My White House Park Bench Chanukah

Should you ever happen to find yourself in an ornate, high-ceilinged room and a military-uniformed string ensemble is segueing from a flawless rendition of a Bach Concerto to an equally impressive (if considerably less inspiring) version of “I Have a Little Dreidel,” you can only be in one place: the White House Chanukah Party.

I haven’t been to one for many years. No great loss – to either me or the party. But back in the George W. Bush years – Mr. Bush started the tradition – I was invited for some reason to two of the latkehfests.

I greatly appreciated being able to meet and mingle with Jews from other parts of the American Jewish community, an opportunity I don’t have as often as I wish. And it was a privilege for my wife and me to meet, if briefly, President and Mrs. Bush. I chose to use my moment in their company to offer them my birchas hedyot, thereby disappointing my then-13-year-old son, who had wanted me to request an executive order that the school week be reduced to three days.

True to its Jewish nature, the event was awash in food – all of it under strict hashgachah, produced in a kashered White House kitchen. It was hard to not contemplate the crazy swings of Jewish history.

The second year that I received an invitation, 2006, my wife opted to stay home. It was the third day of Chanukah. In my wife’s place, I took a dedicated supporter of the Agudah as my partner.

He asked if he could pose alone with the Bushes rather than have both of us in the photo. No problem, I said. I preferred the one with my wife from the previous year. When Mr. Bush motioned me to join in the photo, I explained my guest’s request and said I was fine being out of the frame. Ignoring protocol, he insisted on having two photos taken, one with my guest alone and another with both of us. I was impressed by his menschlichkeit.

The high point of my White House visit that year, though, had nothing to do with either the Presidential receiving line or the array of kosher victuals. Not even with the mingling with Jews outside my orbit.

No, the highlight of my trip to Washington that year took place before I even entered the White House. I was sitting on a bench outside the East Entrance, enjoying the unseasonably warm December day, watching the line of invitees form as they waited for security personnel to open the gates and begin the process of examining identifications and scanning bags.

Relaxing there in the descending darkness, I was overtaken with melancholy at being away from home for even that one night of Chanukah. I had made the necessary arrangements; the menorah in my home would be lit by my wife or one of our children. Still, I was troubled by being so far from them.

I’ve always been struck by the stark contrast between, on the one hand, the public pageantry and blinking lights with which most Americans celebrate their winter holiday and, on the other, the quiet, home-bound nature of Chanukah, with its tiny ethereal flames. And here I was, I lamented, about to join in a boisterous, bustling celebration – albeit of Chanukah – while the small points of fire created on my behalf would be flickering some 200 miles away, invisible to me.

My cellphone suddenly clamored for attention. Aroused from my gloomy reverie, I offered it my ear.

It was my wife. She and our children were about to light the menorah and thought I might want to be included, if at a distance, in hearing the brachos and post-lighting songs. A truer thought could not have been had.

And so unfolded the truly transcendent moment of my White House Chanukah, on a bench outside the grand Presidential residence. To any passerby, it would have looked like nothing more than a balding fellow with a graying beard, smiling broadly, eyes closed, animatedly singing into a phone.

The passerby would probably have dismissed me as a disturbed, if unusually well-dressed, individual. How could he have known that I had been, in both the word’s senses, transported?

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Miketz – Second Time Around

Yosef, as an Egyptian viceroy, is so emotionally conflicted as he maltreats his brothers, who don’t recognize him, he has to leave the room to cry (Beraishis, 42:24).

Why he felt he had to persist in his protracted ruse to get his brothers to bring him the youngest of them, Binyamin, his only full brother, why he needed to threaten to imprison his young sibling, is fairly obvious.

To reach the goal of a true reconciliation with the brothers who plotted against, and then sold, him years earlier, Yosef had to ascertain if his brothers had truly repented of their past treatment of him. That would be evident if they now were prepared to protect a younger half-brother – one from the same mother, Rachel, who bore him – at whatever cost.

They passed the test, standing up to the viceroy and showing their readiness to do whatever might be necessary to return Binyamin to his father Yaakov.

The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah, 2:1) famously writes:

“What is considered complete repentance? When a person confronts the same situation in which he sinned and has the potential to commit [the sin again] but nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it… not because of fear or a lack of strength.”

In that halacha, the Rambam is codifying what Rav Yehudah says in Yoma, 86b. But neither the Gemara there nor the Rambam indicates the ultimate source in the Torah of that idea.

I suspect it is the account of Yosef and his repentant brothers.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeishev – Never Say Die

He refused.

That is the meaning of the word vayima’en, a word used twice in the story of Yosef in this parsha, once to describe a refusal by Yaakov Avinu, the second to describe one by Yosef.

Mourning his missing and presumed killed son for many days, the Torah recounts, Yaakov refused to be comforted (Beraishis 37:35): Vayima’en lihisnachem.

And then, when Yosef, serving as the second-in-command of the house of the Egyptian notable Potifar (ibid, 39:8), is seduced by his master’s wife, he refuses her: Vayima’en, again.

I haven’t been successful in tracking down the source of a suggestion I heard several years ago, but offer it all the same.

It was Yaakov’s refusal to accept that Yosef was no longer alive that enabled Yosef to refuse Mrs. Potifar’s blandishments. The first vayima’en gave power to the second one. It was, in other words, the merit of Yaakov’s love for, and dedication to, his son that empowered that son to overcome a great moral challenge (which he came close to failing, hinted at by the wavering shalsheles with which his vayima’en is chanted).

The lesson being that when we refuse to give up on someone who seems hopelessly “gone” – in whatever way – our very refusal can serve as a spiritual merit for that person, a long-distance and unknown-to-him assistance to him in dealing with adversity.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayishlach – Laws of Nature and of Human Nature

“As surely as I have established My covenant with day and night – the laws of heaven and earth – so will I never reject the offspring of Yaakov…” (Yirmiyahu 33:25-26)

There are laws of nature, and of human nature. And one of the latter is, according to Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, in a beraisa brought by Rashi (Beraishis 33:4), the “halacha” that “Esav hates Yaakov.”

When the sar shel Esav wrestles with Yaakov, our forefather asks him “Tell me your name” and Seforno comments that the question’s intent was, “What sin of mine allowed you to attack me?”

No answer to the question is recorded or, presumably, offered.

Something poignant inheres in that. When hatred of Jews is manifest, we often try to understand what begat it, what “reason” there is for it. But, even though the haters might claim there are reasons, when looked at closely, their “reasons” are illogical. There’s simply no “there” there. 

Because the hatred isn’t “caused” by anything.  It just is, as an expression of animus inherent in Esav’s and his spiritual descendants’ essence.

It is, in other words, a law of human nature. And rather than criticize ourselves for doing this or that wrong, or not doing this or that right, we do best to just smile at the demonstration of that “law,” and, even as we fight, as we must, to counter the unwarranted anger and slanders, try to accept that, at least among some people, it will absurdly persist until Mashiach arrives.

And at the same time, we must recognize, too, that, despite Esav’s evil intentions, another “law,” another reality, is that Hashem “will never reject the offspring of Yaakov,” will never allow Esav and his spiritual progeny to win.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeitzei – Love as a Mission

What a bizarre reaction Yaakov has when he first sees Rachel, his wife-to-be: He kisses her and loudly cries. (Beraishis, 29:11).

Stranger still, at least at first read, is one of the explanations the Midrash Rabbah offers (and Rashi quotes) for Yaakov’s tears: “Because he foresaw through Divine inspiration that she would not be buried with him in the cave of Machpelah.”

Not the most romantic reaction, to put it mildly. Sort of a “meet morbid.”

But it shines a blazing light on a major disconnect between how contemporary society views love between husband and wife and how the Torah does.

The disconnect is equally evident in the fact that the seven years that Yaakov worked for Lavan before being granted Rachel as a wife were to him like a mere “few days because of his love for her” (ibid 29:20).

As the Malbim notes, a typical suitor would find having to wait seven years to marry his intended interminable. But Yaakov’s experience was the opposite.

Because he saw his attainment of Rachel as his wife not as a quenching of desire but as a calling, a destiny, a mission of love.

A mission whose very end he foresaw in a prophecy, prompting his tears; and his kiss, which, in Yaakov’s mindset, was the epitome of chaste. 

As the Kotzker famously remarked, one who “loves fish” doesn’t really love fish; he loves his palate. The true fish lover is an aquarist.

So many in our world today marry out of self-love, not true love of another. They “fall” in love and thus, so often, “fall out” of love. When the two parts of a new couple see each other as partners in working toward a mutual goal, their marriage becomes not an end of love but rather its nurturing. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

(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—