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


The Cobra in the Torah
September 7, 2016

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

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

May 20, 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.