Category Archives: PARSHA

Vayechi – A Singular Kindness

Chesed v’emes, “kindness and truth,” is the term Yaakov Avinu uses to describe what he is asking of Yosef when charging his son to not bury him in Mitzrayim (Beraishis 47:29).

And Rashi famously explains that the term is meant to reflect the fact that doing something for someone deceased is the  ultimate kindness – since the doer “isn’t looking toward repayment,” presumably from the recipient of the act.

But while the deceased is no longer in a position to repay the kindness, others certainly are. And the performer of the kindness can also expect reward of a greater sort – in the world-to-come. So why is doing chesed for a deceased person in a singular category?

I wonder if the answer might lie in the words “isn’t looking for” (eino metzapeh) in Rashi’s explanation (although I haven’t found those words in the Midrash that Rashi seems to be citing).

What Rashi might mean is that, while there may indeed be repayment for an act of kindness toward someone no longer able to reciprocate, the performer of the kindness isn’t looking toward repayment. Because he’s in a special state of mind, bluntly confronting the inevitability of death. When he performs his kindness, he is blinded to everything but his own mortality.

Facing head-on what we all too often choose not to think about, although we intellectually know it is real, puts screeching brakes on our merry marches toward success in life and achievement of rewards of all sorts. At that time, we do not look toward any compensation for our efforts.

Interestingly, the word “eivel”, “mourning,” is spelled precisely as the word aval, “however.” What “however” does in a sentence – interrupts and reverses its flow – is what death of a loved one does in a survivor’s life. It stops the speeding “reward pursuant” train and focuses the mourner exclusively on the inevitable truth that this world is ours only until it isn’t.

And so, a chesed done for someone deceased is done in a singular state of pureness, of emes.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayigash — Full Circle

The wagons (agalos) that Yosef sent back with his brothers to their father (Beraishis 45:27) were intended to convince Yaakov it was indeed Yosef who was the effective ruler of Mitzrayim. They were, as Rashi there explains, a pun-hint to what Yosef and Yaakov were speaking of when they last saw one another, 22 years earlier.

The subject of that discussion was the law of “egla arufah,” the ritual performed when a person is discovered murdered outside a city. Yaakov had, back then, accompanied Yosef as he went looking for his brothers, and explained that the law of egla arufah implies the importance of escorting someone who is going on a journey.

The agalos were meant to conjure egla, which means “calf,” as the ritual involves dispatching one.

Why, though, use a pun? Why didn’t Yosef simply send a calf to his father? Wouldn’t that have been a more effective means of identifying himself?

There may, though, have been a deeper message in the agalos. The root of the word is “wheel.”  It might thus imply, for lack of a better phrase, the closing of the circle of justice, as we colloquially say, “what goes around comes around.” The circle is the most perfect simple shape, and can be seen as representing the resolution of all that seems discordant or incomprehensible. 

As the ancient proverb has it: “The millstones of G-d grind slowly but exceedingly fine.” And millstones, of course, are round.

When Hillel saw a skull floating in a river, he said :” Because you drowned others, they drowned you. And in the end, those who drowned you will be drowned” (Avos 2:6). Obviously, not every drowned person had drowned someone else. Hillel’s statement is a conceptual declaration, namely, that ultimate justice is assured. And perhaps significance lies in the fact that what he spied was a skull, a gulgoles, literally “something round.”

So Yosef’s message to his father in the identifying hint he sent, may have been: “All has turned out fine, despite my travails; my brothers and I are reconciled, and not only has the family circle not been broken, our lives have come… full circle.”

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Mikeitz – Small, Not Inconsequential

Yosef, who reaches the height of temporal power in this week’s parshah, was originally presented as unimpressive, even vain, the favorite of his father but the lesser, at least as they saw things, of his brothers. He tells on them, doesn’t think it unwise to share his seemingly self-aggrandizing dreams to his family and spends time attending to his superficial appearance. The Midrash refers to him as the katan shebish’vatim, the “small one” of the tribes.

How misleading all that is began to become evident when, in last week’s parshah, Yosef, made part of an Egyptian nobleman’s home, summons superhuman fortitude to refuse his benefactor’s wife’s adulterous entreaties. The Gemara (Yoma, 35b) holds him up as the ultimate model for the ages of resisting temptation.

The hidden potential power of the “small” and “unimpressive” is a timely thought at the time of Jewish year when we read about Yosef.

I’m always struck by the contrast between, on the one hand, the garish, multicolored and blinking lights that scream for attention from so many American homes each winter and, on the other, the quiet, tiny ones that softly grace the windows of Jewish ones. 

Chanukah is often portrayed as a “minor” holiday. It is indeed only rabbinic in nature, but its deep power is evident from its treatment in classical Jewish philosophical and mystical works.

And, echoing “small” Yosef’s attainment of the epithet “tzaddik,” for his personal fortitude, the events recalled on “minor” Chanukah were about fortitude, too — the struggle to maintain Jewish integrity and observance, and resist an enticing and dominant non-Jewish culture.

Small can be consequential. Isn’t that, in the end, the essence of rabbim biyad me’atim

Chanukah celebrates how all the alien firestorms of powerful empires and mighty cultures were unable to extinguish the flame of Jewish commitment. Those empires may have flared mightily, but they disappeared without a trace. Their luster was mere tinsel. 

Yosef seemed unimpressive; he was anything but. And our small, flickering lights are eternal.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeishev – Gone, But Not Forever

When Yaakov Avinu is shown his son Yosef’s blood-soaked coat, “All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted” (Beraishis, 37:35).

Quoting the Midrash Rabbah (84:20), Rashi explains that, under normal circumstances, there is a Divine decree that people will come to terms with the loss of someone they love. Life would be unbearable without the diminishment of the pain of such a loss (Rashi, Pesachim 54b).

But the Divinely ordained reality of consolation, the Midrash explains, is only operative when the person being mourned is in fact deceased. Hence, Yaakov’s inability to be comforted, as Yosef was still very much alive.

Intriguingly, there is another person who similarly could not be comforted. In fact, it is Yaakov’s wife, Rachel, centuries later, lamenting from heaven the exile of the Jewish people.

A cry is heard in Ramah

Wailing, bitter weeping

Rachel weeping for her children.

She refuses to be comforted

For her children, who are gone. (Yirmiyahu, 31:14)

There, too, her inability to be comforted, like her husband’s when shown Yosef’s coat, stemmed from the fact that she was lamenting a people who only seemingly “are gone,” but are in fact only temporarily lost but destined to be found.

As the navi continues, with Hashem telling Rachel: 

Restrain your voice from weeping,

Your eyes from shedding tears;

For there is a reward for your labor

declares Hashem.

They shall return from the enemy’s land. (ibid, 15)

Just as Yosef ends up being reunited with his father, so will all of Klal Yisrael “return to their borders” (ibid, 16). 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeishev – Gone, But Not Forever

When Yaakov Avinu is shown his son Yosef’s blood-soaked coat, “All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted” (Beraishis, 37:35).

Quoting the Midrash Rabbah (84:20), Rashi explains that, under normal circumstances, there is a Divine decree that people will come to terms with the loss of someone they love. Life would be unbearable without the diminishment of the pain of such a loss (Rashi, Pesachim 54b).

But the Divinely ordained reality of consolation, the Midrash explains, is only operative when the person being mourned is in fact deceased. Hence, Yaakov’s inability to be comforted, as Yosef was still very much alive.

Intriguingly, there is another person who similarly could not be comforted. In fact, it is Yaakov’s wife, Rachel, centuries later, lamenting from heaven the exile of the Jewish people.

A cry is heard in Ramah

Wailing, bitter weeping

Rachel weeping for her children.

She refuses to be comforted

For her children, who are gone. (Yirmiyahu, 31:14)

There, too, her inability to be comforted, like her husband’s when shown Yosef’s coat, stemmed from the fact that she was lamenting a people who only seemingly “are gone,” but are in fact only temporarily lost but destined to be found.

