CUT IN HALF
February 10, 2017

A poem for Parashat BeShalach

By Rabbi Royi Shaffin

I am that fish

The fish that was cut in half when the sea parted

You never think about me when you read the story 

But I was cut in half

To this day I swim in the sea

They call me the Moses Fish

Why didn’t God move me away from the edge before the Sea parted?

I don’t know

Why did I have to be cut in half?

I don’t know

Maybe because the entire story is about being cut in half

Moses was cut in half between his Egyptian family and his Hebrew family

The Israelites were cut in half between the comforts of Egypt, even as slaves, and the promise of a better life in the promised land

The people were cut in half between worshipping God and worshipping a golden calf

I am that fish that was cut in half

I was not the first to be cut in half 

Abraham cut his sacrifices in half

Isaac was almost cut in half

Joseph’s coat was cut in half

Samson’s hair was cut in half

Samuel’s coat was cut as the kingdom was taken from Saul

I am that fish that was cut in half

On the eighth day they cut their children 

On the Sabbath they cut their bread

Their meat they cut in their own special way

I am that fish that was cut in half 

I swim through the Sea

And every so often 

People see me and are reminded of that day that cut me in half

When the Sea was cut in half and the Children cut through on dry land 

I am that fish that was cut in half

In The Belly of the Monster
October 7, 2016

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

He fell to the floor with a crash. He could not walk straight. He saw colors all around him; brown and black and green. Exhausted from being pursued, forced to engage in a mission that he did not want, he placed his head on the hard wood floor in the bowels of the boat. He was free of obligation and now he wanted to rest. There, in the bowels of the boat he could hear nothing. He was free of the noise of the world, of the crying of people suffering, of the tears flooding the land, of people in distress. But most of all, he could block out the voice of God.

He fell into a deep sleep and though he felt himself shaking back and forth and up and down he just could not wake up or he just didn’t want to. Delirious and noxious, his dreams were ones of being pursued and raging seas and monstrous sea monsters that could bring down his boat. Back and forth he tossed and turned until finally he was woken up by his shipmates, a cold sweat running down his chest.
“Wake up Jonah, wake up,” they screamed, “do we have to blow a ram’s horn in your ear to wake you up?” Emerging from his comatose state, Jonah responded in slurred speech, “What is the matter? What’s going on?”

“The storm is about to overtake the boat,” said Teshuvah, one of his shipmates. “We must return.” Tefilah, Jonah’s friend who invited him to board the ship with him looked upset. “I have been trying to wake you up for hours. I could tell that you could hear me. Why have you been ignoring me?” Jonah sat up slowly and looked at his shipmates, his sight still blurred. He felt for his coin purse and saw that it was missing. “Where is my coin purse?” Jonah said in a startled voice. Tzedakah, another of his shipmates responded, “I took it.” “Why?” asked Jonah, “I paid for my passage.” “Not enough,” responded Tzedakah, “you only paid for yourself. You failed to recognize that there were others who were without. That which you failed to give with an open hand, I took from you when you were asleep. You may not have it back. It was never yours to begin with.”
“Really,” inquired Jonah, “who did it belong to then?”
Teshuvah answered, “Look up. Who are you and who is your God?”  
Jonah answered, ” I am a Hebrew and my God is Adon’ owner of heaven and earth.”
Teshuvah smiled and said, “You just answered your own question.”
The boat rocked to the far left and then to the far right and all of them found themselves thrown to the floor. Old sea legs as they were, they knew that this was no ordinary storm. The went out to the deck and there, in front of their eyes was the largest fish they had ever seen, except it was not just a fish. It had tentacles ten times the size of the boat, red eyes, sharp teeth, and a nauseating odor. The Leviathan, the great sea monster had been sighted several times in the Great Sea over the past few months and several boats had disappeared, but no one knew if this creature really existed. Here it was before their very eyes grasping hold of their boat bringing it ever closer to its mouth.
Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah grabbed a hold of Jonah and threw him into the Sea. Another of his former shipmates, Emunah, yelled down to him, “God will protect you and show you the way.”
The Sea Creature’s attention was diverted from the boat and its tentacles slowly let go of the boat. The Sea came to a calm. The Great Sea Creature went under and then… emerged with a screaming growl, a horrifying high pitched sound. It engulfed Jonah. Jonah was barely alive. He had been drowning, for he did not know how to swim. Swallowed by the Great Sea Creature, he went under the water once again.
Red and pink and black and green surrounded him. In the bowels of the great Sea Creature he heard the groans of the pain of the world. The dead spoke to him from the skeletons lying by his side. The water surrounding him was salty, the tears of sadness of grief and of despaired. The air was thin and he was having difficulty breathing. He was going down deeper and deeper into the abyss and it was growing darker and darker.  
Jonah knelt down and prostrated himself before God and prayed, “Oh Master of the Universe, 
חטאתי אשמתי בגדתי

I have sinned, I have transgressed, I have betrayed 
עשה עמנו צדקה וחסד והושיענו

please deal with us with justice and loving kindness and save us
The air was gone. There was none to breathe. Jonah blacked out.
Jonah awoke at the shore of Ninveh, the great and sinful city of Assyria. He went to the people of Ninveh and told them to repent from their ways and return to God.  
He prayed for the people of Ninveh and did not let food enter his body. As his body was deprived of nutrients, he lost touch with the physical world on the outside and could only see and feel his inside. There he was. Not long ago, he sat in the bowels of a ship. Then he sat in the bowels of the Great Sea Creature. Now he sat in his own starving, tortured bowels.
Red and pink and black were the colors of his bowels. He could feel the emptiness of loneliness, the pain of suffering, the hunger for redemption, and the birth pangs of a better world.
The people of Ninveh joined him in his journey into the inner depths of their own being. There, among the red and the pink and the black and the green they found themselves in Jonah’s boat. It was different. The sea was still and the small waves beautiful. There was not a cloud in the sky and sea monsters were no where to be seen. Out of the bowels the Ninevites emerged to see that this time the boat was headed in the opposite direction. It was headed back to God.

The Cobra in the Torah
September 7, 2016

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

The head of a fish is eaten traditionally on Rosh Hashana with the plee from heaven
יהי רצון מלפניך ה אלוקינו ואלוקי אבותינו שנהיה לראש ולא לזנב
May it be your will our God and God of our ancestors that we should be as a head and not as a tail.
This idea is also expressed by this week’s parashah, Ekev, as taught by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sadilkov in his book Degel Machane Efraim. The first two heavy words are direct opposites for the first word Ekev, means if but also means heel and the second word tishmeun, meaning listen or obey refers to the actions done by the ear and the head.
Thus we are asked to choose between facing toward the heavens or toward the ground, aiming to become part of the angelic host or part of the world which slithers on the ground.
The Degel Machane Ephraim points to prayer as of utmost importance in the religious life of the Jew. He places great emphasis on faith: belief that God exists, is the master of the universe, created all, and is in control of all things and that one is really standing before the king of kings when one prays.
In tractate Berachot of the Mishnah, we encounter the snake. It has always bothered me that the Mishnah says that if a snake coiled itself around our leg while we are praying we should not interrupt our prayers to deal with the snake.  
I have always thought of the outcome of such an action as disastrous until I read the Degel Machane Ephraim’s interpretation. The snake is not a literal snake but rather a figurative snake, a foreign thought which enters our minds during intense prayer and blocks us from concentrating on our connection with our maker. Such a snake should not lead us to stop our prayers. R Moshe Chaim Ephraim also explains that we need not get rid of such a thought completely in order to regain our concentration. Rather it can be incorporated into our prayers by connecting it to our conversations with God and sanctifying the thought. Do not let the snake bite at your Ekev, at your heel.  Elevate it.
Even the snake which caused us to sin in the garden of Eden and gets thrown out of paradise, even the creature that winds itself around us again and again until it engulfs us in distracting thoughts and in sin can be transformed into a holy creature, a bronze serpent, as Rabbi Jeremy Sher pointed out to me, as it appears in the Book of Numbers, a bronze snake that heals the spiritually afflicted.  To this day this strange and fascinating animal is the symbol of medicine.
But there is another creature mentioned in the Gemara of Tractate Berachot, who snaps at our heal while we are praying, the scorpion. The scorpion is a different creature altogether. The scorpion represents a complete loss of faith, the crumbling of the structure which houses your system of belief. It is for this reason that if a scorpion approaches, you are supposed to stop your prayers.  
The idea is that faith is a choice. It is not, as some think, the result of a methodological system of critical analysis, observation, experimentation, and scientific rationally acquired results. Rather one chooses either to take a leap of faith or not to. With out a leap of faith, one’s prayers become dry, lack meaning and intention, and loose much of their ability to affect our lives and indeed the entire nature of the universe. So…if you feel that scorpion of doubt snapping at your Ekev, your heel, stop, decide to re-engage in a leap of faith and then once you have regained your composure, return to your prayers.
“Ekev tishmeun” our Torah portion begins. “If you listen…”… but we have just learned that can also serve as a challenge to take those creatures that snap at our Ekev, our heels, and elevate them to our “tishmeun”, our ears and heads, to make ourselves, in the words of the high holidays, “Rosh velo lezanav”, heads and not tails.