torah reading cycle, these parashos coincide with Elul’s march toward the Yimei Hadin. And despondence this time of year is a seasonal affliction.

We, too, can feel dejected as Rosh Hashanah comes close, as we will be judged on things that we repented for last year but may need to do the same once again.

But feeling despondent is counterproductive.

The late comedian Mitch Hedberg would deadpan: “I used to do drugs.” And then, after a short pause, add: “I still do. But I used to, too.”

The line may have been a throw-away absurdity. But I think he was describing how he had once (perhaps more than once) quit drugs, only to come to re-embrace them.  When he was clean, he “used to do drugs”; now, off the wagon, he does them again.

Many of us can relate, having resolved each year to improve in some of the very same ways we had resolved to improve the year before.  We “used to” do things that we currently do too.

In a famous letter, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, told a despondent student to realize that one can “lose battles but win wars,” that what makes life meaningful is not beatific basking in the sublime company of one’s accomplishments but rather in one’s dynamic struggles.

Shlomo Hamelech’s maxim that “Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up” (Mishlei, 24:16), Rav Hutner continues, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to gets up again” but, rather, that it is only and through repeated falls that a person achieves.  The struggles – even the failures – are inherent elements of what can, with determination and perseverance, become an ultimate victory.

Facing our mistakes squarely, and feeling the regret that is the bedrock of repentance, is essential. But it carries a risk: despondence born of battles lost.  But the war is not over.  We must pick ourselves up.  Again.  And, if need be, again.

And, as to the curses in the parsha, as Moshe reassured the people (see Rashi, Devarim 29:9), despite all the past and possible future failures, “You are still standing.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran