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


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.

My Brother’s Keeper
November 17, 2016

A modern midrash for our time based on Parashat Vayera, Parashat Toldot, Rashi’s commentary, Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 89b, and current events
By Rabbi Royi Shaffin
Isaac and Ishmael were playing together. They played hide and go seek. They built sand castles. They laughed together and played together and loved one another, but their mothers hated one another. They were half brothers of the same father, Abraham, but not of the same mother.

One day, the rumor was running through the camp that Abraham was sending away Hagar and her son, Ishmael. The boys were playing when they overheard people talking about it from a nearby tent. Tears started to flow from Ishmael’s eyes. “Our father loves you more than he loves me,” Ishmael said in a tearful voice. “No, this can’t be right. Our father wouldn’t do such a thing,” said Isaac in an attempt to comfort his brother. “It is true. It is true,” said Ishmael, “Your mother made him do it. Why does your mother hate my mother so much?” “I don’t know,” Isaac replied.
“I have an idea,” Isaac said excitedly, “I will pretend to be you. That way, no one will be able to tell us apart. He will not be able to send you away. I will put goat skin on my arms so that I will appear hairy like you and I will wear your clothes so that I will smell like the fields in which you work. I will try to speak with your deep voice and I will tell him that I am you.”
Some time later, God wished to elevate Abraham so God told him, “Take your son.”

Abraham replied, “I have two sons.”

God said, “The one”.

Abraham replied, “I love each of them as if he were my only child.”

God said, “The one you love the most.”

Abraham insisted, “I love them both equally.”

God finally clarified, ” Isaac.”

God continued, “And elevate him to a higher status upon one of the mountains that I will show you.”

Abraham went searching for Isaac, but he could not find him. What he found were two Ishmael’s.  
“Which of my sons are you?” He asked one of them.
“I am Ishmael,” he answered.  
“And who are you?” Abraham persisted.
“I am also Ishmael,” the other one said.
Frustrated, Abraham demanded, “Which of you is Isaac? A great honor awaits you. Come with me.”
Abraham turned around to go back to his tent and try again later.
With his father’s back turned so that he could not see him and distinguish him from his brother, Isaac called out, “Father, I refuse to be honored while you send away my brother and he suffers in silence. God has taught me that…

Psychoanalyzing the Aramean
October 14, 2016

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

ארמי אבד אבי

Arami oved avi.

According to Jewish tradition, this verse from the Parashah can be read as “An Aramean tried to destroy my father” or as “My father was a wandering Aramean”. This piece of creative writing is inspired by this duel tradition.

Jacob Ben Aramean sat before his counselor for a late night counseling session with a lot on his mind.
“So,” Dr. Yabok River asked in an inquisitive voice. In fine psychoanalytic tradition, his accent and intonations were the same as the great Viennese-Jewish founder of the science, Sigmund Freud. “What would you like to discuss today?”
“I would like to discuss that horrible uncle of mine, Laban. First he tricked me into marrying Leah instead of Rachel, then he worked me to death, then he wouldn’t let me go and start my own life so I had to leave his house in secret, then he chased me; he was going to kill me for sneaking out, and on top of it all, he tried to pressure me to go to his religious services with him.”
“Didn’t he also take you into his house when you were fleeing from Esau after you tricked Esau out of the blessing?” asked the doctor.
“Yes. But what does that have to do with anything?”
“Didn’t he also give you experience in shepherding?” the doctor continued.
“Didn’t he also let you marry not one but two of his daughters? Are you not now as related as flesh and blood?”
“I guess so.”
“Isn’t it true that you have been wandering both physically and spiritually?” the doctor continued.
“What do you mean?”
“You have been in search of God all of this time. You have been on a spiritual journey. You traveled from your home to Laban and now you are on your way back home. You fought with your brother and learned humility for as you fled from his wrath, you felt not only your own pain, but his as well. He did not kill your body, but guilt of that which you did to him cut you like a knife. It carved and sculpted out of old Jacob, a new Jacob. You survived many obstacles including cold and heat, traveling in the dark, and being tricked and despite all odds …. you are still here! You have been bargaining with God, sleeping with rocks as your pillow, and crossing rivers. You have fought with both the divine and the human and have prevailed. Stop looking at yourself as the victim. Stop blaming others and stand up tall,” the doctor demanded.
“I can’t. I just got a cramp in my leg from all that sitting in this chair.”
“Nonsense. You should change your name. Then you will feel like a new person.”
“To what?”
“Time is up. I have to go,” said the angel-faced doctor.
“What were you going to say? I’m not letting you go until you tell me.”
“Ok.” the doctor gave in as he was already late for his next appointment. “From now on, your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel-the one who wrestles with God.”

October 14, 2016

By Rabbi Royi Shaffin


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.

Longing For Zion: Torah Thoughts For Yom Yerushalayim
October 10, 2016

Longing For Zion

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

As a religious Zionist, I have always found it problematic that Hatikvah, the national anthem of the Jewish People, does not contain even one reference to God.   The traditional shacharit morning service, however, contains a prayer called Ahavah Rabbah, the last part of which is sung, in many Conservative synagogues, to the tune of Hatikvah.  It just so happens to resemble Hatikvah in its essential message as well.

And bring us in peace from the four corners of the Earth and bring us, standing upright (with dignity), to our land.  For You are God who performs deliverances and You have chosen us of all nations and tongues and You have brought us closer to Your great name in truth in order that we may thank You and meditate on Your oneness in love.  Blessed are You Adonai who chooses His people Israel with love

This message is the cornerstone of our connection to Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel.  When Israel’s Declaration of Independence refers to Jews praying, throughout their exile, for a return to their land, this is what it is referring to.

One prevalent custom is to gather the fringes of the talit, the prayer shawl, at the end of Ahavah Rabbah, drawing a connection between the “arba kanfot ha’aretz” (the four corners of the Earth) from which God will gather us and the “arba kanfot” (the four corners [of the talit]) which we traditionally gather in preparation for the Sh’ma.  During the Sh’ma, we kiss the arba kanfot (tzitzit) every time we say the word “tzitzit”.

While today these fringes are white, this was not always the case.  In fact, the Torah commands (Number 15:37-40) that one of these fringes be tchelet (blue), but the tradition as to the animal that produces the blue dye was lost during our exile.  The Talmud (Men.43b) explains that the blue should remind us of the sea which will then remind us of the Heavens, which is like God’s throne of glory.  Recently, the animal which produces the dye, the chilazon, has been rediscovered and tzitzit are being produced which include a blue thread.  Today, we encounter talitot with fringes that are blue and white.  These, not coincidentally, are also the colors of the flag of Israel.  According to legend, the flag first appeared as the flag of the Zionist Movement at the First Zionist Congress and, indeed, it was based on the talit and its blue thread.

While it is unlikely that the Hatikvah will be revised in the near future to include a reference to God, I find great meaning and excitement in singing the last part of the Ahava Rabbah to the tune of Hatikvah.  When I pray the Ahavah Rabbah, I gather and gaze at the four fringes, think about the blue and white, and concentrate my spiritual energies on hatikvah (the hope), that the State of Israel will fulfill the vision of the Ahavah Rabbah prayer and become the place to which God will gather all of our dispersed people from the four corners of the Earth, where we will be constantly reminded of the blue Heavens and God’s throne, and where God’s presence will be ever so strongly felt.

Embracing Jewish Diversity Is The Key To Israel’s Security and Prosperity
May 20, 2011

The Arab-Israeli solution: Ingathering of the exiles

by Rabbi Royi Israel Shaffin

Date published:  July 31, 2009 Publication: The Jewish State    Link:

A two-state solution is a recipe for the destruction of Israel. By now it must be clear to everyone that the more that Israel withdraws from territory, the more terrorist organizations attack Israel.
The withdrawal from Lebanon resulted in attacks from Hezbollah and the Second Lebanon War. The “disengagement” from Gaza resulted in attacks from Hamas and Operation Cast Lead. Contrary to the expectations of peace-loving people, when Israel compromises, the terrorists attack. The goal of Hamas, Hezbollah, and even Fatah is not “the end of occupation”, but rather the destruction of Israel. What other explanation can there be for their attacks on a country that makes continuous compromises and peaceful gestures?
This being the case, Israel must reconsider its reality. A Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip poses an existential threat to Israel.
Unfortunately, without a Palestinian state, we are left with a demographic problem, which was the admitted impetus for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The Arab population inside of Israel, combined with the Arab population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will soon outnumber the Jewish population. According to my college professor, demographer Dr. Sergio Della Pergola of the Hebrew University, Arabs will soon comprise the majority of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
“Disengaging” from Gaza, in Sharon’s calculation, would solve this problem. It would “disengage” Israel from a large Arab population, leaving them to govern themselves, and create an overwhelming Jewish majority in the remaining territory of Israel. Unfortunately, the solution has also brought upon Israel a whole slew of other, more serious, problems such as a southern Israel under constant missile attack.
There is another, albeit, less conventional solution: the ingathering of the exiles. During the British Mandate, Ze’ev Jabotinsky came before the British Royal Commission to convince them to continue their support for the establishment of a Jewish state, as they had promised to do. He argued that there were millions of Jews in Europe that would immigrate to the Jewish state, seeking a haven from anti-Semitism.
“The point when Jews will reach a majority in that country will not be the point of saturation yet, because 1 million more Jews in Palestine today you could already have a majority, but there are certainly 3 million or 4 million in the east who are virtually knocking at the door asking for admission, i.e., for salvation.” He was counting on Eastern European Jewry to populate the Jewish state. Unfortunately, Israel came into existence too late. Six million Jews, the population that Jabotinsky was counting on to create a Jewish majority, were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. Despite this, the “Jabotinsky Plan” can still work.
Several years ago, an organization called “Kulanu” was founded, aimed at reincorporating lost Jewish communities into the Jewish people. Communities exist throughout the world with clear Jewish genetic lineages and remnants of the Jewish religious and cultural heritage. These communities could number in the millions. They were also recently written about in a book called “Fragile Branches: Travels through the Jewsish Diaspora,” by James Ross. Many of these “lost Jews” dream of immigrating to Israel. Contrary to popular thought, this is in Israel’s best interest.
Several months ago, my friend, a rabbi, returned from Uganda, where as part of a rabbinic delegation, he taught and converted members of the Abuyudaya tribe. The Abuyudaya are not of Jewish ancestry, but have accepted Judaism as their tribal religion. My friend’s stories about this tribe led me to think that these lost Jews throughout the world could be the solution to Israel’s demographic quagmire. In order to implement the “Jabotinsky Plan,” we must send rabbinic delegations to such communities, to run conversion (or return to the Judaism) courses and officiate at conversion ceremonies. Theses people should also receive training in Hebrew, Zionism, and life in Israel — much like the hachsharah programs in pre-WWII Europe. We should then facilitate their immigration, en masse, to Israel and settle them in Judaea, Samaria, and Gaza. Israel must prepare to absorb these new immigrants. These millions of the “lost tribes” of Israel, returnees to the Jewish People, will serve as Jabotinsky’s millions.
When these communities make aliyah, the Jewish population will increase exponentially. The Jewish people will be the clear and uncontested majority in Eretz Israel. The Arab population will no longer serve as a demographic challenge to the preservation of a Jewish democracy. Israel will be able to assert its claim over the entire Land of Israel and render the movement for an additional Arab state ridiculous and obsolete. Israel will be able to annex Judaea, Samaria, and Gaza and grant full Israeli citizenship to the Arabs residing in these areas, since the Jewish population will still be larger than that of the Arabs.
You may find this idea to be farfetched and unconventional. Indeed, were my vision to come to fruition, it would most certainly change Israel forever. However, Israel would be sacrificing neither its strategic land areas nor its Jewish character nor its democratic rule by the majority.
Herzl envisioned a Jewish state in the image of Switzerland. Many Ashkenazi Israelis were shocked when they realized that Israel was quickly becoming half eidot hamizrach (composed of Middle Eastern Jewry). We will see an Israel which is fully Jewish, but whose Ashkenazi population is a small minority.
Embarking on the “Jabotinsky Plan” is the truest test of Zionism and our commitment to the return of our exiles, whatever the color of their skin. Israel is at a historic junction that will determine its very existence. I think that this idea just might work. If it does, it will insure Israel’s survival and change the course of Jewish and Israeli history forever.
Rabbi Shaffin is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Atid in Richmond, VA.