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

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The Cave
November 29, 2016

By Rabbi Royi Shaffin

Dr. Barnaki gasped for breath. He could not believe he was actually entering the forbidden cave. Fear gripped his heart as he remembered all of the myths and stories that he had heard as a child. Like archaeologists before him who had entered the tomb of Tutankhamen, the great Pharaoh of Egypt, he now was entering the cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the cave of the royalty of Israel …  and of Islam.  

A professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Barnaki understood the full significance of his expedition into this underground dwelling. Above the cave, the area was divided into two prayer spaces, a synagogue and a mosque. Holiness radiated from this place on Earth. Whether one was a believer or secular, the intensity of the energy was palpable.

His expedition was illegal and done under the cover of night through an unknown entry-way. After capturing the city of Hebron and its religious and archaeological treasures during the 1967 Six Day War, including the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, also called Machpelah, Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, gave the keys to the holy center to the Muslim Waqf, which held that non-Muslims were forbidden to enter.

This was a contentious place indeed, disputed territory claimed both by Israel and by the Palestinian Arabs. This site in the middle of Hebron, also called Kiriat Arba, was in the heartland of biblical Israel. It was also a place where the Arabs are a majority of the population.  Nevertheless, a small group of religious Zionists had founded a settlement in this area to claim a Jewish stake in this land. Heavily guarded and constantly fearful of terrorist attacks from the surrounding Palestinian Arab areas, this was a gated community in the most extreme sense of the term.

This was also the place of the most infamous violence between Jews and Arabs. “Pogrom” is a term usually reserved for anti-Jewish violent riots in Eastern Europe. Hebron was an exception for there had been a violent pogrom in Hebron in which many Jews were mercilessly murdered by marauding Arabs. It was also the place where a Jewish doctor, who had immigrated to Israel from the United States, decided to take matters into his own hands and spray bullets at Muslims praying in the mosque above the cave. Much blood had been spilled above this cave over the question of its ownership and, indeed, ownership of the entire land. Beneath the mosque and the synagogue was Machpelah, where Isaac, the father of the Jews and Ishmael, the father of the Arabs had buried their father Abraham together as bothers. Barnaki could almost sense Abraham’s heartache that his children were killing each other. Also buried in this cave were Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Leah. Rachel died while on the road and was buried on the way to Bethlehem where Jewish tradition teaches that she cries on behalf of her exiled and suffering children and pleads with God on their behalf.

This cave existed and was a burial place before Abraham bought it from Efron the Hittite for 400 shekels of silver, an exorbitant sum for those days, in order to bury his wife Sarah and to establish this cave as an ancestral plot. One wonders who was buried in this cave before Sarah. One wonders why Abraham paid so much money for this cave and plot of land. Abraham was a businessman and a military general, after all. One finds it hard to believe that he would be so easily swindled.

What unknown qualities did this cave hold? Legend holds that there is magic to this cave, perhaps even a doorway from this world into Eden. Some believe that this is a place where one could come into contact and speak not only with those buried in the cave but with all of the ancestors. According to legend, one who entered too far deep into the cave risked never returning to our world. “Could this be true or was this just a story to keep out grave robbers and the like?” Barnaki thought to himself. “How similar were these stories to those told about the pyramids of the Pharaohs.”   

As Barnaki entered the cave, darkness fell over his eyes and a new type of light illuminated his way. It was as if he was in another world. His eyes no longer worked and yet he knew exactly where he was, where he was going, and what was in front of him. He had studied the site using photographs and maps provided by those who had entered the cave before him. For various reasons, they could only go so deep, but he planned to go even deeper.  

Deeper and deeper he went. He arrived at a circular room with coins and pieces of broken pottery on the floor. The pottery contained inscriptions in ancient Hebrew script. This script had not been used in over two thousand years and yet here it was before him, an archaeological treasure. Barnaki picked up coins that lay upon the ground. He placed them in the palm of his hand. Among the coins were modern Israeli liras and shekels. This made sense since it was customary to throw coins deep into the cave like into a wishing well.  

What surprised Barnaki were the other coins he had in the palm of his hand; a Maccabean coin, a coin from the Bar Kochba rebellion against the occupying Romans and a coin with an inscription in ancient Hebrew which read 
שנת ג למלכו של המלך שלמה
The third year of the rule of King Solomon. This was a First Temple period coin, undeniable proof of the Jewish people’s long history in and claim to the land.

Upon the ground were also notes such as people also place in the Western Wall with people’s hopes that God will read their prayers and answer them. From the circular room, Barnaki entered a long corridor which led to a staircase. He climbed up the stairs only to be blocked by a stone wall in the middle of the stairs.

“Who would place a wall here?” Barnaki thought to himself, “During which historical period was the wall built?”  The materials and design of this wall identified it as neither the biblical architecture that he had encountered in the cave so far nor of the architecture of King Herod of Judaea nor of the Muslim minarets built after the Muslim conquest from the Crusaders under the leadership of Salahadin. This wall stood on its own as a unique structure.  Barnaki pushed against the wall and it moved to reveal a small space, barely enough for a small person to maneuver through. Barnaki was no body builder and his small frame came in handy that day as he slid through the small space.

As he crossed to the other side, Barnaki could not believe his eyes. Before him was a beautiful carob tree and a river with waters as blue as the sky, flowing through the cave, but with no end. It just flowed and flowed as if there was no end to the cave, no walls, no beginning and no end. He walked forward and as he did so, the cave became less dark and more full of light, less brown and more green with grasses and shrubbery. It was as if he was no longer in the cave. The river continued to flow through the most beautiful, greenest garden he had ever seen. He saw trees all around him with fruits that seemed to glow. The aroma, the fresh air, and the beauty were exhilarating. In the far off distance, Barnaki saw that the river converged with three other rivers. Thirsty, he put his hands into the river to gather water to drink. Below the river, he realized, was Lapis Lazuli, also called Shoham, a beautiful, semi-precious stone of blue with bubbles of white, like a pure blue sky with fluffy white clouds floating through it. His perception of his surroundings changed as Heaven and Earth, the blue river and a miraculous blue sky above, became one.  

Suddenly, he felt something on his shoulder. He looked down to see a hand. He turned around and before him stood an old man with a white beard and the kindest face he had ever seen. Isaac Barnaki immediately felt connected to this stranger. “Come, walk with me,” said the man.  
For hours they walked and talked. Barnaki now understood everything; why he was there, who he was, where he had come from, the meaning of his life, and the meaning of all existence. They reached an opening and the old man said, “And now you must go back to where you came from and remember little of our conversation and of what you have just experienced.” “Why?” Barnaki asked. “It is not your time,” answered the wise face before him. “Who are you?” Isaac asked, even though he already knew the answer. “I am Abraham, your father.” 

Barnaki walked through the opening to the world that he was a part of, but he was forever changed. He had touched Eden. He had been touched by Abraham. He had entered the cave of Machpelah and returned to our world to tell the tale.

Murder At The Hair Salon
October 10, 2016

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

Meir was feeling hot and heavy during the summer months as his hair and beard grew and grew and he didn’t bother to get a haircut and beard trim.  Some said that it was for religious reasons because of the various Jewish periods of mourning at this time and others declared him simply lazy.  Whatever his reason, his family and friends finally got to him.  The young strapping lad, a student of the great Sages of Judea, walked into the Roman hair salon to get a haircut and beard trim. His teachers in the Academy had warned him not to go to the Romans, but he thought that this was stupid.  The rabbis only said this, he thought, because they did not want to give business to the occupiers- the ones subduing Judea. 

He sat down in the chair and asked for a haircut and a beard trim.  Of course, he mentioned that the beard should only be trimmed and the razor should not actually touch the skin, a prohibition from the holy Torah.  The barber took out his scissors and started to cut one inch, two inches, perfect.  Then came time for the beard trim.  Snip, snip…and then underneath the beard, the part that it is permitted to shave close to the skin according to the scriptures, to make it nice and straight and presentable to both Jews and Romans – wherever Meir may travel.  The barber took out the straight edge razor and started to scrape off the hair.  Up and down went the razor, hair coming off at every stroke and then… there was a change…all off a sudden, the razor did not go up and down but rather from side to side upon Meir’s bare neck.  The blood came gushing out. 

Meir toppled over from his seat into the clumps of blood stained hair on the floor.  The barber looked down on the floor at his victim, then at his fellow barbers.  They smiled at each other, left the body on the floor, and went on to the next clients.

While the story I just told is gruesome and terrible, it is nevertheless a true story – a depiction and imagined circumstances of events which really took place –  and it is the reason why Tractate Avoda Zara of the Talmud forbids Jews from getting hair cuts from non-Jewish barbers. 

You may point out that today you see many religious Jews going into regular salons and getting haircuts.  Yes, that is because the prohibition no longer applies in our society…and that is the point.

In this week’s Torah portion, VaEtchanan, we find the Ten Commandments.  One of these commandments is:

“LO TIRTZACH”

“THOU SHALT NOT MURDER”

The idea that murder is wrong – that one may not make sport of a fellow human being and that bloodshed is gruesome has spread from the Ten Commandments – from Judaism to Christianity to Islam – to the entire world.  Today, everyone knows that it is wrong to kill someone…but imagine a world without Christians, without Muslims, without anyone else besides the small Jewish people who believe in one God – God who demands and commands justice and morality.  This was the world that once existed and to fully understand Judaism’s enormous impact on the world and on human civilization all one has to do is go ahead and get a haircut at a local Supercuts.