As the navi continues, with Hashem telling Rachel: 

Restrain your voice from weeping,

Your eyes from shedding tears;

For there is a reward for your labor

declares Hashem.

They shall return from the enemy’s land. (ibid, 15)

Just as Yosef ends up being reunited with his father, so will all of Klal Yisrael “return to their borders” (ibid, 16). 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayishlach – A Poisonous Prescription

Number one on my list of brilliant people’s brilliantly wrongheaded ideas is something that the late British polymath/physician/comedian Jonathan Miller once said:

“I feel that the Jew must constantly re-adventure and re-venture himself into assimilation… I just think it’s the nobler thing to do, unless in fact you happen to be a believer in Orthodoxy, in which case there are self-evident reasons to keep [apart]. But if it’s done for the sole purpose of making sure that in the future you’ll be able to say the prayers for the dead when the holocaust is finally inflicted again, then I think it is a damnable device.”

Coming of age shortly after the European Jewish Holocaust, Dr. Miller might have ruminated a bit on the fact that the horror was unleashed from the country with most assimilated Jewish population on earth at the time. That most German Jews were indistinguishable from their Christian fellow-citizens didn’t prevent the Nazis from going generations back to find Jewish ancestries. In fact, in the eyes of great Jewish thinkers, just the opposite is true: when we seek to assimilate, we will be rudely reminded that we are, and must always be, different. 

When Yaakov meets his brother Esav, the latter kisses him on his neck. Whether that kiss was originally intended as a vicious bite, as one Midrash has it, or represented a momentary interruption of hatred by a sincere pang of kinship, as Rashi cites, Esav remains the progenitor of those who harbor animus for Yaakov’s progeny, the Jews.

And Yaakov, invited by his brother to accompany him forward, politely declines, making excuses for why the two must go their own ways.

That self-isolation of Jews reflects what the Torah later, through the mouth of Bil’am, states, that the Jews are destined to be an am livadad yishkon, “A nation that will dwell in solitude” (Bamidbar 23:9).

Jews are to respect and interact in good will with all peoples, but are also intended to remain, in a fundamental way, separate. We are not to absorb societal ideals that are antithetical to the Torah’s; we are to marry only other Jews; we are to maintain our Jewish observances, even if they may set us apart from others. We are not to assimilate – to dissolve into larger society.

Dr. Miller’s prescription is poison.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayeitzei – Haters Gonna Hope

In a short, biting comment, the Chasam Sofer makes a trenchant observation about antisemites, whom he sees as following in the footsteps of Lavan, Yaakov Avinu’s father-in-law.

When, after being tricked into working for Lavan for 14 years (and then forced to work another six to earn flocks of his own) and being constantly taken advantage of, Yaakov suggests a deal, asking for only the sheep and goats that are patterned a certain way.  

“Any among the goats that is not speckled or spotted,” Yaakov tells his father-in-law, “or among the sheep that are not brownish, if in my possession, is stolen.” (Beraishis, 30:33).

Lavan responds, in happy acceptance of the seemingly lopsided deal: Lu yehi kidvarecha — “If only it will be as you say.”

The Chasam Sofer sees those words as referring not only to the deal but to the specific phrase that immediately precedes them: “if in my possession is stolen.” He reads the “if only” as a wistful hope that, indeed, Yaakov will be found with sheep and goats to which he isn’t entitled.

That, the Chasam Sofer explains, reflects the mindset of all throughout history who hate Yaakov’s descendents. They salivate at the prospect that a Jew might do something dishonest, so that they can shout the fact from the rooftops and share their animus.

Occasionally, a Jew is found guilty of dishonesty. As a great man once said, “Lavan unfortunately, is part of our yichus too.” But no one thinks of generalizing from an Italian or British or Catholic or Hindu wrongdoer to his entire nationality, ethnicity or religion. 

It’s only Jews that some pine to see disgraced, today as always.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Toldos – Confining Minds

A word often translated as “hunting” is used by the Torah to characterize Esav — “a man who knows hunting” (Beraishis 25:27). Likewise, earlier, to describe Nimrod — “a powerful hunter” (10:9). 

