Bishalach – La Différence

Our ancestors’ wondering “Is Hashem in our midst or not?” is followed immediately in the Torah by Amalek’s attack (Shemos 17: 7-8). The word expressing Klal Yisrael’s existential doubt – “or not?” – is ayin, which can also be translated “isn’t,” “not there,” or “nothing.”

It’s a word that we find in a seemingly different context in Koheles (3:19), where Shlomo Hamelech says that u’mosar ha’adam min habeheima ayin – “and the superiority of man over animal is nothing.”  

Which, as it happens, well encapsulates Amalek’s philosophy. Famously, its name in gematria equals safek, doubt, which reflects Amalek’s conviction that human life is meaningless, just the yield of random evolution, that there is in fact no essential difference between people and animals; and, thus, that there is no ultimate meaning to human life.

That sentiment, of course, isn’t Shlomo’s true conviction; he concludes Koheles with the statement that “kol ha’adam” – the essence of man” – is reverence for Hashem and fulfillment of His directives. The “no difference” pasuk is an unwarranted cry of exasperation, not a description of final fact.

I remember seeing a worthy thought about what that word ayin in the Koheles pasuk might hint at, rendering it not an uninformed cry but, rather, a statement of deep truth.

The first time the word ayin is used in the Torah is in the sentence: vi’adam ayin la’avod es ha’adama – “and man was not yet there to work the land” (Beraishis 2:5). 

As Rashi explains, for the first vegetation to emerge, there needed to be rain, and rain would only arrive when there was a consciousness that could appreciate it as a divine gift. The “working” of the land, the avodah alluded to, was thus avodas haleiv, the “work of the heart” – a recognition and declaration of gratitude.

And so, the “difference between man and animal” may in fact be precisely “ayin” – namely, what the word hints at in Beraishis: awareness of Hashem and gratitude for His benevolence, which only conscious human beings can feel and express. 

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Bo – Birth Blood

That Yaakov’s descendants are commanded by Hashem to place the blood of the korban Pesach on the doorposts and lintels of their homes’ doors (Shemos 12:7) is certainly intriguing.

Considering that the Gemara on the first amud of massechta Yoma teaches that “baiso zu ishto,” that the word “his home” in the Torah implies “his wife,” blood on the doors of homes would seem to embody the metaphor of niddah. What pertinence could that possibly have here?

That premise, though, is wrong. The Gemara refers to two types of blood, daam niddah and daam leidah. It’s not niddah being metaphorized here, but, rather, leidah, birth. 

Because something was indeed born out of the blood-adorned doors in Mitzrayim: a nation. A new collective entity called Klal Yisrael. 

In Mitzrayim, the Jews were all related to one another but they could reject that connection. Indeed, many did, and did not merit to leave Mitzrayim, dying there instead.

On their last night in Mitzrayim, though, the rest of the Jews underwent a change. With blood on their doorways and matzoh in their packs, they followed Moshe into the daunting desert, knowing not what awaited them. And became an entity whose members, and descendants throughout history, are part of an organic whole, no matter what any of them may choose to do.

Which is why, in the words of the Gemara, “A Jew who sins is still a Jew,” in every way.  There is no longer any option of “opting out” of Klal Yisrael.

And so, blood in Judaism is a symbol not of death, but of birth.

The words of the navi Yechezkel (16:6) poignantly reflect that fact:

Referring to “the day you were born,” Hashem, through the navi,  tells His people: “And I passed by you as you wallowed in your blood, and I said to you, ‘in your blood, live.’  And I said to you, ‘in your blood, live’.”

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Letter to the editor, appeared in print on 1/13/24

To the Editor:

Re “For Gaza’s Babies, War’s Effects Will Never End,” by Alice Rothchild (Opinion guest essay, Jan. 11):

The effect of the Israel-Hamas conflict on expectant mothers and on babies is horrific, as is all the death and destruction in Gaza today.

It must end immediately.

Hamas must do what Germany and Japan did in 1945: surrender — and, here, release the kidnapped Israelis it hasn’t yet murdered.

(Rabbi) Avi Shafran
New York
The writer is the director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America.

Vo’eira – When to Remind Can Be Unkind

It’s intriguing that when Moshe and Aharon are sent to present themselves to Par’oh and to demonstrate the miracle of a staff turning into a snake, Moshe is commanded by Hashem to tell Aharon to throw his staff to the ground to effect the transformation.

Elsewhere, of course, with two exceptions (hitting the Nile and the ground, because Moshe had been saved by water and earth) it is Moshe’s staff that is used to fulfill divine commandments, as in the splitting of the sea and, in the desert, the hitting of the rock to bring forth water. But here, why isn’t Moshe the one charged to cause the miracle?

A lesson may lie in the oddity. Moshe, we remember, was earlier, at the burning bush, told to throw his staff to the ground, where it turned into a snake (Shemos 4:2,3). There, the command was issued after Moshe expressed doubts about whether the Jews would listen to him.

And, as Rashi explains there, the transformation of the staff was not meant as some demonstration of miraculousness but rather as a rebuke to Moshe, for having doubted the Jewish people’s willingness to hear His message.

So perhaps the reason Hashem wanted Aharon and not Moshe to perform the demonstration before Par’oh was to spare Moshe embarrassment over the memory of the rebuke he had earlier received. The reminder, of course, was still there, in a staff turning into a snake. But at least Moshe himself was not asked to perform the very action that had telegraphed the rebuke.

The Mishna (Bava Metzia 58b) says that one may not remind a repentant sinner of his prior deeds, nor a convert’s son of those of his ancestors. Perhaps the lesson here of Aharon being given the order to throw the staff down is that even a subtle reminder can be a source of embarrassment to another, and thus, something to carefully avoid.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shemos – Working the Empathy Muscle

Each of us lives at the center of a series of concentric circles, the closest one encompassing our immediate family members; the next, friends and neighbors; beyond that, co-religionists or fellow citizens of one’s country. At a distance removed even farther is the larger circle of human beings with whom we share similar values. And further out still, the circle encompassing the rest of humanity.

I once wrote an essay contending that it is no sin – in fact, it is proper – that we feel, and demonstrate, our deepest love for the circle closest to us. And greater concern for the next circle out than for those beyond it.

Some Jews seem embarrassed at the idea of Jews acting with special alacrity on behalf of fellow Jews. But they are misguided. 

In fact, I suggested, the only way to feel any concern for the “outer circles” is to hone one’s love for those in one’s inner one first. Exercising the “empathy” muscle with regard to those closest to us is what allows us to have true empathy at all for those most distant.

Moshe Rabbeinu, the “most humble of all men,” was not naturally given to interfering in conflicts. And yet we find him doing so thrice in the parsha: First, by killing the Mitzri who was beating a Jew; second, by berating a Jew who was hitting another Jew; third, by standing up to the non-Jewish shepherds who were bullying the non-Jewish daughters of Yisro.

A dear talmidah of mine from long ago, Tanya Farber, suggested that my observation about how empathy for those distant from us is only enabled by first feeling, and acting upon, empathy for those close to us may inform Moshe’s interventions. What empowered Moshe’s decision to stand up for Tzlafchad’s daughters may have been his standing up earlier for fellow Jews.

The only way to truly “love humanity,” and not just mouth half-hearted concern for it, is to first concentrate on the easier, but essential and prime, endeavor of loving those to whom we are closest.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayechi – Missing Letter, Vital Message

All the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are found in the bracha that Yehudah is given by his father Yaakov – with one exception: the zayin.

That fact is pointed out by Rabbeinu Bachya, who notes that zayin is not only a letter but a word – meaning “sword” or, more generally, “weapon.”

He writes: 

“The reason is that the malchus Yisrael, which emerges from Yehudah, will not score its essential victory through the use of weapons like [ victories achieved by] other nations. Because the sword is Esav’s heritage but [not] that of the Jewish malchus, which will not inherit the land with their swords. And is not conducted by natural means, with the strength of the hand – but rather, through the… sublime power of Hashem. 

And that is why one finds in the name Yehudah, the source of the Jewish kingdom, the letters of Hashem’s name…”

That fundamental message is always important to internalize, but it is particularly timely today. We have seen, in the Jewish fight against unspeakable evil, failures of military tactics, intelligence and weaponry, and the use of the latter bringing only more hatred against Klal Yisrael. 

May we soon merit to see the success that can ultimately only come from Above.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran