Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

My Photo
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.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Parshat Bo

The Humiliation of Ra

The 10 plagues were not just an attack on Egypt, but also a humiliation of its gods:

"... and upon all the gods of Egypt will I wreak judgments" (Shemot 12:12). Indeed there have many attempts to explain each plague as an attack on a different god. For example, the Blood was a against the Nile, Frogs was against the god Nun, Pestilence on the animals that the Egyptians deified, etc.

Nevertheless, Egypt's greatest god was Ra, the Sun god. The ancient Egyptians believed that he created the world. The rising sun was the symbol of creation. The daily cycle sunrise, sunset and sunrise again the next morning, symbolized renewal. Hence, Ra was seen as the paramount force of creation and master of life. In fact, the term Pharaoh means: "The house of Ra", with Pharaoh himself being a living embodiment of Ra. This week's parsha sees the humiliation of Ra.

When turning down Moshe's request for a three day festival in the wilderness Pharaoh says: "רְאוּ כִּי רָעָה נֶגֶד פְּנֵיכֶם"(ibid 10:10).

This is not a simple passuk to translate. Some say:

"See that evil is in your faces", i.e. that Moshe is trying trying to trick Pharaoh into freeing the people completely. Others (including Rashi) say:

"See the [star] Ra'ah is against you", i.e. that Moshe cannot succeed as there is an astrological sign that foretells a bloody future for Israel in the wilderness. Modern commentators say:

"See, Ra is against you", i.e. that Moshe cannot succeed as he is facing the greatest god, Ra.

In this light, the penultimate two plagues can be seen as a total humiliation of Ra.

The Locusts: "They obscured the view of all the earth, and the earth became darkened" (ibid 15).

The Darkness: "There was thick darkness over the entire land of Egypt for three days. They did not see each other, and no one rose from his place for three days, but for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings" (ibid 22-23).

Contrary to Pharaoh' s assertion, Ra was twice powerless to stop the darkness and the accompanying crises that plagued Egypt.

Finally, the Death of the Firstborns can also be viewed as the death of Ra: "Every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne..." (ibid 11:5).

With the death of Pharaoh's heir (i.e. the future embodiment of Ra), Ra himself dies. With all of Egypt's gods rendered harmless, Pharaoh has no option but to free the Israelites.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Parshat VaEra

Knowing God

Before the Exodus from Egypt, no one seemed to know God.

Pharaoh did not know God: "Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel out" (Shemot 5:2)

Moshe and the children of Israel also did not know God: "Behold I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" (ibid 3:13).

Not even the Avot knew God: "I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yakov as E-l Shaddai, but My name הויה I made not known to them" (ibid 6:2).

Therefore God does a series of acts so that Israel would know Him: "Therefore, say to the children of Israel, 'I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians ... and you will know that I am the Lord" (ibid 6-7).

He also does a series of acts so that Egypt would know Him: "The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord when I stretch forth My hand over Egypt, and I will take the children of Israel out of their midst" (ibid 7:5).

However, this lesson was taught to them in stages. First Egypt was to learn that: "I am the Lord" (ibid 7:17) - the first three plagues proved that God controls nature. Then they were to learn that: "I am the Lord in the midst of the earth" (ibid 8:18) - the second group of plagues showed that God was active justly in the world. Finally, the Egyptians had to discover that: "there is none like Me in the entire earth" (ibid 9:14) - the final group of plagues showed that God is all powerful and that He cannot be subordinated.

Previously, the world had only experienced God as: "E-l Shaddai" – the Almighty God of creation, i.e. the God who had done mighty deeds in the past. Yet now, God wanted humanity to learn His other name, namely He wanted to renew His relationship with mankind in a way that they had not yet experienced.

The world was to now experience God as "הויה" – the ever present and ever involved God. Humanity was to learn that God is involved in all aspects of the human present and its destiny.

Our relationship with God is still lacking and is to be upgraded in the future: "On that day the Lord will be one and His name will be one" (Zechariah 14:9).

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Parshat Shemot

Moshe - Assimilated Jew

We often have the impression that Moshe was destined to become Moshe. He was born great and therefore rose to great heights. This idea is backed up by midrashim who teach that as a new-born baby, Moshe refused to suckle from non-Hebrew mothers (as their milk was not kosher) and Moshe got a lisp when the angel forced him to choose the coal instead of the gold.

Nevertheless, the daughter's of Reu'el describe Moshe as: "an Egyptian man" (Shemot 2:19). Even though he was born of Israelite parentage, Moshe was an Egyptian. Having grown up in the royal household, it is likely that he received an Egyptian aristocratic education. It seems tht he spoke, dressed and acted like an Egyptian. Culturally, Moshe was an Egyptian.

Indeed, while Moshe himself seems to know where he comes from (see ibid 4:18), he is totally detached from them. He marries a Midianite (ibid 22), he does not circumcise his son (ibid 25) and does not seem to possess the desire to return to them. Would we have chosen Moshe to be our leader?

Moshe was not chosen because of his background but because of his moral courage. Despite having a privileged background he could not ignore the suffering of others (ibid 2:11), even when the outcome was personally disastrous. Firstly, when an Egyptian oppresses a Hebrew, Moshe intervenes, killing the Egyptian. Despite this outcome, Moshe could not help but intervene the following day when two Hebrews quarrelled. The outcome forced him into exile. Yet, when the shepherds drive away Reu'el's daughters, despite being in a strange land, despite being outnumbered and despite his previous experiences, Moshe still endangers to help an innocent victim.

These 3 cases also follow an interesting pattern. Moshe intervened not just when an Egyptian oppressed a Jew, but also when a Jew persecutds another Jew, and even when a group of gentiles oppressed another group of gentiles. Moshe did not discriminate. Whoever the victim was, he intervened.

The Midrash adds another two qualities. Moshe was shepherding his sheep far away in "the free pastureland" (ibid 4:1) of the wilderness, because he wanted to avoid the theft of his sheep grazing - he respected the property of others. He was also far away as he had chased a kid goat who had escaped the flock. Upon realizing that the goat was thirsty, Moshe showed compassion and carried the goat home (see Shemot Rabba 2:2) - Moshe also cared about animals.

Despite his lack of a Jewish upbringing, Moshe had moral courage and fought injustice indiscriminately, even when he placed himself in real danger.

We may talk about the social problems that exist not too far from our own communities. We may hide in our own communities pretending that everything is fine, or we can be like Moshe and stray outside the comfort of our own suburbs and try to help the socially oppressed.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Parshat VaYechi

Yoseph's Inheritance

At three points in this parsha, Yaakov is lying on his deathbed. The first time Yaakov calls for Yoseph who pledges that he will bury him in Canaan. The second time Yoseph hears of Yaakov's illness and goes to him with his two sons who are adopted by Yaakov. The third time Yaakov calls for all his sons and he procedes with his last testament.

While Yaakov awards Yoseph the bechora, i.e. two portions of the inheritance (Ephraim and Menashe are on a par with all of Yaakov's sons), he confirms that Yoseph is not the sole inheritor and therefore not the fourth patriarch. Yaakov seems to stress this to Yoseph by his usage and non-usage of the term "E-l Shaddai".

E-l Shaddai is used when the Abrahamic covenant is being invoked:

At the Brit Milla: "I am E-l Shaddai; walk before Me and be perfect" (Bereshit 17:1).

From Yitzchak to Yaakov: "May E-l Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and you shall become an assembly of peoples. May He give you the blessing of Abraham" (ibid 28:3-4).

From G-d to Yaakov: "I am El-Shaddai; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a multitude of nations shall come into existence from you, and kings shall come forth from your loins" (ibid 35:11).

This term is used again when with Moshe when the time to fulfill the promise comes: "I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov with [the name] E-l Shaddai, but My name YHWH, I did not make known to them" (Shemot 6:3)

Yaakov uses this term in conferring the first born inheritance to Yoseph, "E-l shaddai appeared to me in Luz, in the land of Canaan, and He blessed me..." (Bereshit 48:3). However he uses it only as an explanation of his whole family's destiny and for the adoption of Ephraim Menashe, and not as a special bestowment upon Yoseph.

Was Yaakov perhaps teasing Yoseph when he said: "Et Shaddai will bless you [with] the blessings of the heavens above, the blessings of the deep, lying below, the blessings of father and mother" (ibid 49:25)?

It seems that Yaakov was trying to dampen any hopes Yoseph may still have had, that his dreams were of a patriarchal nature. Yoseph continues to act as the father of the nation: he promises to support the whole family, assures them of future redemption and like his father, asks them to bury him in Canaan (see 50:24-25). However, Yoseph never hears the divine voice, indeed, it is not heard again until Moshe is eighty years old and is facing the burning bush.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Parshat VaYigash

Confrontation and Reconciliation

In this week's parsha, two leaders, Yehuda and Yoseph confront each other and neither are taking no for answer. Yehuda insists that he will not leave without Benyamin and Yoseph insists that Benyamin will remain his slave and that the rest of the brothers should leave. The conflict ends peacefully with a full reconcilliation between the brothers. This reconciliation acts as the paradigm for the future reconciliation of the Jewish people. How?

The conflict between Yoseph and Yehuda ended when they both acknowledged a mutual portion in Benyamin. Benyamin was Yoseph's "brother, the son of his mother" (Bereshit 43:29), while Yehuda had made himself "indemnity for the lad" and offers himself "instead of the boy as a slave" (ibid 44:32-33).

Benyamin is the medium that allows the brothers to unite. The knowledge that they have a joint stake in Benyamin gives them the incentive to reconcile themselves. So too Benyamin's territory was sandwiched between Yoseph's and Yehuda's, the Bet HaMikdash was in Benyamin's territory and the first king of Israel, Sha'ul, came from Benyamin. When the kingdom split between the North and the South, Benyamin also split, with half going with Yoseph and half going with Yehuda.

Benyamin was Yoseph's full natural brother yet grew up under the responsibility of the others. He was also the only brother to be born in the holy land. He was the common denominator, the bridge, between all the brothers.

Today we must seek out Benyamin. We need to find the common ground between the Yoseph of today, the financial and more secular Jew and the Yehuda of today, the spiritual and more religious Jew. We must build that bridge.