Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Parshat Toldot

Twins in Her Womb

Rivka is privy to much information that logically she should not have known:

  • Whilst pregnant, God tells her the destiny of her prodigy (Bereshit 25:23)
  • She overhears Yitschok's intention to bless Esav (ibid 27:5)
  • She is told of Esav's intention to kill Yaakov (ibid 41)

However, there's also much she didn't know:

  • She knew she had two nations in her womb, but is surprised that she had twins – "her days to give birth were completed, and behold, there were twins in her womb" (ibid 25:24)
  • She was concerned about Yaakov being cursed by Yitschak, but did not anticipate Esav's reaction to Yaakov taking the berachot (ibid 27:12-13)
  • In sending Yaakov to Lavan, she thought he would only be gone: "for a few days" (ibid 44). She did not know that he would be there for 21 years and that she would never see him again

In acting on her foreknowledge, Rivka alters her family's dynamics:

  • She favors her younger son (ibid 25:28)
  • She decieves her older son (ibid 27:6-13)
  • She misleads her husband (ibid 46)

The result is that her family is split apart with Yaakov forced to flee (ibid 43).

Should Rivka had intervened? Maybe she should have allowed God to worry about His masterplan? The conflict btween Yaakov and Esav and history might have been very different.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Parshat Chayei Sarah Remove Formatting from selection

A Stranger and a Sojourner

Despite being promised by God: “all the land that you see I will give to you…” (Bereshit 13:15), Avraham is a “stranger and a sojourner “ (ibid 23:4) and has no place to bury his wife. Therefore, he begins negotiations with the Hittites in order to secure a burial plot.

The first two negotiations end with Avraham bowing low (ibid 7 & 12), the modern equivalent of a handshake and partial success. The third rounds ends with complete success. We will examine these negotiations:

The root Shema (“listen” or “understand”) appears 6 times in this short narrative. The Hittites were not listening to Avraham or at least they misunderstood him

The First Negotiation (ibid 3-7)

Avraham asks to buy a burial plot. The Hittites respect Avraham and consider him to be “Prince of God” (ibid 6), a spiritual leader of the highest pedigree. Is he really interested in owning land or does he merely need a place to bury his wife? They think the latter.

Therefore, rather than requiring him to purchase land they tell him “in the most desired of our tombs you can bury your dead. None of us will withhold his tomb from you” (ibid). The Hittites misunderstood Avraham’s need to own the plot. Instead, they offer him a space wherever he so desires. Avraham thanks them; he has been partially successful.

The Second Negotiation (ibid 8-12)

Avraham requests a meeting with Ephron ben Zochar, so that he can purchase a specific plot: The Meorat HaMachpela. Ephron, tells Avraham: “Listen to me. I have given you the field, and the cave that is in it… bury your dead" (ibid 11). He too, does not seem to understand Avraham’s need to own the land. Avraham thanks him He has now secured the actual plot, but is still not satisfied: he wants unreserved ownership.

The Third Negotiation (ibid 13-16)

Avraham is well aware that a gift of land would have a questionable legal status and so he continues negotiating, insisting on a purchase: “Listen to me, I am giving money for the field” (ibid 13). Ephron then names his price: “four hundred shekels of silver, what is it between me and you?” (ibid 15) and Avraham makes the remuneration.

Avraham ensures that all was done “before the eyes (or ears) of the Hittites” (ibid 10, 11, 16 & 18) and at the gates of the city, the commercial and legal center. The deed of sale is then recorded and witnessed (ibid 17-18). The ownership of the plot could never be contested.

Religions are often considered to be the realm of the spirit. Material assets such as land should not be of concern to the truly spiritual person. Judaism however, is different; it is not an ascetic religion. It believes in nourishing the body. So too, the Land of Israel is an integral part of its identity. They cannot be separated.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Parshat VaYera

She's my Sister – Again!!

For the second time, Avraham describes Sarah as his sister and for the second time, a foreign ruler, this time Avimelech, King of Gerar, takes Sarah to his harem (Bereshit 20:2).

Avraham seems to be compromising Sarah in order protect himself. First time round this action was an uncomfortable read for us, the fact that it occured again is additionally puzzling. There's obviously more going on than meets the eye.

To help us get better insight into the events, we should note that Avraham deliberately chose to describe the relationship between himself and Sarah as that of brother and sister. This description is not coincidental.

In the ancient world, when a girl's father was absent, the brother becomes responsible for finding a suitor for her (NB: it is striking how Lavan takes over Rivka's matrimonial negotiations from his father, Betuel – ibid 24:50-55).

By describing her as his sister, rather than compromising her, Avraham automatically protects Sarah from anyone who desired her. Had Avraham admitted that he was her husband, he might have been killed and Sarah would have been taken. However, as her brother, there was another course of action for potential mates to take. They could legally approach Avraham and negotiate over her. Avraham could then have entered into endless and protacted negotiations, giving them time to plan their escape. At the same time, Avraham has a valid excuse for keeping Sarah out of sight.

Seen in this light, this was a good tactic designed in order to equally protect Sarah and Avraham.

Unfortunately, Avraham's plan became unstuck, when the totally unexpected happened. Pharaoh and Avimelech, monarchs who Avraham had no reason to suspect he would ever meet, wanted Sarah. With them there could be no drawn out negotiations. They lay down their price leaving Avraham with no choice but to accept it without delay.

Note, however, that this tactic actually succeeded for Yitzchak. He also claimed that Rivka was his sister. While Avimelech claims that someone might have taken her, no one actually did and Rivka remained under Yitzchak's protection (ibid 26:10).

Therefore, rather than putting Sarah into a compromising position, Avraham's was actually trying to protect her from unwanted advances. Unfortunately, his plan failed.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Parshat Lech Lecha

The Double Edge of Circumcision

Dedicated to the birth of the first child to my niece, Michal (and Danny) Rosenthal, the first grandchild of my sister, Ruti (and Sruli) Berkowitz and the first great-grandchild of my parents, Yudit and Yisroel Abelesz.

God made a double edged promise to Avraham if he would leave his homeland and "go to the land that I will show you". God would: "...make of you a great nation…and through you all the families of the earth will be blessed" (Bereshit 12:1-4).

This promise was reaffirmed to Yitschak: "I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and will give to your seed all these lands; and by your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (ibid 26:4) and to Yaakov: "The land whereon you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed…And through you and your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed (ibid 28:13-14).

On the one hand, God promises Avraham exclusivity – he will become a great nation in his own distinct land. Yet on the other hand, he is also promised universality: he will become the father of humanity, that through him all humanity will attain blessing. By becoming a nation dedicated to God's values, Avraham's descendants would then positively influence the rest of humankind so that they too, would attain God's blessing.

Furthermore, before accepting the Torah, the children of Israel were required to accept both these national and universal roles: "you will be unto Me a kingdom of priests (universal), and a holy nation (national)" (Shemot 19:6).

God also placed these roles as the centerpiece of the Brit Mila, He made with Avraham. Firstly, Avraham's name was changed from Avram to Avraham, signifying that "the father of a multitude of nations have I made you" (Bereshit 17:5). Secondly, "This is My covenant, which you … and your seed after you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised" (ibid 10). Through, circumcision, Avraham and his descendents became unique, physically different and set apart from all other nations, signifying His exclusive relationship with them.

These two ideas still exist in the circumcision ceremony of Jewish males: The Circumcision and the Naming. The circumcision signifies the child's acceptance of the Jewish people's national role and the naming signifies his acceptance of the universal role.
Perhaps this is why two blessings are recited at the ceremony: The first "על מצות מילה" – "on the act of circumcision" representing the national role, and "להכניסו בבריתו של אברהם אבינו" – "on entering him into the covenant of Avraham, our forefather", representing the child's acceptance of his universal role.

This is indeed the task of the Jewish people. May we merit to accomplish both these roles.