Category Archives: PARSHA

Ha’azinu — And Zaidy Makes Three

Parshas Ha’azinu

And Zaidy Makes Three

The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) quotes “a certain Galilean” as having said “Blessed is the Merciful One, Who gave a three-fold Torah [in the broad sense, Torah, Neviim and Ksuvim] to a three-fold nation [Cohanim, Levi’im and Yisraelim] by means of a third-born [Moshe]  on the third day [of separation of men and women] in the third month [Sivan].” (“Galilean,” interestingly, in Hebrew, contains the gematria letter for “3” and – twice – “33”)

The stress on threes concerning the giving of the Torah, it occurs to me, may reflect the essence of mesorah itself, that is to say, its transmittal. Just as the most elemental physical chain needs three links, so, too, the conceptual one. Each of us is a middle link; we must have received the mesorah and then transmitted it. And our recipients then become middle links themselves.

In parshas Haazinu, we read, similarly:  “Ask your father and he will tell you, your grandfather and he will say to you” (Devarim 32:7). The threesome chain again.

And, intriguingly, the word employed for the father’s telling is “viyagedcha”, from the root lihagid — which Rashi elsewhere (Shemos 19:3) says implies an element of harshness; and for the grandfather’s telling, the word is viyomru – whose root, omer, Rashi (ibid) characterizes as a “soft” communication.

The Torah may mean to teach here that a father must be an authority figure, and his transmittal of the mesorah more demanding, while a grandfather’s guidance is to be, well, grandfatherly, imparted with a more gentle touch.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Nitzavim – Turning Pain to Gain

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) at the start of parshas Nitzavim sees in the parsha’s opening words, “You are standing today” the message that, despite the sins and travails of Klal Yisrael up to that point, and the klalos enumerated in parshas Ki Savo, the nation is still standing. Indeed, the Midrash continues, “the curses strengthen you [ma’amidos es’chem].”

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that physical systems naturally degenerate into more and more disordered states. 

Living systems, though, seem to act otherwise. A domeim, a non-living item like a rock or mineral, is indeed entirely subject to entropy. A tzomei’ach, though, a plant, which grows, less so. And an animal, a chai, even less so, as it can also move around to promote its wellbeing.

And a living human is even more able to defend against entropy, manipulating his environment, using intelligence, tools and creativity to protect himself.

The highest rung on the hierarchy, according to sefarim, is Yisrael, the Jewish nation. Perhaps we are particularly entropy-resistant – especially able to turn challenges that would naturally wear away other people, leaving them feeling dejected and hopeless, into not just perseverance but renewed strength. Haklalos ma’amidos es’chem.

The churbanos of the Batei Mikdash, for example, were followed with determined and successful Jewish renewal, as was the most recent churban, that of Jewish Europe. Parts of Klal Yisrael have returned to Eretz Yisrael, and Torah study and practice thrive throughout the world.

And in our personal lives, too, as Rav Dessler writes, our failings and fallings can, through our pain and teshuvah, become fuel for our determination to reach even greater heights. 

A timely thought during these waning days of Elul.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ki Savo – Schrödinger’s Moon

Seizing on the fact that the Hebrew word for a granary – osem – shares two letters with the word for “obscured” – samui – Chazal make an intriguing assertion: Blessing [i.e. increase in volume] is common only in things that are “obscured from the eye” (Bava Metzia 42a).

The pasuk on which that truth is based is in our parsha: “Hashem will order the blessing to be with you in your granaries [ba’asamecha]…” (Devarim, 28:8).

Rav Dessler (first chelek of Michtav M’Eliyahu, pg. 178 in my ancient edition) explains that what we call cause and effect, the essence of physics, is really an illusion; only Hashem’s will is operative, even in what we call physical nature. And so, when something is out of sight, where cause and effect cannot be perceived, His will can cause bracha in the hidden. 

That idea of natural law’s suspension in the case of something beneath perception is vaguely, but tantalizingly, reminiscent of quantum physics’ “Schrödinger’s cat” thought experiment, where direct cause and effect is seemingly suspended – on the subatomic level, but with theoretical implications for the macroscopic world. The issue underlying Schrödinger’s paradox remains an unsolved problem in physics.

Be that as it may, though, something important will in fact be “obscured from the eye” in a few weeks: the moon, on Rosh Hashana. The moon is Klal Yisrael’s timekeeper, and time is the most fundamental element of nature. Klal Yisrael’s clock will not be visible on the first of the days of teshuva.

And time itself, in a sense, will be suspended then. Because we can interfere with its natural, relentless march forward – or, at least, with its unreachable past. Through the bracha of teshuva, which Chazal tell us can change the very nature of our pasts, traveling back, in a way, in time – turning past wrong actions done intentionally into actions done inadvertently; even, with the deepest teshuva, repentance born of pure love of Hashem, into meritorious acts. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ki Seitzei – A Puzzling Parallel

It is striking and strange that a phrase that is to be proclaimed by the yevama, the childless widow whose brother-in-law does not wish to marry her, is the precise phrase in Megillas Esther, bearing the same cantillation, used by Haman when he tells Achashverosh what should be proclaimed as “the man whose honor the king desires” is paraded through the city in royal robes on the royal horse. And is proclaimed, in the end, by Haman as he parades Mordechai.

“Thus shall be done to the man… who will not build up his brother’s house” (Devarim 25:9). 

And “Thus shall be done to the man… whose honor the king desires” (Esther 6:9). 

The phrase occurs in only those two places.

Strange, as well, is that (to my knowledge) none of the major commentaries so much as notes the parallel. 

Adding to the essential riddle is that, mere pesukim after the yibum description, are the commandments to “remember what Amalek did to you” and to “wipe out the memory of Amalek.” Haman, of course, was a scion of Amalek.

What occurs to me is that Mordechai, before whom Haman’s “Thus shall be done…” ends up being proclaimed, is “filling in,” so to speak, for the long-deceased King Shaul, who allowed the Amalekite king Agag to live, resulting in Haman. A yavam is similarly “filling in” for his deceased brother. Years ago, my daughter Shiffy Jakubowicz, then Shiffy Shafran, added at our Shabbos table that yibum is a hakamas sheim, an “establishment of an identity,” and what we are commanded to do to Amalek is mechiyas sheim, the “obliteration of an identity.”

Both my and her observations are intriguing. Although the ultimate meaning of the riddle remains elusive.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shoftim – Commanded

Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker once asked students if they would rather face the vicissitudes of their lives or be transformed into totally happy pigs.  

A young woman raised her hand and said, “I’d rather be a happy pig.” Other hands shot up. “Me too!” “Same here!” “Pig!” “Pig!” “Pig!”

R’ Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev conveys a pithy thought on the wording of the parsha’s prohibition against bowing down before “the sun, moon or other heavenly bodies that I have not commanded” (Devarim 17:3).

The Berditchever notes that it is permitted to bow to a human being. 

And indeed, Avraham bowed to his guests who appeared in the guise of men; Yosef’s brothers bowed to him. Ovadiah bowed before his master Eliyahu.  

Why is that permitted? Explained the Berditchever: People, by virtue of our being commanded creations, intended to not just exist but to shoulder responsibility, are singular parts of creation.  Our being commanded exalts us, places us on a plane above everything else in the universe.

The sun and the moon – and animals – are not charged, or able, to choose. They are bound by their natures and their instincts.

Not so, us. 

The phrase “that I have not commanded,” above is understood by Rashi as “that I have not commanded you to worship.” The Berditchever, however, sees something else in the phrase: “that I have not graced with commandments.” That are not, in other words, commanded, and thus exalted, entities like humans are.

On Rosh Hashanah, which rapidly approaches, we are judged for our choices. And yet it is a festive holiday. Because even as we face our failures and stand kivnei maron, “like sheep,” before the Judge of all, we celebrate. Because we are, in the end, not sheep, nor mindlessly happy pigs.  We are commanded beings – something that should fill us with joy.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Re’ei – Survivors

Kol yimei chayecha – “All the days of your life” – is a phrase we first meet in the Torah when Hashem pronounces the fate of Adam after the sin of eating from the eitz hadaas: “Cursed is the ground because of you. Through suffering will you eat from it all the days of your life” (Beraishis 3:17).

The phrase recurs in a seemingly unrelated context, about the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach, in our parsha: “…so that you will remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life” (Devarim 16:3).

That pasuk, cited in the Haggadah, elicited a novel thought from Rav Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim: “When recounting Yetzias Mitzrayim, one should remember, too, ‘all the days’ of his own life – the miracles and wonders that Hashem performed for him throughout…”

The generation before mine, the one that came of age during the Second World War, could well relate to that idea. My father endured years of forced labor in Siberia, courtesy of the Soviet Union. My father-in-law was a veteran of several concentration camps, and suffered the deprivations and tortures for which they are infamous.

And, I know, on Pesach, thoughts of their experiences were in their minds. My father and his friends pocketing and then hiding a few wheat kernels here and there, to be secretly ground and baked in the middle of the night into matzos. My father-in-law, in a Dachau satellite camp, reciting with a friend parts of the Haggadah they knew by heart.

But the Slonimer Rebbe’s thought is appropriate for every life, even lives of relative calm and plenty like our own. Because, as a result of the sin of the eitz hadaas, adversity and tragedy entered the world and came to define all humans’ lives, to one or another extent. We all have experienced things that were daunting or worse, and from which we were saved. We may not have been liberated from a literal gulag or camp, but we are all, on one or another level, survivors.

And we need to consciously recall that fact, all the days of our lives.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Eikev – Strangers in Strange Lands

Both remarkable and timely is a digression by the Sefer HaChinuch on a mitzvah in the parshah. The mitzvah, #431, is ahavas hager, the commandment to love a convert (Devarim 10:19). In addition to the mitzvah to love every fellow Jew, there is an additional one to love someone who was not born into the people but chose to join it.

After providing details of the mitzvah, the Chinuch includes the Talmudic admonition (Bava Metzia 58b) to not remind a convert of his pre-Jewish past. “… in order to not cause him pain in any way.” He adds that anyone who is lax about helping a convert or protecting his property, or is insufficiently respectful of him or her, violates this mitzvas aseh.

And then he writes: “We are to learn from this precious mitzvah to have mercy on any person who finds himself in a foreign place” and “not ignore him when we find him alone and far from those who can help him.

“And with these sentiments, we will merit to be treated with mercy by Hashem… the pasuk hints to this idea when it adds ‘because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,’ reminding us that we were once burned with the deep pain felt by any person finding himself among foreign people in a foreign land… And Hashem in his mercy took us out of there. Our own mercy should likewise be felt for any person in a similar situation.”

The Chinuch’s expansion of the mitzvah’s underlying idea, even though ahavas hager applies only to a convert, is striking and most pertinent today.

A bandwagon from whose sides all too many happily hang is the anti-immigrant one. To be sure, immigration is something that rightly has rules, and borders cannot be totally open to all. But the Jewish attitude toward those foreign-born people who (often having risked their lives) are among us – legally or otherwise – is to be one of mercy and concern.

The pasuk’s reminder of our ancestors’ sojourn in Egypt is pithy here too. Many, if not most, American Jews are no more than a generation or two removed from their own immigrant forebears. Our parents or grandparents found themselves on these shores, far from their birthplaces, strangers in a strange land.  We can imagine their pain and fear. And should recognize the similar pain and fears of others, including newer newcomers to America. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vo’eschanan – Little Sins Fuel Bigger Ones

The Kotzker Rebbe likely meant it as a poignant joke when he reportedly remarked that the reason the Ten Commandments had to be both seen and heard (Chazal describe the revelation at Har Sinai as a synesthetic experience – e.g. Yalkut Shimoni 299) was that the word “lo” in lo signov would clearly be seen written with an aleph, not a vav.

That is to say, the commandment is to be understood as “Do not steal,” not “Steal for Him” – which would imply that, for a holy cause, theft is a virtue.

But the Kotzker certainly intended his quip as a serious lesson: Lofty ends don’t justify forbidden means.

If a Jew should “bend the rules” with regard to business or governmental dealings, he is guilty of gezel akum.  Even if his intention is to benefit a charity or Jewish institution.

Hopefully, we all realize that. But when, on occasion, we have read of some such liberty-taking, it behooves us to consider the fact that even those of us who would never consider doing such a thing ourselves might have reason for introspection.

Because a fundamental concept in Judaism is the idea of arvus, that all Jews are intertwined, that we are all responsible for one another. And so, if a Jewish thief exists, it is the “fault,” in a sense, of us all. That’s why we say “Ashamnu…” – “We have sinned” – in first person plural.

That outright Jewish violator of “Do not steal” may have been empowered by our own, less blatant, thievery. Like gneivas daas, stealing another’s mind (misleading him); or gezel sheina, depriving another of sleep; or what Chazal consider to be “stealing from a poor person,” namely, not returning a greeting (Berachos 6b).

Many are the understandings of nachamu nachamu ami – the repetition of the word for “be comforted” in the haftarah of Vo’eschanan. But, considering that the word nechama can mean both comfort and change of heart (as in Beraishis 6:6), perhaps the repetition reflects, too, the fact that our repentance from small transgressions have an effect on preventing larger ones. 

And some comfort surely lies in that fact.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Devarim – The Rock’s Lost Lesson

In Moshe Rabbeinu’s parting rebuke of Klal Yisrael for “not believing in Hashem” (Devarim 1:32), for all its complaining in the wake of the report of the meraglim and beyond, he refers to Hashem’s decree that the “generation of the desert” will not get to see the promised land. 

And then he says, “Hashem was also angry with me because of you, saying, ‘Neither will you go there’” (1:37).

“Also?” “Because of you?” What are those words saying? 

Moshe, though, is more than the leader of the nation; he reflects it, embodies it. He is called a melech, a king. And Chazal tell us that ein melech b’lo am, there is no king without a nation. That means something beyond the obvious. It means that, in a way, the king isthe nation. Which is why a king has no right to forgo his honor (Kiddushin 32b); it is the nation’s honor.

And so, in a way, the “sin” that prevented Moshe from entering Cna’an, the striking of the rock to provide water, was a reflection, even embodiment, of the nation’s sin. How?

Moshe’s mistake was not hitting the rock but rather not speaking to it (as he was commanded).

And thereby not advancing kiddush shem Shomayim by conveying to the people (as per the Midrash Rashi brings in Bamidbar 20:12) the lesson that if an inanimate object fulfills Hashem’s mere words, His mere declaration of will, so much more so should human beings.

Instead, the idea unintentionally conveyed was that only punishment spurs heeding Hashem. 

The people, apparently, weren’t ripe for the intended lesson. And so, Moshe’s act necessarily reflected that fact. Had Moshe spoken to the rock as ordered, Chazal say, he would have been able to enter Cna’an and there would never have been any exile of the Jews from their land. 

Like the rock, we have been smitten – with the rod of galus and all its tribulations. May the lesson that the rock was meant to teach be internalized, quickly and in our day.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Matos-Mas’ei – The Final Word

Although Sefer Devarim is the final “book” of the Torah, in a sense, Sefer Bamidbar is. That is because, while Devarim includes many new laws and accounts, it also repeats some, and is thus characterized by Chazal as “Mishneh Torah” – the “repetition” or “second” Torah.

Which gives Matos and Mas’ei, Bamidbar’s final parshios, the status, on some level, of the “end” of what began in Beraishis.

The thought is intriguing, since those parshios reflect elements we find at the Torah’s start. The first sin in history (after Adam and Chava brought sin into the realm of possibility) was murder – that of Hevel – and Kayin’s subsequent peripatetic life. And at the end of Sefer Bamidbar, we have the law of orei miklat, the cities to which an accidental murderer (which, in a way, Kayin was, as he had never before witnessed death) flees. And the detailed masa’os, wandering-stops of the Jews in the desert, are reminiscent of Kayin’s na vanad, “wandering to and fro.”

Also prominent at the end of Sefer Bamidbar is the subject of speech: Like vows and the tenai – “condition” – made with Bnai Gad and Bnei Reuvain (with its halachic ramifications for verbal agreements). Even Bil’am’s death by sword reflects the idea of the power of speech (see Rashi Bamidbar 31:8).

Speech is what, in parshas Beraishis, is identified as the essential human attribute: the Targum of nefesh chayah, “a living soul,” famously is ruach memalela, “a speaking soul.”

And, thus, it is the defining power of the nation Hashem chose to be an example to mankind. Forces of evil come with swords, guns and bombs. We come with tefillah and talmud Torah.

A particularly worthy thought during this period of the Jewish year, when we focus on the destruction of the Batei Mikdash and hope for the speedy arrival of the third and final one.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran