Acharei Mos/Kedoshim – Black Like Us

The haftarah for Acharei Mos, which will be read this week for the double parsha of Acharei Mos/Kedoshim, is from Amos (9:7), where Hashem extols the Jewish people with the famous and famously strange words: “Behold, you are like the children of Kush to Me.”

Kush is identified as the African kingdom of Nubia (roughly modern-day Sudan/ Ethiopia), and the Gemara (Moed Katan, 16b), commenting on the pasuk from Amos, says: “Just as a Kushite differs [from others] in [the color of] his skin, so are the Jewish people different in their actions.”

The Chasam Sofer (who apparently had “the righteous” in place of “the Jewish people” in that Gemara) interprets that Talmudic comment in an interesting and poignant way:

“One Jew may excel in Torah-study; another, in avodah [prayer]; another, in acts of kindness to others; this one in one particular mitzvah, that one in another.  Nevertheless, while they all differ from each other in their actions, they all have the same intention: to serve Hashem with their entire hearts.

“Behold the Kushite.  Inside, his organs, his blood and his appearance are all the same as other people’s. Only in the superficiality of his skin does he differ. This is the meaning of ‘[different] in his skin,’ [meaning] only in his skin.  Likewise, the righteous are different [from one another] only ‘in their actions’; their inner conviction and intention, though, are [the same], aimed at serving Hashem in a good way.”

That people of different skin colors are only superficially different from one another is accepted as a truism by the Chasam Sofer. His point is that in all our diversity of vocations, fields and foci, we can be entirely equal servants of Hashem.

The Gemara (Ta’anis 22a) speaks of a pair of comedians, who used their humor to cheer up the depressed and defuse disputes.

One wonders if the parents of those meritorious men felt disappointed at their sons’ choices of professions.  Or whether they realized that there are, in the end, many paths that can lead to the World-to-Come.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshios Tazria/Metzora – Life is Other People

Tzara’as, the condition that occupies the bulk of parshios Tazria and Metzora, is characterized by the Talmud as a punishment for sins like speaking ill of others or stinginess at their expense. Thus the Rambam considers it something other than an infection in the normative, medical sense. Other Rishonim (e.g. Daas Zekeinim, Chizkuni), though, seem to regard the condition, at least when it manifests in a human body (it can also affect material and walls) as contagious, evidenced in the requirement that a person with the skin condition “sit alone” outside the camp of the general population (Vayikra 13:46).

Others regard that mandated isolation – which enjoins the afflicted person to call out to passers-by the fact that he is “Impure! Impure!” – as a punishment in itself, or as an opportunity to meditate on his sin (e.g. Sefer HaChinuch).

The Lutzker Rav, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, zt”l (1881–1966), in his Oznayim LaTorah, takes that latter approach to a higher level, observing that the interpersonal sins that brought about the metzora’s condition were born of his dismissive, negative view of other people, his self-centeredness and misanthropy. Thus, he felt no compunctions about speaking ill of others or withholding things from them.

So, suggests Rav Sorotzkin, the metzora’s isolation may be intended to sensitize him to the importance of society. His being cut off from others will eventually be torturous. Like, Rav Sorotzkin adds, interestingly, the fictional Robinson Crusoe, who, shipwrecked and isolated on a remote island, is tormented by lack of interaction with others. The famous novel’s author (Daniel Defoe) “vividly portrays [Crusoe’s] longing for human interaction and conversation.”

The isolated metzora, writes Rav Sorotzkin, will feel similar pain, and thereby come to realize that the world contains others, others whose existence and whose needs he must value. 

The metzora’s calling out of his plight to others, Rav Sorotzkin continues, is intended to inspire them to pray for his recovery. So, added to his existential loneliness, the metzora’s dependence on others will help cure him of his misanthropy. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Shemini – Inner Space

The abundance of advertisements for gyms, weight loss products, hair restoration drugs and cosmetic surgery testifies to contemporary citizens’ obsession with physical image. To be sure, many people seek to work out or lose weight out of health concerns, or have surgery to correct deviated septums. But many more, as the pitches evidence, just want more perfect abs or biceps or “better” noses.

After sufficient decades of living, it becomes apparent that our shapes and faces can only be adjusted so much. That comes as a shock to some, even a source of depression. What’s truly sad, though, isn’t the elusiveness of physical perfection but the silly quest for it.

The laws of tum’ah, or ritual defilement, are many and complex. But one of its basic rules is that a metal vessel can become defiled by contact with a contaminating material even if the source of defilement touches only its outer surface. An earthen vessel cannot contract tum’ah that way.

But if contaminating matter merely enters the inner space of an earthenware vessel, it defiles it even without contacting the inner surface itself. 

The Kotzker Rebbe explained that the reason for that distinction is that a metal vessel has inherent material value, whereas an earthenware one does not. And an earthenware vessel’s only value is in its “space” – in the fact that it can hold something

He went on to pithily observe that a human being is an “earthen vessel,” as the “original” human was made from the earth itself (Beraishis 2:7). 

And, like any earthenware vessel, the human is defined not by his physique but rather by what he can hold “within” him – his soul, which he affects with his actions, thoughts and words.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Sholom Aleichem and Mah Nishtana

Rosh Chodesh Nisan would seem a propitious time for a Kiddush Hashem. And one occurred this year, when a large group of Israeli anti-government protesters, mostly secular citizens aiming to “get in the face” of religious Jews, descended on Bnei Brak. 

They likely wanted to express their anger at the fact that religious parties are part of the government coalition whose plans outrage them, but also to stoke locals’ anger in return. Many protesters wore helmets in anticipation of barrages of rocks or eggs. None, though, materialized, only a handful of young people who shot off harmless fireworks.

What did happen, though, was that some local residents set up food and drink stands, offering the protesters cholent, cookies and bottles of water, which many of the visitors gratefully accepted.

And, in one widely circulated (I prefer to avoid the word “viral” these days) video clip, some of the demonstrators seemed moved when the niggun “Sholem Aleichem” was played on loudspeakers. One older man was filmed taking off his helmet to wipe tears from his eyes as he mouthed along with the Shabbos night welcoming of malachei hashareis. Another protester excitedly accepted a sefer Torah from a resident and danced with it. 

A resident who filmed videos of the unexpected happenings said that the man who removed his helmet and wept looked at her and said, “My father had love for every Jew and wanted everyone to be united. My father would roll over in his grave if he could see the hatred and conflicts among us.”

There are, to be sure and tragically, people who are so hardened in their secularism that they may seem impervious to reconsidering assumptions about Torah or those dedicated to it.

But the pinteleh Yid is always there, ready to be awoken.

After the Torah recounts the question that the Haggadah attributes to the rasha, it describes our ancestors as bowing down in thanksgiving about, Rashi says, the “news of the children.”

The Sheim MiShmuel, quoted in Eliyhu Ki Tov’s Haggadah, explains that, while resha’im in Mitzrayim perished, after yetzias Mitzrayim our ancestors were given the news that all of their descendants – no matter their actions as individuals – would still be part of the Klal. And that was what spurred their display of gratitude.

And the import of that news is that, no matter how far from their spiritual roots Jews wander, there is always a possibility of them finding – as so many have – a path home.

The seder is a particularly powerful puller of Jewish souls. Its memory is indelibly etched in many a less observant Jew’s soul.

My father, a”h, served as rov of a shul attended by both observant and non–observant Jews. One day a man came to Shacharis – to say Kaddish for a yahrtzeit – one of the few occasions we ever saw him – and received an aliyah

He haltingly recited the brachah on the Torah but after “Asher bachar banu…” he hesitated. Then “mikol…” Then, to my immature amusement, “…haleylos shebechol haleylos anu ochlim…”

He was quickly corrected. But I realized that the man had just revealed that, distant as he was from Yiddishkeit, he remembered Mah Nishtana.

The distance between him and his heritage could not keep its words from tiptoeing in, unsummoned but determined.  The seder was a part of him.

When living in Northern California and then in Rhode Island, I became acquainted with many Jewish families seemingly devoid of religious practice. I always made a point of asking whether they had a seder of any sort.  Almost invariably, the answer was… yes, of course. Their sedarim may not have met halachic standards, but they were born of older sedarim that had, and that had left their seeds in the hearts of those present to germinate.

The sheer variety of bizarre “haggadahs” out there itself testifies to the Jewish compulsion to connect, no matter how tenuously, the “ism” du jour to Yetzias Mitzrayim. Forgetting that seminal event simply isn’t an option.

The birds of spring are singing. So are we Jews, singing our history at our sedarim. And even some who have fallen from the nest vaguely remember the song. We just need to refresh their memories. 

© 2023 Ami Magazine

Mailman Vs. Ghost of TWA

I hope that a decades-old Supreme Court decision in favor of an airline will be able to join another airline’s worthless stock certificate on my Wall of Has-Beens.

To read about that decision and the reason for my hope, please click here:

Tzav – The Challenge of Change

The shalsheles cantillation, expressed in a long, wavering series of notes, occurs only four times in the Torah. 

In three, the “wavering” may reflect a wavering of will. In Beraishis 19:16, Lot, about to leave S’dom, hesitates to forgo its wealth and pleasures; indeed, the shalsheles is on the word “And he hesitated.”

In Beraishis 24:12, Eliezer is beginning his prayer to Hashem to find the right wife for Yitzchak; the shalsheles is on the word “And he said.” He had wanted Yitzchak to marry his daughter, so, again, there is some hesitation at a crucial point, when he needs to abandon that hope and focus on the future.

Yosef, in  Beraishis 39:8, is facing an internal conflict too, as he summons all his personal fortitude to resist the blandishments of Potifar’s wife. The shalsheles there is on the word meaning “and he refused.”

In our parsha, though, the shalsheles (Vayikra 8:23) is on the word meaning “And he slaughtered,” referring to the ram sacrifice that was part of the investiture ceremony installing Aharon and his sons into the kehunah. What wavering or hesitations is here?

For the previous seven days, though, Moshe had played the role of kohein. Might the shalsheles indicate Moshe’s being conflicted over being “deposed” from the kehunah

I find that unlikely. The “most humble of all men” (Bamidbar 12:3) would be above so self-centered a feeling. 

What occurs is that any wavering on Moshe’s part may simply have been born of the challenge every human has while facing a change of role. It’s discomposing to suddenly be thrust in a new direction. 

Life is full of changes, many of them unsought and discombobulating. When we feel a shalsheles in our lives, though, we need, as Moshe did, to recover from the jar and do what we must to accept the change.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayikra — Hierarchy and Holiness

Animal sacrifices begin not only the parsha and the sefer of Vayikra but the world as we know it. Because Noach was commanded to take extra animals of certain species on the ark for the purpose of offering them as korbonos

Interestingly, it was Noach who was the first person permitted to eat animals; before the flood, vegetarianism was the Divine order. That might have bearing on understanding what a korbon is.

The hierarchy of creation noted in many Jewish sources are: domeim, tzomei’ach, chai, medaber: “still” (mineral), “growing” (vegetation), “living” (animal) and “speaking” (human). It was a hierarchy innately understood by early humans.

At least until the generation of the flood, when the Torah refers to the people as basar, “flesh” (Beraishis 6:3, 6:13). That reflected the fact that men mated with animals (Rashi, Beraishis 6:2, based on Beraishis Rabba 26). Society had devolved to the point where it considered all “flesh” to be essentially the same, that saw humans as simply evolved beasts.

It is conceivable that the permission to consume animal flesh was intended to re-establish the hierarchical distinction between “living” and “speaking” beings.

If so, perhaps a message that lay, and lies, in the concept of an animal sacrifice is that we humans are a momentous and qualitative step above the animal world, that we can kill and eat animals, and are meant to rise above the animalistic elements of our nature, which misled the generation of the flood to equate the animal and human spheres.

And our position at the pinnacle of nature forces us to recognize our proximity to what is above us. Which would well fit the meaning of the word korbon, which does not mean “sacrifice.” It is from the word karov, “near.” And is best rendered, if awkwardly, as “bringer of closeness.” Closeness to Hashem. A korbon reminds us that we are above animals, hence closer to the Divine.

Which may be why Rabi Yehudah HaNasi states that an am ha’aretz, a person oblivious to his calling to holiness, is “forbidden to eat meat ”(Pesachim, 49b). It would be, in a way, cannibalism.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran