The Dungeon of Torture
December 3, 2017

A creative interpretation of Parashat Vayeshev inspired by Midrash Bereshit Raba and the Mefarshim (traditional rabbinic commentators).

By Rabbi Royi Shaffin

In the dark and dreary dungeon, there he sat, confined to his cell. He was allowed to leave only in order to perform his duties as the right-hand man of the chief jailor. It had been ten years since the episode of the dreams. He had interpreted their dreams, that of the chief cup-bearer and of the chief baker. He had interpreted them correctly. On the occasion of the Pharaoh’s birthday, the cup-bearer was released from prison and returned to his former position and the baker was hung (or so it was rumored). Joseph had asked the cup-bearer to remember him after he was released from prison, but Joseph was a forgotten soul.

There Joseph sat in anguish, in the dark. At times it was pitch black. Nothing could be seen. Insects chewed on the dead skin upon his feet. Every day, as soon as his once daily prisoner’s food rations were thrown down to him from a small window above the prisoner cells, rats clambered to eat as much of his food as was possible before he was able to get to the food and scare them away. Eating his half devoured piece of bread, wet from the dampness in the dungeon, dirty for he had not bathed in years, there he sat in sorrow.

Why had the cup-bearer forgotten him? Why had God forgotten him? What had he done wrong? Why was he being punished for doing “the good and the just in the eyes of the Lord”? He had been tempted by Potiphar’s wife. She was beautiful and sexy and lucuous. She had grabbed a hold of him. He could have grabbed her and lain with her, but he did not. She defamed his character. She told lies that he had come to her. He was thrown into the prison so that his slave master, Potiphar, could save face.

“Again in a pit. Perhaps this is what I deserve,” Joseph though to himself “to be thrown into a pit.” Years before, he was thrown by his own brothers into a pit. Then they sold him into the pit of slavery. Now he was rotting away in the pit of prison.

What crime had he committed? He simply stated the prophecy that he received to his brothers. Is their jealousy his sin? He worked hard as a slave. He took nothing that was not his. He resisted temptation and would not commit adultery. Was this his reward? Why were they, the cup-bearer and the baker, brought out on Pharoah’s birthday but not he.

The cup-bearer had committed the greatest of offenses. The Pharaoh could have been killed. The Pharaoh’s cup had been poisoned and the cup-bearer failed to check the wine. Had Sheba, the palace cat, not climbed onto the thrown, sipped from the wine and fallen dead from the exceptionally strong poison, the assassination plot against the Pharaoh would have succeeded.

The baker so embarrassed the Pharaoh. Why did the Pharaoh even consider pardoning him? He was placed in charge of delivering all of the baked goods for the wedding of the Pharaoh’s daughter to the prince of Babylonia. He was responsible for the breads and the cakes and the sweet treats and he had failed to deliver them. He gave some excuse about the Nile overflowing, flooding his bakery, and ruining his baking ovens, but everyone knows that is just an excuse. He could have ordered someone to fix them or baked them somewhere else. He was a member of the royal court. With that kind of power, he could have sought assistance from many different quarters, but he did not. The breads and the cakes were never baked and a wedding that was expected to be lavish and full of exquisite food and drink was quite meager. This wedding was supposed to represent the wealth and glory of Egypt. The Pharaoh was so embarrassed in front of his guests, his courtiers, and most of all, the King of Babylonia.

These two were worthy of being released, yet he, Joseph, who had done nothing wrong, who had kept his faith in God strong, and who had followed the Torah was kept in the dungeon? Why? Where was the justice in this? “Why?!!! Please do not abandon me. Please do not forsake me, for I have tried all my life to do ‘the good and the just in the eyes of the Lord’. Please God be with me,” Joseph cried out to the God of his father’s, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Joseph thought that God had abandoned him. He was convinced that he would soon be executed for ever since that day when the baker and cup-bearer were taken up out of the prison, a light would shine from up above, the upper level entrance to the dungeon, and the voices of guards would call the names of prisoners. As they went up the stairs, the guards would grab a hold of them violently and every one of the prisoners could hear the screams of torture and then a whimper that would fade into silence – death.

Every day, the upper doorway to the dungeon would open and prisoners would go up and not return. One day, they called, “Joseph”. He could not decided whether he should hide as some of the other prisoners had done or walk up the stairs. Joseph said a silent prayer, “God, please be with me.” He walked up the stairs to be greeted by guards. They did not grab him. They said, “We have been instructed to give you a hair cut and to bathe you and to dress you in royal clothing. You have been summoned to appear before the Pharaoh and you are to be treated as if you were a member of the royal house. We do not know who you are or what you have done, but we have never before seen a prisoner be elevated to royalty. Can you explain this to us, sir?” Joseph responded simply, “God is with me.”

