Category Archives: Personalities

(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—

Vilification Nation

We shouldn’t aim to emulate the asinine 

Regardless of whether or not all or any of the results of the recent elections pleased you, they revealed a supercharged Orthodox Jewish community in New York. Even if some secular media crazily choose to portray Orthodox participation in the democratic system as somehow nefarious, we Orthodox Jews should be proud of our neighborhoods’ impressive voting record. 

Shortly before election day, someone immersed in studying Torah and earning a living told me that he doesn’t follow political matters and, assuming (rightly or not) that I was better informed about such things, asked me for whom I thought he should vote. My response took him aback. “It makes no difference,” I said. “Just vote.”

That’s because, no matter how we might like to imagine things, no single vote, nor hundred votes, nor thousand votes, usually makes a difference in the outcome of a congressional or gubernatorial election. But what always makes a difference is the post-election map informing elected officials which neighborhoods care enough to turn out en masse. And when it comes to that map, every vote makes a difference.

And that’s what should be foremost in our minds during the months before every election, when campaign engines noisily rev up and ads and endorsements dominate the airwaves, print media, robocalls, pashkevilim and car-mounted loudspeakers.

Because, while there may well be reasons to back this or that candidate, or to support or oppose this or that proposal, there is – or should be – no place in our lives for the political tribal war mentality that has intensified immeasurably in politics over the past seven years.

Demonization of parties and individuals may excite a certain type of citizen (like the kind who enjoys watching boxers open cuts in their opponents’ faces or render them unconscious). But insulting those with whom we may disagree is not something that responsible Jews do.

Campaigns these days resemble ancient Roman gladiatorial contests, where citizens cheer their chosen heroes and signal for hungry lions to deal with those they disfavor. But that’s not what politics should be to a believing Jew. To us, an election is a means of civilly advancing our interests and what we believe is best for the city, state or country in which we live. For those in need of violent release, there’s Canadian hockey.

Getting overheated over politics is incongruous with Torah values, simple menschlichkeit and reason.

While our hishtadlus is necessary, in the end, we must remember that lev melech bi’yad Hashem, “the heart of the king is in Hashem’s hand” (Mishlei 21:1). What is decisive is the Bashefer, not the ballot box, the Creator, not the casting. Our power lies in choosing how to live, not how to vote. 

To be sure, there might theoretically be a candidate for some office who is truly deserving of vilification – say, a Nazi human trafficker with a penchant for cannibalism. But they are, I think, rare.

When it comes, though, to candidates whose positions one simply feels are wrongheaded or detrimental to our community or to society as a whole, expressions of opposition are rightly made with reason and calm, not fire and fury. 

An object lesson, I personally think, lies in the public disparagement some rained down upon Kathy Hochul. 

Whether or not one thinks she was the better candidate, the Governor has shown good will to her Orthodox Jewish constituents – in her budget’s substantial increases in allocations for nonpublic schools, security grants for Jewish institutions and funding for hate crime prevention; and in her veto of a bill that would have allowed the Town of Blooming Grove to effectively discriminate against religious Jews. 

And yet, because she didn’t endorse what we feel she should have with regard to yeshiva education, some went into full-scale attack mode.

Now that Ms. Hochul has been elected governor, how might that harsh and uncalled-for crassness sit with her?

I don’t expect Ms. Hochul, a seasoned politician with a thick skin, to turn on the community because of the thoughtless words of a few. I think she truly respects the Orthodox community. But can we at least recognize that joining the “attack mode” of contemporary American politics can backfire?

And, even more important, that it is wrong? 

© 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

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

Days of Deceit

Fact-free fantasies are all the rage

Shameless charlatans and flagrant fabulists are nothing new. But they seem to be proliferating rather wildly these days.

In only the latest of a slew of recent such scams, a man was just sentenced to five years in prison after raising $400,000 in a GoFundMe campaign, ostensibly for a homeless veteran. He and his companion spent much of the money on gambling, a BMW, a trip to Las Vegas, a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon and designer handbags.

Then there’s Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist radio host and operator of the website InfoWars, who, after a Texas jury’s ruling this month, must pay $45.2 million in punitive damages, in addition to $4.1 million in compensatory ones for spreading the lie that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax “staged” by the government so it could “go after our guns,” and that none of the 20 children killed in that attack had actually died.

He called those all-too-real childrens’ parents, who had to identify and bury the bullet-riddled bodies of their young ones, “crisis actors,” resulting in their being retraumatized, and harassed and hounded by some of Jones’ faithful followers.

Previously, the popular fabler endorsed the “Pizzagate theory”—that Democratic Party operatives ran a global child-trafficking ring out of a DC pizzeria—and implied that a yogurt company was linked to an assault case and helped spread tuberculosis, both of which fact-free fantasies he was later forced to apologize for promoting.

Apparently inspired by Mr. Jones, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene suggested that the man who opened fire on a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, this year, killing six, might have been part of an orchestrated effort to persuade Republicans to support gun control measures.

Millions of Americans believe, without evidence, that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen”; and millions, too (though there’s likely considerable overlap), that the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by US government agents. Among the latter group is Michael Peroutka, the Republican Party nominee for Maryland attorney general.

According to a new study by UNESCO, approximately half the public content related to the Holocaust on the Telegram messaging service denies or distorts facts about the extermination of millions of Europe’s Jews.

And, with each year leaving us with fewer human witnesses to that evil, the noxious weeds of Holocaust denial are bound to infest the history garden.

Poised, too, to become a powerful engine further impelling our era of lies are “deepfakes.”

Those are videos produced with special software that makes it seem that an identifiable person is saying or doing something he or she has, well, neither said nor done. Photoshop on steroids.

The software, readily available and being constantly refined, can alter the words or gestures of a politician or other public figure, yielding the very fakest of fake news.

In 2019, Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that “America’s enemies are already using fake images to sow discontent and divide us. Now imagine the power of a video that appears to show stolen ballots, salacious comments from a political leader, or innocent civilians killed in conflict abroad.”

According to a report released last week by technology company VMware, attacks using face- and voice-altering technology jumped 13% last year.

“Deepfakes in cyberattacks aren’t coming,” the company’s Rick McElroy said in a statement. “They’re already here.”

In March, for one example, a video posted to social media appeared to show Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky directing his soldiers to surrender to Russian forces. It was a deepfake.

The 24-hour news cycle and expansion of social media platforms only compound the problem. “A lie,” as the saying often attributed to Mark Twain goes, “can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” Today, it’s gone all the way around the world before truth even finds its shoes.

So there is ample cause for despair. Lies upon lies exposed, many more still claiming the gullible and a likely empowering of falsehood-promotion in the not-distant future.

But cause, too, perhaps, of hope.

Because Chazal (Sotah 49b) foretold that ha’emes tehei ne’ederes, “truth will go missing” one day: When the “footsteps of Moshiach” are approaching.

(c) 2022 Ami Magazine

Pinchas – Self Changes Everything

The law of kana’im pog’im bo – “the zealous ones can attack him” – that Pinchas acted upon to dispatch Zimri and Kozbi is a highly unusual, if not singular, one: If one poses it as a halachic query, it is rendered a forbidden act; but if acted upon without consultation, it is meritorious. How can something prohibited be a mitzvah? We find yibum rendering what was an aveira (relations with one’s brother’s wife) a mitzvah, but there the situation has changed, with the death of the brother. Here, the same act under the same circumstances is both wrong and right.

In physics, there is something called the “observer effect,” referring to the fact that the act of measuring something affects what is being measured. For instance, a thermometer placed in a liquid can’t truly measure the liquid’s temperature, since the thermometer’s own temperature changes the liquid’s (and using a thermometer with the same temperature as the liquid would require knowing the liquid’s temperature beforehand).

The observer effect is even more pronounced in quantum physics, where even the most basic act of observation disturbs the state of subatomic particles.

I wonder if something like the “observer effect” may exist in the halacha of kana’im pog’im bo. The act itself, in its essence, is proper; it is the introduction of self that changes the status of the law, rendering the act forbidden. 

If the aspirant to the status of “zealous” has the presence of mind to query whether he should act, the answer is that he should not. Once a he has entered the situation, it changes what was permitted, even meritorious, into something forbidden. With the introduction of self, everything changes.

When an act of kana’us is performed automatically, though, devoid of “self”-consciousness, without consideration of its potential impact on oneself, it is praiseworthy. And Pinchas, who acted out of pure dedication to Hashem, with no concern for self, is rightly praised.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran