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, February 27, 2006

Parshat Teruma

A Home for God

God told Moshe to seek donations from the children of Israel so that: "They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them" (Shemot 25:8). God then proceeds to describe its design and its furniture.

When we examine description of the Mishkan, we are surprised that the home God demands for Himself was quite similar to a regular human home, only a little more grander.

To begin with, it was to have an Aron (cupboard), Shulchan (table), Menorah (lighting), mizbeach (furnace), and fire pans (cooking utensils). Furthermore, certain foods to be regularly brought to the Mishkan, whether, they were animal sacrifices, baked goods such as the showbread and matzot, wine and even spices.

Of course, as we are talking about God, all the furniture and fittings had to be made of the finest materials such as gold, accacia wood, linen etc. All the animals had to be perfect and unblemished and the flour had to be the finest quality available.

Moreover, all the attendents, had to wear special uniforms and had ritualised protocols as to where they could be and how to behave, just as any human king would have.

When Israel finally settles in the promised land and establishes a rich and mighty kingdom, David bemoans the fact that God's home was still portable: "'See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within curtains" (II Shmuel 7:2) and discusses building Him a palace (aka Temple). God declines the invitation at this juncture.

What's going on here? Was God homeless that He needed somewhere to live? Is He homeless now that the Temple has been destroyed.

If we look closely at the original passuk we quoted, we see that is not the case.

"They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them" (Shemot 25:8). God does not say build Me a sanctuary that I will dwell "in it", but "among them". The purpose of the Mishkan is not for God's benefit but for Israel's. It is not a medium for God to live in, but a medium that enables us to get close to God.

It is impossible to see God for "no man can see Me and live" (ibid 33:20). Nevertheless, with relevant precautions, we can approach God. Israel could not climb Mount Sinai when God gave the Torah lest: "the Lord wreak destruction upon them" (ibid 19:22), but from behind the boundary they could be close to Him. The Mishkan was to act in the same manner. God would descend onto the Mishkan in a cloud (see 40:34) enabling His presence to exist among the people.

Without the Mishkan and Bet HaMikdash, it is not God who suffers the lack of an abode, but us who suffer the absence of His presence.

With the Mishkan, Israel had a place to go to where they could be close to God's presence

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Parshat Mishpatim

The Law

God gave Israel the Torah in last week's parsha. This week, He proceeds to give Moshe a long list of laws. They include laws concerning the treatment of slaves, how to resolve conflicts between people and on returning lost animals of adversaries.

These laws appear to be pretty mundane compared to what Israel had just experienced. They stood at Sinai and G0d revealed Himself to them. He gave them the 10 Commandments and they experienced unprecedented events. Israel understood that there were to become a "kingdom of priests and a holy people".

Surely the next step for Israel should have been to receive guidelines on how to achieve an even closer communion with God, how to concentrate on their spiritual sides to attain even greater holiness and how to sanctify their very existence.

Yet instead, God gives them a series of laws about petty human relationships, which have little or no religious content to them. These laws could have been, and probably were, similar to the laws of other societies.

Nevertheless, this is precisely the Torah's point. Communion with God and achieving holiness is not to be attained through seclusion in the Bet Midrash, lengthy meditation in our prayers or through the punctilious observation of rituals. On the contrary, it can only be attained through complete interaction with society; through our day to day relationships.

The Torah wants Israel to create a society that is a: "kingdom of priests and a holy nation". However, as with any human interaction, conflict will occur. The Torah wants us to resolve the conflicts fairly and justly, to work towards social justice at all levels of society.

It can be no coincidence that the laws begin with our duties towards slaves. Israel themselves, had just been freed from "the house of bondage" and fully understood the unjust lot of the slave. The lowest echelon of society had to be treated with justice and to be given dignity and respect.

So too, when people argued. Their conflict needs to be resolved honestly by a principled judge. We even have duties to the animals of people we dislike, never mind the stranger, widow and orphan.

The roadmap to holiness is not in exclusion from society, but in our inclusion in our relationships with others. It is only when we learn to treat our fellow man, the way we would like to be treated, i.e. with honesty and respect, that we will have accomplished our mission at Sinai and become a true kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Parshat Yitro

Midyan, Amalek and Matan Torah

According to most commentaries (The Ramban being a notable exception), Yitro's arrival and his recommendations about the judicial system occurred after the giving of the Torah, despite the fact that it appears beforehand.

Why, if the story occurred after Matan Torah, was it then written beforehand? What message is the Torah trying to teach by switching the order of events?

One could argue that the institution of the judicial system and the law deserve to be inscribed side by side as they belong together, nevertheless, Yitro's advice could still have followed, rather than preceded Matan Torah.

In order to solve this issue, we must take a wholistic approach to the events recorded in the Torah and tryto understand the big picture.

At Matan Torah, God takes Israel and sets them apart to be a holy and treasured nation (see Shemot 19:5-6). It would not have beeen strange for the Jews to have thought that they were superior to other nations and had a right to treat them with disdain. This view would have been amplified had Matan Torah appeared immediately after the war with Amalek. There, we are told: "I will surely obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from ... [that there shall be] an eternal war for the Lord against Amalek" (ibid 17:14-16). The giving of the Torah would have lain side by side with the complete obliteration of a gentile nation. A lob-sided view of Israel and the nations would have been created.

Instead, the Torah inserts an episode of a gentile not only showing kindness and love for Israel but one who plays a definitive role in applying its system of laws. Israel's relationship with the nations was not to be one of superiority and hatred but of love and willingness to learn from to those who love them and all out war with those who try to destroy them.

Interestingly enough, when the time comes for King Sha'ul to fight Amalek, he first sends a message to the Kenim (the descendants of Yitro, according to Shoftim 4:11), warning them of impending danger: "...for you showed kindness to all the children of Israel, when they came up out of Egypt" (I Shmuel 15:6).

Therefore, the story of Yitro was inserted at this point to show that despite the fact that God chose Israel, He still loves all the nations and so must Israel.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Parshat Beshalach

The 3 Day Game

"It was reported to Pharaoh that the people had fled" (Shemot 14:5). This has got to be the strangest passuk in the Torah. Pharaoh himself had freed the Israelites. They had been gone for three days: what new information could he possibly be receiving?

Nevertheless, this news might have shocked Pharaoh. In all of Moshe's encounters with Pharaoh, he had only asked to leave for a three day festival. Not once had he stated that they would never return. So, when Pharaoh was told on third day that the Israelites had fled and were not returning, his father's fear, that they would: "depart from the land" (ibid 1:10), was realized. This may have been a shock for him.

Why these games, why doesn't Moshe tell Pharaoh outright that Israel was leaving Egypt for good?

There are three ways to answer this question:

1. If you want to win a war you have to play dirty. The enslaved nation had limited resources to defeat Pharaoh: words were one of Israel's few weapons and it was necessary to use them effectively (Rashbam). This was also part of the tactic needed to coax Pharaoh to follow the Israelites into the Red Sea (Ibn Ezra).

2. Moshe's intentions were obvious, howver, he used evasive language that could be understood either way. The "three day" motif appears many times in the Bible and means an "indefinate period of time", and in this instance: "for good". God therefore, gave Pharaoh the choice to understand Moshe in the way he saw fit, even though he knew what Moshe really intended .

3. Pharaoh understood fully what was going on, in fact he certainly had spies amongst the Israelites and knew what they were up to. The ancient world believed that different gods controlled different lands. For example, the new inhabitants of Samaria began worshipping God after the Assyrians forcibly transported them there, for He was the god of that Land (see II Kings 17:24-41) . Additionally, Naaman returned to Aram with soil from Israel so that he could use it to worship God (ibid 5:17). Therefore, Pharaoh was totally aware that Moshe's request to leave Egypt's borders and the control of its gods was the same as asking to be set free, never to return (Daat Mikra).

So why not say it clearly?

Moshe spoke about about worshipping God in the wilderness; an ownerless land unclaimed by no nation. He wanted to teach that God was not tied down to national boundaries: He was God of all the earth. Indeed the Torah was to be given in the wilderness, for God's law is universal and not subject to geographical borders. Furthermore Adam and Eve, humanity in its ideal state, originally lived in the Garden of Eden - once again an area of land not subject to any nation.

God is the God of all the earth and His Glory fills it.