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Broken Wing
November 20, 2017

Based on Parashat Vayetze, Parashat Vayishlach, Midrash Bereshit Raba, Hekhakot and Merkavah mysticism, and biblical inter-textual creativity.

By Rabbi Royi Shaffin

Sar-El and Satan had a great deal in common. Both were bona fide card-carrying members of the Divine Royal Court. Both were trouble makers. Both wanted humanity to fail, to let God down and played “Devil’s advocate” to prosecute humanity for any and all infractions that it may or may not be guilty of. Both were constant nay sayer. Satan had been given his role and his place. He was the tempter and the prosecuting attorney in the Divine court.

Sar-El however was a young angel. God had other plans for him. God had determined that He had to take him out of Satan’s influence and make a different kind of angel out of him. God thought and thought of how to do this. Sar-El had chutzpah. That was for sure. He had led the angels in advising God against the creation of Adam and Eve, insisting that there was no way that humans would possibly choose their good inclination over their evil inclination. He had led the rejoicing and celebration of the angels when God saved Noah and then Lot. God was furious with this group of angels crying, “My creation is dying and you rejoice?!!!” Sar-El was hardened, without feeling, and without compassion. At one point God had considered making him the angel to harden Pharaoh’s heart.
Then God changed his mind. There was something about this young angel, a light that shined from within him. God sent Sar-El to Jacob’s ladder. There he was climbing up a ladder that connected Heaven and Earth. As he was climbing higher and higher, flying and soaring through the sky, his pride and glory grew. Soon he said, “I am on top of the world. Mi chamoni…?Who can compare to me? God? Metatron? Gabriel?” He scoffed at the thought? As he was flying higher and higher, his wing got caught on one of the rungs of the ladder and broke. In pain, Sar-El fell from grace, from the Heavens, and from the ladder connecting Heaven and Earth. He fell and fell. He finally landed right beside Jacob, sleeping on the ground with his head upon a stone as a pillow. Sar-El knew that Jacob was a prophet, a father of God’s chosen people, but human nonetheless. Through Jacob’s dream state, Jacob could see the ladder and the angels right beside him. He could also see that one of the angels, Sar-El, had fallen and was lying on the ground beside him, clothed in a blanket of dirt.
Humiliated to be lying on the earth next a human (who, on top of everything, could actually see his disgrace) he tried to fly up, but his broken wing would not move. He cried out to God and God answered, “Do you think you are the only one who has fallen? Why do you think Jacob needs to see a ladder with angels going up and down? It represents the exiles and fallings of Israel as well as its elevations and its ultimate redemption. It also represents the empires that will dominate and subjugate my people and their ultimate downfall. Most important of all, it represents each and every human being who has ever fallen down and my commandment to that individual to get back up. Get up, stop feeling sorry for yourself, and start climbing up again.” Sar-El did as God commanded.
He climbed with his legs, rung after rung after rung. His legs grew tired and he knew that he was climbing more slowly than any of the other angels but he kept climbing. Then he stepped and fell again. He had not noticed the broken rung on the ladder. He fell and fell only this time he was able to catch himself and grab another rung before reaching the ground. “How am I supposed to climb now?” Sar-El pleaded with God. “Help me, please.” God could sense Sar-El’s arrogance melting away. God answered, “When one path is blocked, find another. Go over it or above it or even under it. Have faith that I will be with you and you shall succeed.” Sar-El did as God instructed.
He climbed higher and higher, his legs now fatigued and in pain, and when he reached the broken rung, he leaped up in the air, his wings flapping and even his broken wing moving a little bit. He swiftly flew over the broken rung and onto the next rung on the ladder. He climbed higher and higher until finally he reached home, the Celestial Palace. God was so happy to see him and so proud of him that he already had a new mission in mind for him. “Sar-El! Sar-El,” God called out. “Heneni (Here I am),” he said. “Lech lecha- Go for yourself to a land that I will show you near the River Yabok… and there you shall break Jacob.” “What?!!!” Sar-El could not believe what he had just heard. “Just as you felt the pain of a broken wing, so too shall you injure Jacob’s leg. Just as you felt the humiliation of a broken spirit, so too shall you bring down my arrogant prophet who tricked his brother out of the birthright and the blessing and then thought he could make his allegiance to me conditional – he thought he could bargain with me like over a game of lots. Then when he is at his knees, you shall raise him up again and you shall transform him in My Name. You shall give him a new name and he shall be a new person. His name shall no longer be Jacob, the one at the heel who undermines, but rather ISRAEL, the one intertwined with God – an emissary of God.” “Israel?” said Sar-El, “That is almost my name.” “Exactly,” God replied, “he will also be the prophet connected to Sar-El. You have been and will be his mirror image in the Heavens.” “I thought I was Esau’s angel,” argued Sar-El. “No longer. From now on your name as your destiny shall be Sar-El, the angel connected to Israel, for you have struggled and intertwined with challenges both with and without your wings and you have prevailed.”
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The Encounter: A Biblical Vampire Tale
November 12, 2017

By Rabbi Royi Shaffin

Based on the film “Interview With The Vampire”, Parashat Toldot, and Parashat Vayishlach.
A skilled hunter, he went out into the field to hunt game. He expected this to be an easy catch, but was not prepared for what awaited him in the middle of the field behind trees and bushes, an ambush.
This was no ordinary ambush. Esau was seized by two powerful arms with hands as powerful as metal clamps. The face before him was pale, lifeless, and apathetic to his fear. Esau trembled. Never before had he, as strong and athletic as he was, been so easily overpowered by another person. He wondered if he was indeed in the presence of a human being or some other creature. The eyes had no color but were entirely black and his face had the expression of a carnivorous animal on the hunt. The face of the creature had the color of a man on his death bed. It was an odd and disconcerting sight.
Yet, this creature was far from dead. It moved toward him and opened its mouth. The front of the mouth contained large, shiny, sharp white fangs. They were a beautiful pearly white except for a few spots of red upon them. The creature closed its mouth upon Esau’s bare neck and Esau fell to the ground. He could feel the blood dripping from the side of his neck.
The creature came down upon Esau and placed his mouth upon Esau’s wound. He sucked on the blood and then sucked blood out of Esau’s body. Esau grew weaker and weaker and every time he tried to get up, the creature kept him down easily with his enormous power.
On the brink of death, Esau cried for his father. “Isaac,” he cried out. Then he called out, “God of my father Isaac and my grandfather Abraham, please help me.” Frightened, the creature withdrew his mouth from Esau. He stood up and observed his victim, close to death.
“You will not die,” the creature spoke, “for you are the son of prophets.  You should have been protected from me but your deeds must have diminished the power and shield of prophecy with which you were born. You must have done evil in the eyes of God. Nevertheless, you will not die. I cannot make you live either. You will be one like me, a man who exists in a different realm of existence in between life and death. Just as you were born a hairy wild animal, so will you continue to hunt and devour prey. Just as you have spilled blood, so will you continue to thirst for blood.”
Esau fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke, he felt like he was no longer himself. His sight had changed. It was sharper and he was better able to perceive spiritual beings from the other world. He was now one of them. He had not only gained back his strength but doubled it or perhaps even tripped it. Yet, he did not feel alive.
Esau returned home from the field. He was famished. He did not crave food, but blood.
Jacob was preparing his brew in his caldron and concocting his plot. Looking into his book for direction, ingredients went into the pot one by one.
“Are you going to give me some of that blood or aren’t you?” Esau screamed at Jacob.
“It isn’t for you,” answered Jacob. “It is a potion. It does contain blood so you are not permitted to eat it. Remember the laws of Noah.”
“They no longer apply to me. I am no longer among the living,” Esau replied.
Jacob thought for a moment. “I will give it to you in exchange for the birthright.”
“I am half-dead,” said Esau. “What use is the birthright to me now?”
“Swear!” Jacob insisted.
Esau placed his hand on his chest and swore.
Jacob took his ladle and scooped up some of his concoction into a bowl for Esau.
Esau placed his spoon inside the bowl and scooped out the adashim, the cows eye balls that Jacob had placed inside.
Esau ate and slurped the bloody concoction. He was satisfied. He left without saying another word.
Years later, the brothers met again as Jacob was returning home. Jacob had fled from his brother’s wrath for he felt that his life was in danger. Indeed it was.
As he was returning, Esau came toward him with hundreds of troops. Jacob sent gifts of livestock in front of him to appease his angry brother. His brother met him and it appeared as if he was going to kiss him on the cheek. As Esau got closer, however, two fangs appeared and pierced through Jacob’s cheek. Esau moved away quickly. He knew that Jacob was off limits but Jacob understood the meaning of what had just happened. He knew that he and Esau could never live together again and he must move as far away from Esau as possible. Esau hungered for blood. His brother, Esau, was a vampire.

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The Darkness and the Light: A Jewish Twilight Zone Storybook
November 7, 2017

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

Inspired by an episode of Twilight Zone, the story of Sodom and Gemorah, Parashat Terumah, Merkavah literature, the upcoming Festival of Lights, and hope for a better world.

The world was completely dark when Reb Moshe woke up. Where is everyone. He walked around his house but there was no one there. He went outside to see if his neighbors were home. No one. He walked through the entire shtettle but it was deserted. He walked to the nearby shtettle of yukubitz but there was no one there either. It was the middle of winter and there should have been wind and cold but Reb Moshe felt neither. Frightened, he went back to his house. He opened the ice chest but there was no food. This didn’t seem to matter because Reb Moshe was not hungry. He sat down to study Torah. As he studied, the sun began to rise and the light of day came into his house. He enjoyed the warmth. As he continued to study, he grew hungry and wondered what he would eat. He closed his Chumash and started out the door toward the city. As he left the house, he realized that it was still night. Had he imagined the sun? Was there no light or warmth. He could have sworn that it illuminated his Chumash. Otherwise how was it that he studied without lighting a candle?
He decided to continue toward the city. When he got there, there was no one there either. Not a person existed in the shops or the marketplace or in any of the homes. No

Jews. No non-Jews. Even the church was devoid of people. Now Reb Moshe was really scared. What was happening. He felt like he was in the middle of a nightmare.
He went to the city’s grand synagogue. He knelt down before the ark and cried. Rebbono shel Olam, where am I? Where is my family. My friends? Where are all the people? He closed his eyes and concentrated intensely on reaching HaShem.
When he opened his eyes, he was no longer in the synagogue. The floor underneath him was a crystal blue. Blinding lights fluttered all around him. When he looked closely, squinting, he could see that behind the lights were human figures with wings.
A few chariots of fire flew past him carrying holy looking Jews. He walked a little and before him was a gate with two light figures standing in front. “Code word,” they asked him. Out of his mouth came words that he knew not nor understood nor understood how or why he was saying them. The gates opened. He walked some more. The terrain seemed to be taking him upward as if he was climbing a mountain. “Code word.” Again, somehow he knew the code word and the gates opened. This happened again and again as he walked through seven gates, each more grand and more beautiful than the last. He walked through the seventh gate and a blinding light brought him to his knees. I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt… the G-d of your ancestors Abraham Isaac and Jacob. Remove your shoes from your feet for the ground upon which you stand is holy ground.
Reb Moshe did as he was told. He was trembling.
“You did not accept my decree,” said the Voice.
“I do not understand,” he replied.
“I decreed that the world should be destroyed but you would not accept my decree. That is why you are here. Accept my decree and I shall build a new world out of you, my loyal servant.”
“I stopped you from carrying out a decree to destroy the world?” Reb Moshe asked incredulously.
“Yes, you and nine others,” said the Voice. “I promised your father Abraham that if there were ten righteous, I would spare it all.”
“But everything is dark. All of the people are gone.”
“Yes, the world is in limbo.”
“Please restore it,” begged Reb Moshe.
“Why?” said the voice. “What will be different?”
“What would you like?” asked Reb Moshe.
“Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you.”
“Terumah???!!!” Reb Moshe recognized the words instantly.
“Yes. Trumah is your guide to rebuilding the world.”
“Terumah terumah terumah” Reb Moshe said to himself. “Terumah is the guide. Asher yidveunu libo. We need to give more tzedakah. And it needs to be from the heart.”
“Yes.”
“Orot techashim. Unicorn skins. We cannot use unicorn skin if we have no more unicorns.”
“That is true.”
“We have not been taking care of your garden as you commanded.

Leovda uleshomra.”
“The two cherubs facing each other. They represent our relationship with you. When they face each other, this represents a good relationship with you oh HaShem. When they turn away from each other, that means things are bad between us. How often do we ignore the Divine call. How often do we forget about the spiritual and dwell on the physical. They also represent children studying Torah together. Your Torah has been neglected. It is by virtue of children studying Torah, it says in the Zohar, that the world exists. No wonder the world is on the brink of destruction. The cherubs also represent the love between husband and wife. Why is it that we can’t keep our marriages together? When a marriage fails, you cry and the mishkan sheds tears.
The table represents the Shabbos table. Less and less Jews have a Shabbos table. Where are the candles? Where is the kiddush? Where is the holy challah, the show bread? Where is the matza ball soup, the chicken, the kugel. Where are the zmiros, the niggunim, the vort, the benching? Where are the kinderlach running around? Where is Eshes Chayil and blessing the children? Where has Shabbos gone?
The menorah is the light of yiddishkeit. We are supposed to be upholding our end of the covenant. We are supposed to be illuminating the world with your mitzvos. No wonder it became so dark.
Ish el achiv. Isha el achota. We are supposed to be acting like brothers and sisters and we are constantly at war. You want peace. Shalom.”
“Now you understand why this has happened?” the Voice asked Reb Moshe.
“Yes? Please don’t destroy the world. We can change. We can do better.”
“Asu li Mikdash veshachanti betocham. Make the world into a holy place,” instructed the Voice, “and I shall dwell among you and within you.”
Reb Moshe turned over and felt soft material in his hands. He opened his eyes and found himself holding tight to a sheet. He was in his own house and in his own bed. Had it been a dream?
Reb Moshe got out of bed and went outside to see the the sun rise. He breathed in deeply. Time to get to work.
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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
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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.
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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.”
Silence.
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…
I AM MY BROTHER’S KEEPER.”

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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.
“Yes.”
“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.”

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THE CREATURE
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.

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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.

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