Category Archives: Personalities

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

Vayigash – No Fair

Imagine the emotions of Yosef’s brothers at the start of the parsha.

They have been grievously treated by Tzafnas Pa’ene’ach, the Egyptian king’s viceroy, who accused them falsely of being spies, then insisted that they bring their youngest brother Binyamin to him from Cna’an, even after being informed of how their father would be terribly pained to part with the boy. And when they give in and manage to convince Yaakov to let them show Binyamin to the viceroy, and bring him to Egypt, they witness their young brother being accused falsely of stealing the viceroy’s prized divination-goblet.

And when they offer to pay for the non-crime with their own imprisonment, the viceroy insists that only Binyamin be imprisoned and that they go back home, where their father is awaiting the return of all of them – especially Binyamin.

It’s been remarked that there is no word in Hebrew for “fair,” in the sense of an experience being comprehensible as just. There is mishpat, or judgment; and tzedek, which is rightness; and hogen, implying propriety. But even those words are limited to technical human interactions. 

“Fair,” in the sense of life making sense, isn’t a Jewish concept. An Israeli expressing exasperation over a happening in his life that seems arbitrary or unjustifiable would thus be limited in expressing himself and say “Zeh lo fair!”

And if ever there were human beings justified in feeling that what has happened to them was unfair, they were Yosef’s brothers.

But they learned soon enough that what they saw as unfairness was simply the result of their being like the proverbial blind men palpating the elephant. They were perceiving only part of a larger picture.

A picture that, in an instant, became clear to them, with the viceroy’s two words: “I am Yosef.”

We are seldom shown, as Yosef’s brothers were, why the things that make us say “no fair!” are in fact, well, fair. But the equivalent of “I am Yosef” throughout  our lives exists, even if we cannot recognize it. And in moments of exasperation at life’s unfairness, we should remember that.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

My White House Park Bench Chanukah

Should you ever happen to find yourself in an ornate, high-ceilinged room and a military-uniformed string ensemble is segueing from a flawless rendition of a Bach Concerto to an equally impressive (if considerably less inspiring) version of “I Have a Little Dreidel,” you can only be in one place: the White House Chanukah Party.

I haven’t been to one for many years. No great loss – to either me or the party. But back in the George W. Bush years – Mr. Bush started the tradition – I was invited for some reason to two of the latkehfests.

I greatly appreciated being able to meet and mingle with Jews from other parts of the American Jewish community, an opportunity I don’t have as often as I wish. And it was a privilege for my wife and me to meet, if briefly, President and Mrs. Bush. I chose to use my moment in their company to offer them my birchas hedyot, thereby disappointing my then-13-year-old son, who had wanted me to request an executive order that the school week be reduced to three days.

True to its Jewish nature, the event was awash in food – all of it under strict hashgachah, produced in a kashered White House kitchen. It was hard to not contemplate the crazy swings of Jewish history.

The second year that I received an invitation, 2006, my wife opted to stay home. It was the third day of Chanukah. In my wife’s place, I took a dedicated supporter of the Agudah as my partner.

He asked if he could pose alone with the Bushes rather than have both of us in the photo. No problem, I said. I preferred the one with my wife from the previous year. When Mr. Bush motioned me to join in the photo, I explained my guest’s request and said I was fine being out of the frame. Ignoring protocol, he insisted on having two photos taken, one with my guest alone and another with both of us. I was impressed by his menschlichkeit.

The high point of my White House visit that year, though, had nothing to do with either the Presidential receiving line or the array of kosher victuals. Not even with the mingling with Jews outside my orbit.

No, the highlight of my trip to Washington that year took place before I even entered the White House. I was sitting on a bench outside the East Entrance, enjoying the unseasonably warm December day, watching the line of invitees form as they waited for security personnel to open the gates and begin the process of examining identifications and scanning bags.

Relaxing there in the descending darkness, I was overtaken with melancholy at being away from home for even that one night of Chanukah. I had made the necessary arrangements; the menorah in my home would be lit by my wife or one of our children. Still, I was troubled by being so far from them.

I’ve always been struck by the stark contrast between, on the one hand, the public pageantry and blinking lights with which most Americans celebrate their winter holiday and, on the other, the quiet, home-bound nature of Chanukah, with its tiny ethereal flames. And here I was, I lamented, about to join in a boisterous, bustling celebration – albeit of Chanukah – while the small points of fire created on my behalf would be flickering some 200 miles away, invisible to me.

My cellphone suddenly clamored for attention. Aroused from my gloomy reverie, I offered it my ear.

It was my wife. She and our children were about to light the menorah and thought I might want to be included, if at a distance, in hearing the brachos and post-lighting songs. A truer thought could not have been had.

And so unfolded the truly transcendent moment of my White House Chanukah, on a bench outside the grand Presidential residence. To any passerby, it would have looked like nothing more than a balding fellow with a graying beard, smiling broadly, eyes closed, animatedly singing into a phone.

The passerby would probably have dismissed me as a disturbed, if unusually well-dressed, individual. How could he have known that I had been, in both the word’s senses, transported?

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeishev – Never Say Die

He refused.

That is the meaning of the word vayima’en, a word used twice in the story of Yosef in this parsha, once to describe a refusal by Yaakov Avinu, the second to describe one by Yosef.

Mourning his missing and presumed killed son for many days, the Torah recounts, Yaakov refused to be comforted (Beraishis 37:35): Vayima’en lihisnachem.

And then, when Yosef, serving as the second-in-command of the house of the Egyptian notable Potifar (ibid, 39:8), is seduced by his master’s wife, he refuses her: Vayima’en, again.

I haven’t been successful in tracking down the source of a suggestion I heard several years ago, but offer it all the same.

It was Yaakov’s refusal to accept that Yosef was no longer alive that enabled Yosef to refuse Mrs. Potifar’s blandishments. The first vayima’en gave power to the second one. It was, in other words, the merit of Yaakov’s love for, and dedication to, his son that empowered that son to overcome a great moral challenge (which he came close to failing, hinted at by the wavering shalsheles with which his vayima’en is chanted).

The lesson being that when we refuse to give up on someone who seems hopelessly “gone” – in whatever way – our very refusal can serve as a spiritual merit for that person, a long-distance and unknown-to-him assistance to him in dealing with adversity.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

(Very) Short Story: – “Where He Was”

(Very) Short Story: – “Where He Was”

Fake, fakery, everything’s phony; I sound like a Bible, I do.  Yeah, still young, but I’ve lived long enough to smell the smoke and spot the mirrors.  Yeah, me, a phony too.  Even after all I’ve given, all I’ve been given, all I seem to be, all they think I am, all the hands stretching out, all the love.  Smile, wave, turn, smile.  Things aren’t what they seem.  They’re the opposite, at least sometimes, at least me…  Hero, leader, specimen of manhood and health and confidence.  Ha.  Wave, smile, turn, wave.  If they only knew, if they could only see me at three in the morning writhing in pain, crying like a baby for his mother and a breast but me, for the doc and a shot.  Mother…  mother.  And what about my own kids’ mother…  What she knows, my quiet, beautiful wife, she knows.  What she doesn’t, she doesn’t have to.  Geez, she’s lovely… just like the flowers she’s holding…  Even after ten years of marriage… Of course she knows. She just accepts things… the life is just worth it to her, even with me… but she deserves better.  She’s suffered enough, with father, with Rose.  And the baby, years ago.  And the baby now.  She doesn’t need more pain dumped on her pile.  Let her take some pride in her life, her children.  In me, even, even if it’s misplaced… A sham, I am.  Even my words aren’t mine.  They’re mostly Chaiken’s – ha, Teddy hates it when I call him that.  He’s great, though, a brainy tongue.  My brainy tongue. It’s him talking, though.  I’m just the mannequin moving my mouth, smiling.  But a mannequin who screams his own screams at night, who has a “condition.”  Ha.  Funny word.  Turn, wave, smile.  Condition’s what you do to the air when it’s hot in a room.  Yeah.  Smile, wave.  Man, it’s hot here today.  Doesn’t fall ever come to Texas?  Sweat doesn’t look good, even on a good looking mannequin.  Hope the smile draws their eyes to my teeth, not my forehead.  Wave, turn, smile, turn, wave.  Dangerous and uncertain world, yeah, but friendly crowd.  Guess the sign’s right. Dallas loves me. Ha.  It just doesn’t kno—