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

12 Angry Men (and Women)

Twelve Congressional Representatives introduced a formal resolution taking a side in the ongoing and robust debate in Israel over judicial reform.

Didn’t their mothers ever tell them not to meddle in the affairs of others?

To read why their resolution is objectionable, click here.

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

Mob Murder in Marietta

Last week, President Biden  issued a presidential proclamation recognizing the horrific injustice that was the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old whose brutal killing in Mississippi in 1955 helped galvanize the civil rights movement. A national monument is being created in honor of the murdered boy and his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who forced the nation to confront the horror of what happened to her son.

What the revisiting of that evil brought to my mind was another lynching, of a Jewish man in Georgia decades earlier, in 1915. The murder of Leo Frank is a sad part of American history that should not be forgotten.

On April 26, 1913, a 13-year-old girl on her way to Atlanta’s Confederate Memorial Day parade stopped at her place of employment, the National Pencil Company, to collect her paycheck. The next day, she was found murdered in the factory’s basement.

Leo Frank, a 29-year-old Jewish man, was working at the factory that morning and handed the girl her pay. He was the last person to see her and so, when the murder was discovered the next morning, he came under suspicion and was arrested and jailed.

Police, however, had another suspect. Jim Conley, a custodian at the factory, who a witness saw in the factory basement washing out a shirt soaked with what appeared to be blood. Notes, filled with misspellings, were found alongside the murdered girl and Jim Conley was questioned.

After two weeks, he finally admitted writing the notes but said that Leo Frank had asked him to, and had confessed to the murder.

Conley signed contradictory affidavits, which were entered into the trial of Leo Frank. But the glaring inconsistencies were ignored by the jury.

As the trial took place, crowds gathered outside the courthouse chanting “Hang the Jew!”

Based on Conley’s claim and with no real evidence to implicate Frank, the four-week trial ended with a guilty verdict. Outside the courthouse, the crowd cheered the announcement. According to the New-York Tribune, the prosecuting attorney “was lifted to the shoulders of several men and carried more than a hundred feet through the shouting throng.”

The presiding judge, Leonard Roan, sentenced Frank to death by hanging. Appeals ensued for two years. And even after Conley’s former attorney said he believed his former client was the actual murderer, a retrial motion was also rejected.

The case ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in a 7-2 ruling, allowed Frank’s conviction to stand. Justices Oliver Wendall Holmes and Charles Evan Hughes dissented, stating that the hostility outside the courthouse influenced the conviction.

Georgia Governor John Slaton conducted his own extensive investigation into the case, and, on June 21, 1915, the day before Frank’s execution was to take place, commuted his sentence to life in prison. The governor wrote that “I would rather be plowing in a field than to feel that I had that blood on my hands.”

The community was outraged and Governor Slaton, whose term ended shortly thereafter, fled Georgia with his wife, fearful of the retribution local citizens might visit upon him for keeping the Jew alive.

On August 17, 1915, a mob of 25 men overpowered the guards at the prison farm where Frank was held and kidnapped him. They drove him some 100 miles to a grove near Marietta, handcuffed and hanged him. An approving crowd of some 3000 Georgians, including prominent local citizens, flocked to the lynching site, collecting souvenirs and taking photographs.

Nearly 70 years after the girl’s murder, on March 7, 1982, it was reported that Alonzo Mann, Leo Frank’s office boy, who was fourteen at the time of the killing, said that Conley had  murdered the girl, and that he saw the custodian holding her. “If you ever mention this, I’ll kill you,” Conley had told him. Mann said that when he told his mother what he had seen, she told him to keep quiet. He did.

The new evidence led the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to issue a pardon for Leo Frank – but only based on the state’s failure to protect him while in custody and for not bringing his murderers to justice. It did not, however, exonerate the innocent man.

A jury and judge, after all, had spoken.

© 2023 Ami Magazine