Category Archives: Personalities

Terumah — Ulterior Merits

The aron habris, the ark of the covenant that held the luchos, the tablets of the law, consisted of three nested boxes, the middle one of wood, the outer and inner ones of zahav tahor – “pure gold.” Its kapores, or cover, was made entirely of “pure gold.”

Not so the poles that are placed in rings on the sides of the aron – and that are to remain there permanently. Like the aron itself, they are wooden but covered with gold. But only “gold,” not “pure gold” like the aron’s inner and outer boxes.

In his sefer Nachalas Tzvi, Rav Meshullam Gross notes that difference and sees in it the fact that those whose lives are dedicated to Torah-study, symbolized by the aron, must be pure-hearted and not motivated by ulterior motives. Those who support them, however, who are symbolized by the poles with which the aron was carried, may condition their support on other things.

Ulterior motives do not cancel the merit of Torah-support or other meritorious giving. As the Talmud (Pesachim 8a) teaches: “One who says: I am contributing this coin to charity so that my son will live… is a completely righteous person.”

A common ulterior motive in philanthropy is honor. That is why donors’ names on plaques in shuls, Jewish outreach centers and yeshivos, or on the edifices themselves are perfectly proper.

In fact, such displays can constitute great merits in their own rights.

One of the most generous donors to Torah causes was Joe Tanenbaum, whose name, along with his wife Faye’s, graces wonderful institutions not only in his adopted city Toronto but across the globe. As a child, he hadn’t received a thorough Jewish education and he wanted others to have every opportunity to Jewishly educate themselves.

He was, though, by all accounts, a most modest man. A story that made the rounds many years ago is that he was once asked why he wanted his and his wife’s names to be prominent on the facades of the countless Torah-promoting buildings.

His reply was that, in the event that one of his future descendents should for some reason not receive a Jewish education or fall away from the Jewish path, he hopefully imagined the young person seeing the name Tanenbaum on an edifice and, carrying the same surname or knowing it was in his or her genealogy, becoming sufficiently intrigued to enter its doors.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

A Tale of Two Surgeries

“A disfigured woman whose case has become well known is among the Palestinians released” was the headline of a New York Times story about criminals in Israeli jails being traded for hostages held by Hamas.

Want to know more about the woman referred to in the headline, a new definition of chutzpah and something you might not know about the Hamas leader in Gaza? Well, just click here.

Vayeitzei – Stairway to Peoplehood

Sometimes an idea can only be possible after a certain point in history. One example might have to do with the imagery of Yaakov’s dream at the start of the parsha.

The message delivered to our forefather during that prophecy was “To you shall I give [Cna’an], and to your children.”  And: “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you, and through your children.” Yaakov, in his dream, is being reassured that, unlike Avraham and Yitzchak, all of his children will comprise the Jewish nation.

Even the stone on which he rested his head that night and later made into a monument to the revelation he received carries that message. According to the Midrash, it had originally been many stones, which fused into one, a metaphor for the family unity he would achieve. Rashi even comments elsewhere (Beraishis, 49:24) that the word for “stone” (even) itself is a contraction of the words av and ben, “father” and “son.”

But then there is the sulam, usually translated “ladder,” which plays the central role in Yaakov’s dream imagery.

The word occurs only this one time in the Torah, and its etymology is unclear.  But an Arabic cognate of the word refers to steps ascending a mountain.  The easiest way to ascend a mountain is a spiral path. That fact, and the possibly related Aramaic word “mesalsel” – to twist into curls – might lead one to imagine Yaakov’s ladder as something akin to a spiral staircase.

Which speculation leads to a fascinating thought that couldn’t have been thought until the 1960s.

Considering that the assurance given Yaakov in his dream was essentially a “genetic” one – that all his progeny would be part of Klal Yisrael — might the sulam have been not a simple ladder but rather something reminiscent of, and symbolizing, the essential structure of the molecule that carries genetic information – a double helix? 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Toldos – Knowing That One Doesn’t Know

As the tale goes, a learned non-Jewish cleric challenges the town’s Jewish populace to have its greatest scholar meet him on a bridge over a raging river, each a heavy weight tied to his foot. The first to be stumped by a question about the Torah will be cast by the other into the waters.  

The only volunteer is Shmiel, a decidedly unlearned tailor. He insists he can better the priest and, well, he’s the only candidate.

At the appointed time, Shmiel and his opponent take their positions on the bridge, ball and chain attached to each man’s foot, a crowd on the river bank.

The non-Jewish cleric benevolently offers Shmiel the first shot. “What does ‘aini yode’a’ mean?” Shmiel booms out.

The cleric, not pausing a second, accurately answers: “I do not know!”  The crowd gasps and Shmiel, beaming triumphantly, pushes his momentarily confused opponent off the bridge into the raging waters. 

Back at the shtetl town hall, Shmiel is roundly congratulated for his ploy.  “How did you come up with so brilliant an idea?” he is asked.  Radiating modesty, Shmiel explains, “Well, I was reading the ‘teitch’ (the once-popular Yiddish translation of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah) and I saw the words ‘aini yode’ah’ in Rashi’s commentary. I didn’t know what the phrase meant, and so I looked at the teitch and saw, in Yiddish, the words ‘I don’t know’.”   

“So I figured,” Shmiel explained sagely, “if the holy teitch didn’t know what the words meant, there was no way some priest would!”

The story is good for more than a laugh. It raises the significant fact that Rashi, the “father of all commentaries,” occasionally, including in our parsha, writes that he “doesn’t know” the reason for something – in our case, about why the Torah has to reinform us that Rivka was the mother of Yaakov and Esav (Beraishis 28:5).

“I don’t know” is a phrase as important as it is rare these days, when self-assuredness seems all too often to stand in for self-respect, when opinions are routinely proffered as unassailable fact, when people are permitted – even expected – to state without doubt what they cannot possibly know to be true.

Rashi’s modest example is one we would be wise to more often emulate. As the Gemara puts it: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’” (Berachos, 4a).

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran