WISDOM FROM THE SOURCE: There Are Angels Among Us     
May 14, 2017

By Royi Shaffin

Originally published in “City Beat Magazine”.

There are angels among us

They are inconspicuous 
They do not call attention to themselves 
But they are there nonetheless 
There are angels among us
They help us out when we are carrying huge loads by ourselves
They save us when we are in danger
They show us the way home when we are lost
They speak words of comfort when we are distressed 
There are angels among us
They might not have wings 
At least not that are visible to us
They do not necessarily have halos 
But they walk among us
They bring light where there is darkness
Hope when there is none
Faith to those who find it hard to believe 
There are angels among us
They are black
They are white
They are brown
The next time someone comes out of nowhere to help you
Your prayers are answered through a stranger 
You sit next to someone on the bus who just seems to illuminate the world 
Look closely and remember 
There are angels among us

Where Art Thou? – A Poetic Interpretation of Parashat Nitzavim
October 14, 2016

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

Where is the Torah?

Where is the Torah?
Is it in the Heavens?
No, it is not in the Heavens
Is it across the ocean?
No, it is not there either.
Do you have to be rich and famous to have the Torah?
No, even a wood cutter and a water drawer can have the Torah
But where is it?
Is it in a far away land?
No, you will not find it there.
Where is my Torah?
Is it at the synagogue?
There you will find a map to the treasure you seek
Is it in the wind?
No, it is not in the wind 
Is it in the fire?
Black fire upon white fire it is but this is not a fire that you can see and feel
It is not in a fire
Where can I find it then?
It is here, so close to you
Can’t you see it?
Can’t you touch it?
Can’t you feel it?
Can’t you hear it?
Open your eyes
Open your hands
Open your arms
Open your heart
Open your ears 
It whispers 
The Torah seeks you and asks
Ayeka
Where art thou?

Adam is Born
October 14, 2016

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

Shshshshsh

The breath flew into its nostrils and it became a living creature.

Hello?
What is this? What am I? Where am I? Hello? Is anyone there? My middle feels empty. How do I make this feeling go away? Hello? What are these green things growing out of the brown thing from which I just sprung?
Why can I see and then it gets dark and I can’t see. My body is shivering. Hello?  
And God brought animals to Adam to see what he would call them.
There are things moving around that look a little bit like me but when I speak to them, they do not respond. It is as if they do not understand anything that I am saying … Or thinking.
Maybe they have answers. Let me follow them. I’ll call this one dog, that one cow, that one lamb, that one fly, and that one snail.  
The cow is putting green things from the ground in its mouth. Maybe I should too. Ooo. That feels good. The emptiness in my middle is going away.  
That animal that I called dog. It is following me around. I’ll stop and see what happens.  
Wow. It is licking me. I feel a connection. It doesn’t talk but it is talking with its eyes and ears and tongue.
Am I the only one of my kind. Does no one understand my language, not even my new friend the dog. Am I to exist in loneliness? Hello? Who made me? Are you out there? Please answer me? Please answer me when I cry out to you. Hello….

The Donkey Talks
October 14, 2016

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

Bilam why are you hitting me.  
Don’t you remember that time when you rode me to escape from the robber and I ran at zip speed to get you out of there? You trusted me then, but not now.
Don’t you remember when you went to prophecy out in the wilderness and you were hungry because there was no food but I uncovered the insects and worms which sustained you for three days. You trusted me then, but not now.
Don’t you remember when you needed an extra horse to pull your chariot and I kept up with five horses – that’s five strong, muscular, well built experienced horses, even though I am slower and weaker because I am only a donkey. I did it for you, for your love. I came through for you then, but now you think I am changing course and bumping into the side for no reason.
If only I could talk. If only I could tell you about the angel in our path with sword drawn ready to strike you down. By the way, if you are a prophet, how come I can see it but you can’t?  Never mind. I wish I could speak to make you understand.  
I wish I could open your eyes to that which is right in front of you. I wish I could open your heart to feel how devastated I am by the way you have been treating me. I thought we were best friends, siblings.
Maybe I should ask our father. Oh Creator. Master of the Universe. Father. God of all my ancestors, please soften the heart of my Pharaoh, my oppressor so that he will treat me with dignity and respect – like the friend that I am – that I have always been to him.

The Prince of Egypt Speaks – A Modern Midrash Reaction to “Prince of Egypt”
October 14, 2016

By Rabbi Royi Shaffin

And God said unto Moses go unto Pharoah and tell him

let my people go for if you do not let my people go I will

What?  What are you going to do now God?  
I’m going to smite 
You mean murder
All of the first born of Egypt from the first born of the cattle to the first born of the servants to the first born of the Pharoah.
What? You’re going to kill my nephew. No.  
Go unto Pharoah and tell him to

let my people go.
Why are you doing this to me? You caused me to leave my parents to fight against my brother.  You destroyed all of the food of the country I love.  You made my people sick with boils.  You made them thirst for water.  You caused our animals to die and locust to eat the remaining plants so that my family is hungry. You threw hail down from the sky with fire inside it and it hit my brother and his wife and my cousins. They are waking around with third degree burns.
You made complete darkened. Do you know how scary that is?  And now you are going to kill my nephew. No. You can’t do that. That was not part of the deal. This is the family and nation that raised me, taught me, educated me, and fed me. Why have you made me into a traitor against my own family, my own people?
Maybe Pharoah will listen this time.
He will not listen nor will he let my people go so that I may show my signs and wonders in Egypt.
Then I’ll bring my family into my house with the lambs blood on the door post. 
You will do no such thing for your family is the family of Pharoah and unless he feels the plague personally he will not let my people go.
God, why are you doing this to me?

The Human Blood of the Red Heifer – A Modern Midrash on Parashat Chukat
October 14, 2016

By Rabbi Royi Shaffin

Master of the Universe, please don’t create this category of law called a “chok”, that has no stated rationale. Law without reason is so dangerous. Faith without reason is one of the most dangerous paths. Why must it be a red cow? Does it make sense that the slaughter and burning of a cow purifies from death? What are these laws of purity and impurity? Why must this all remain a secret?
The separation of the sacred law into “chukim”, laws without a stated rationale and “mishpatim”, laws whose reason is clear as day, also creates a place for taking God’s name in vain, claiming that God said or commanded something as ludicrous as mass murder and the claiming that it must be carried out in the name of God.
Oh, Master of the Universe, you have shown me the future. I sat in Rabbi Akiva’s study. I saw him teach the Torah in all of its glory to future generations and expound upon it.  

I also saw the holy land that you have forbidden me to enter and seen its beauty.
You also showed me a man by the name of Baruch Goldstein who enters the cave of the ancestors and massacres the Children of Ishmael because he thinks it is your will. You showed me bus after bus being blown up in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the slaughter of the Jews by Muslims who think this is your will. You have shown me Christian Crusaders massacring Jews and Muslims on their way to conquer the holy land because they think it is your will.  
Please give a reason and explain the law of the red heifer. Don’t open the door to taking your name in vain to claim that murder is your will.
And God replied, “There will be no explanation, speak unto the children of Israel …”

A JEWISH SPOOKY STORY
October 14, 2016

By Rabbi Royi Shaffin

A JEWISH SPOOKY STORY

A creative interpretation of Parashat VaYishlach based on the P’shat as well as modern biblical scholarship and midrashic sources.

We usually don’t associate Judaism with spooky stories that you tell around a camp fire, but in this week’s Torah portion we have just such a story.  Jacob, our hero, camps out near a river.  Jacob had heard all kinds of frightening tales about rivers and the night time, the creatures of the night, and about this river in particular – the River Yabok.  With trepidation, yet trusting in God, Jacob camps for the night.  All of a sudden, he sees a mysterious shady figure passing by him…then encircling him.  He can’t quite make out the face.  Is it a man or a beast – human or supernatural?  Before he has the opportunity to decipher the being, it attacks him.  The being is strong – as strong as Jacob.  At times Jacob looks closely into the face of this creature and he is startled to see his own face.  It is almost as if he is fighting his own reflection.  He is thrust into the midst of the creature and the creature into him.  Jacob cannot tell where he ends and the creature begins. 

As time goes by and the exhausting fight continues, he gets another glimpse at the face in the moonlight and the light coming from the stars.  It is no longer his face, but that of his arch-enemy, his nemesis, his closest relative.  It is his brother Esau, whom years before he had deceived and cheated out of the birthright and the first – born blessing.  Feelings of guilt engulf Jacob.  But before long, fear overtakes the guilt as he realizes that it is indeed Esau – red, hairy, with sharp teeth, monstrous, tearing away at him like… a wild animal.  This was the monster of his nightmares – the Esau he had imagined and had dreaded meeting again.  Jacob falls to the ground and feels an immense pain.  He sees that he is bleeding from his leg.  He begs from mercy, but Esau won’t leave him alone.  Esau drops to the ground and pounds at him.  They wrestle upon the dry earth, as clouds of dust rise, concealing and enveloping the brothers in a dark womb. 

After a while, Jacob looks at the face again and it is no longer that of Esau.  Jacob cannot believe his eyes.  He is looking into the face of God.  He doesn’t know how he knows it is God’s face and it really is not a face at all but he feels that he is wrestling, intertwined, with God Himself.  He does not understand – what does God want of him?  This is the God he had pledged to obey and had asked to protect him.  Is he being abandoned by God?  Had he offended God?  Is God making war on him? A strange sensation comes upon Jacob as the male presence he once felt becomes a feminine one.  Embraced in her arms, intertwined with her body and soul, immersed in her, Jacob loses himself and feels at one with all of existence.  A rush of energy flows through Jacob. 

He looks at the face again and it is no longer the face of God – in fact there is no face at all.  It is just nothingness – like looking into an abyss – a vacuum.  He continues fighting with this strange creature all night long, his leg in severe pain, his body exhausted.  The first sparks of light appear as the sun begins to rise.  The creature speaks, “You must now let me go before sunrise.”  Has this been a creature of the night? A demon? Or was this part of a test?  Was this perhaps an angel of God standing before him?  Jacob rises from the ground, limping, and grabs a hold of the night terror – his night companion.  Jacob gathers all his courage and says to a face that he yet again cannot determine – even though it is right in front of him, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”

The figure exudes a blinding light.  A warmth embraces Jacob.  A voice calls out, “What is your name?”  “Jacob” he answers.  The figure responds, “No longer shall your name be Jacob but rather it shall be Israel – which means he who wrestles with God – for you have struggled with people and with God and you have prevailed.”  And then Jacob was left alone – completely and totally alone.

Morning came and Jacob crossed the river, looking at his own reflection in the water – barely recognizing himself as if the previous night’s experience had changed him somehow.  He continued on limping.  Jacob limped for the rest of his life.  And we, the descendents of Jacob do not eat meat from the area of the leg where Jacob was injured to remind us of this very spooky Jewish story.

The Seductive Prisoner of War – A Modern Midrash for Parashat Ki Tetze and for the High Holidays
September 16, 2016

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

The Israelite soldier called out to his captive, ” I want you!!!”
The beautiful captive replied, “You can’t have me. I am a woman of the enemy camp. I am a part of your yetzer hara, your evil inclination. You have done such a good job of conquering my troops. Why suddenly do you want me?”
“You are beautiful,” he said, “and attractive and seductive.”
“The shechina is more beautiful. You should bond with her. I will make myself less seductive. I will remove my finger nails and shave off my hair and put on sack cloth. I will mourn for the death of your evil inclination from which I sprung. I will mourn for that part of you that you so enjoyed but knew was wrong. I will mourn for your greed, your gossip, your theft, your lies, and your disloyalty. I will mourn for you. And by the end of my mourning, I will look like a corpse. Then we will see if you still lust after me.”
The soldier retorted, “I will. I will lust after you. What is wrong with lust?”
The captive, the bald headed, hairless, pale, skeleton figure, the ugly guiding angel replied, “Does not the Torah say, 
״לא תתרו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם״
“Do not go out after the evil inclinations of your hearts or the lust after forbidden things that can be seen by your eyes?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“So honor the words of the Torah. They are wise,” the angel, the corpse dressed in a white kittel taught, “so why do you still lust after me?”
“Your pull is too strong. I cannot break free of you, my beautiful, seductive yetzer hara.”
“Then you must marry me,” she said, “and remain married to me all of the days of your life.” “You will not be able to break free,” she continued. “You thought you had conquered me but you shall become the conquered. You will lose your free will. Your heart will be mine. Your mind shall be mine. All of your actions shall be mine. Your ability to think for yourself shall be imprisoned. You will move further and further away from God and the Torah and the right and the good. Do Teshuva now, before it is too late. Turn around and face away from me and and never look back. I’m not as attractive as I seem. Call unto God and God will help you. This is what you shall say: 
השיבינו ה אליך ונשובה. חדש ימינו כקדם.

O God, turn me away from the yetzer hara and toward You and I shall turn. Renew my soul as that of a child of Eden.

Is God Always With Me? – Dvar Torah From Parashat Vaetchanan
August 30, 2016

Is God Always With Me?

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

“Is God always with me wherever I go?  Is he with me each minute…I’d sure like to know.  Can God always hear me, wherever I pray?  Can I talk to God any time of the day?”  These words are from my favorite children’s book called Is God Always With Me by Crystal Bowman.  I love to read this book to children.  It expresses something that we are really all concerned about – God’s presence in our very personal lives.  Does God watch over us..help us…hear us when we pray?  Can we talk to God in English or any language just because we feel like it?  Is God watching what we do and how we treat each other?  Will God help us through the most difficult moments of life?  Can God heal our pain?

This week’s Torah portion, VaEtchanan, teaches how to have recognition of God’s presence always.  In several verses, the Torah teaches us that God is always near.  The question however is not whether or not God knocks on the door to our hearts and souls – God knocks.  The question is “Do we let God in?”  Placing a mezuzah on our door is like leaving God a note that says, “come in”.  Placing tefilin on our heads and opposite our hearts says, “come in”.  Closing our eyes with great intensity when we say the Shma and holding that last sound “Echad” for as long as possible, letting the words resonate on our mouths and throughout our bodies and souls – this is letting God in.  Reliving the Exodus from Egypt and the blasts of the Ten Commandments, written by God Himself, this is letting God in.  When we see the Divine light shining forth from every human being and treat them accordingly, this is opening the door to God’s presence. 

The Torah portion and the Ashrei prayer teach us that God is close to all who call upon Him in truth.  While we adults try to find God in our lives, there is no better way to search for meaning than to put our thoughts in the words of children.  Children have a natural connection with G-d that we adults lose over time.  Maybe this is because they are more recent arrivals from realm of the souls.  I would like to conclude, therefore, with wisdom from end of the book, Is God Always With Me.

“The Bible tells us, as plain as can be that God is with you and God is with me.  At school or at home, in a bus or a car, God’s always with you wherever you are.”

JEWISH JOURNAL: DO WE REALLY NEED THESE NEW SIDDURIM?
May 20, 2011

DO WE REALLY NEED THESE NEW SIDDURIM?

http://issuu.com/the-jewish-journal/docs/may_2011

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

Spirituality is on out of body experience.  Some of the most memorable sights during my travels in Eastern Europe were old synagogues with services in their entirety painted on the walls.  They were painted because these synagogues were built before the invention of the printing press, when the only one holding a siddur was the chazzan.  Some people knew their prayers by heart.  Some people needed a reminder, so they looked up at “the writing on the wall” (Daniel, Chapter 5).  Those that did not know their prayers had the chazzan, with an impeccable hand written siddur, chanting all of the prayers, and especially the repetition of the Amidah, on their behalf.

Today, our synagogues are convinced by their respective denominational movements to purchase multiple copies of the newest siddur with “new and improved” print, type set, and commentary.  This comes at great expense to congregations and fails to address the essential question: do these new siddurim contribute in any way to the prayer experience?  The answer is “no”!  In fact, I would be willing to bet that not a single Jew will enter the synagogue, join, or become more active in Jewish life on account of the recent purchase.

The introduction of the printed siddur for every individual did not save Jewish spiritual life.  It is, in fact, to its detriment.  When people burry their heads in the printed word, the nuances of the Hebrew, the translations, or the “newest” commentary, this makes spiritual concentration – the first step towards union with God- a near impossibility.  We don’t seek God by looking down.  We seek God by looking upward toward the magnificent Heavens, looking inward to find our inherent connection point to the spiritual realm, and not using our physical eyes at all so that our spiritual vision may be sharpened.

As we approach Lag Ba’Omer, we are reminded of the spiritual odyssey of the great author of the Zohar, the primary book of Kabbalah, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi).  Lag Ba’Omer is known as Rashbi’s Yahrtzeit and many Jews flock to his burial place in Meron, Israel on this day to pay tribute to the sage who brought the hidden light into view for Jewish mystics.

Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud, relates that to escape Roman persecution, Rashbi and his son hid in a cave which miraculously grew a carob tree and manifested a stream of water to sustain them.  Strangely, they removed their clothing and buried themselves in the sand.  There, they studied Torah and attained great levels of holiness and scholarship.

While many are tempted to simply accept this story, I wonder how they could study Torah or pray in a dark cave.  Did not the sand, which caused wounds upon Rashbi’s skin, cause him great discomfort and did this not interfere with his Torah study?  Upon further thought and examination, we understand that Rashbi’s seclusion from the rest of the world, darkness, and lack of comfort were spiritual devices meant to quiet his physical senses and open his spiritual eyes and ears.  As he placed his physical needs in the hands of God, totally dependent on a miraculous carob tree and stream of water (whether physical or spiritual), this experience is much like that of Moses on top of Mt. Sinai, alone with God, for forty days and forty nights with no food or water.  It is also much like a Native American vision quest.  Rashbi knew how to tap into his spiritual being and he knew that it had nothing to do with physical vision, clothing, or physical comfort.  In fact, the less we are connected to the physical, the more we are able to cling to God and attain holiness.  That, by the way, is why we fast on Yom Kippur- to detach ourselves from our physical need to eat and concentrate on the spiritual.

As we count the omer, seeking spiritual refinement with every passing day in imitation of Divine attributes (sefirot), and prepare ourselves to arrive at the scene of the revelation on Shavu’ot, the closest we will ever come as living beings to seeing God “face to face” because “no man may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20), let us remember that the revelation took place without any prayer books.  I would like to encourage us to reenact this experience in our synagogue services by memorizing our prayers to the best of our abilities and then to just put down those books.  We need to close our eyes during prayer and lose ourselves in an out of body experience.  If we do this right, we should lose awareness of our physical bodies and physical sensations.  The Torah and Haftorah reading become not something printed in our Chumashim to “follow along” with, but rather something listened to with eyes closed as they emanate from the bimah in a grand, loud, and musical chant – a reenactment of the Sinai revelation.

If we are to draw Jews back into Judaism, we must revert back to our authentic spiritual tradition and abandon our modern stuffy synagogue styles of worship based on the physical and the mundane.  We must close our eyes in order to see physical darkness and then, spiritual light

The Torah tells us that, at Sinai, our ancestors “saw the sounds”(Exodus 20:15) of God’s revelation.  This teaches us that all of our physical senses are of little use when attempting to experience God.  What is needed is another sense – a spiritual sense- because spirituality is an out of body experience.