Rashi explains that the word in Esav’s case refers to his ability to mislead his father Yitzchak. Regarding Nimrod, similarly, Rashi comments that he employed language and subterfuge to amass followers.

But the Hebrew word used in both cases, tzayid, doesn’t really mean hunt, but, rather, “trap,” as per the definition of tzad, one of the actions forbidden on Shabbos. And, as per Rashi’s comments, the idea of trapping fits well — colloquially, we might say of a good debater that he “trapped” his opponent. 

Trapping, in hilchos Shabbos, is defined as “confining” an animal — closing the door to a room, for instance, that a deer has entered (Shabbos 106b). 

In its own way, misleading a person does much the same: it confines the victim to a particular mindset, disallowing him to consider other ways of thinking. That is how con men and demagogues operate, by cutting off their casualties’ ability to regard things objectively, leaving them “trapped” in a slyly manufactured perspective.

Much of our world today suffers from being “confined” to particular ways of thinking. Whether it is a mullah convincing followers that Jews are evil or a political leader persuading masses that his enemies are theirs and that he alone can save them, Esavs and Nimrods, unfortunately, still abound, perniciously confining minds.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Chayei Sara – What to Tell the Shadchan

When parents of young people seek proper husbands or wives for their sons or daughters (or when the young people do the seeking themselves), one or more of a number of factors are usually considered. For some people, the “quality” of the family of the prospective mate is paramount. For others, his or her yichus, or ancestry, plays a major role. 

Others, still, look for someone of financial means, if only to ensure that the potential couple won’t be overly pressured by legitimate economic needs. 

At the beginning of Klal Yisrael’s development, we find Eliezer, the servant of Avraham Avinu, tasked with finding a proper life partner for Yitzchak. Eliezer was a wise and accomplished man, someone who was not only wholly dedicated to Avraham but who (as per a drasha based on the adjective “damesek” used before Eliezer’s name [Braishis 15:2]) “would draw up and teach” (“doleh umashkeh”) all that he had learned from Avraham to others (Yoma, 28b). He is described by Chazal as “an elder who sat [and studied] in yeshiva” (ibid).

In fact, were it not for the fact that, at the start of Klal Yisrael, a Cna’anis would be unfit to be one of the Imahos, Eliezer’s own daughter would have fit the bill.

So, at least at that point in history, at least general yichus mattered. As did family, since Avraham asked Eliezer to look for Yitzchak’s shidduch among his kinfolk.

But we don’t find Avraham offering his servant any further guidance about how to find the right person. Avraham, it seems, knowing Eliezer’s high level of wisdom and character, relied entirely on his faithful servant’s judgment.

And what Eliezer clearly sought out in a mate for Yitzchak, as per his prayer that he be guided to a young woman who will gladly give him and his camels water (Beraishis 24:14), was a person exemplifying chesed — kindness. 

Beyond all other priorities, whether worthy or less so, what most matters when it comes to shidduchim, is the character of the potential life partner. 

All else, even if it may seem important, is secondary.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayeira – The Will IS the Way

Inordinate attention is afforded the menu that Avraham Avinu offered the angels disguised as nomads whom he welcomed to his home: Water, fine-flour bread, cream and milk; and, according to the Gemara, the tongues of three calves, served with mustard (Bava Metzia, 86b). 

And yet, it was all a futile feast, as angels don’t eat, and the visitors only pretended to do so (teaching us the Talmudic equivalent of “When in Rome…” [ibid]).

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin points out that a similarly ineffectual effort ends the parsha too: The Akeidah, where Yitzchak is bound in preparation for his sacrifice at the hand of his father — something that not only didn’t take place but was never even considered by Hashem (Taanis 4a).

The bookend narratives, says Rav Zevin, teach us that it is the will that matters most. To be sure, actions are indispensable. But the intention motivating our behavior is what gives it its greatest value.

And, what’s more, as Rav Yitzchak Hutner notes, when the goal we imagine is not reached, the value of the will is undiminished. For we invoke and rely upon the merit of the Akeidah to this day, despite the fact that its intent, blessedly, never came to fruition.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran