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.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Parshat Bemidbar

Re’uel or De’uel?

Moshe appointed 12 tribal leaders to help count the people. The representative of Gad is called: “Eliasaph ben De'uel” in chapter 1:14, and “Eliasaph ben Re'uel” in Chapter 2:14.

Why is Eliasph’s father’s sometimes called: “De’uel” (with a daled – "ד") and sometimes “Re”uel” (with a resh "ר")?

Modern commentators do not have a problem with this, after all the only difference between a daled and a resh ("ד" and "ר") is that the daled’s head runs slightly over the vertical line. Therefore, at some point a scribal error occurred and the name was recorded incorrectly. Alternative manuscripts of the Bible seem to confirm this.

However, orthodox Jews tend to dislike this type of answer. The ancient scribes revered the Torah and were very diligent in the way they copied it. Indeed, the fact that ancient Torah manuscripts barely differ from what we have today, illustrates how careful they actually were in recording the words.

I would therefore like to offer two alternative explanations. The Ramban explains that the Torah often changes the name of people to a different name with the same meaning.

For example, in Bemidbar 26:13 we see a gentleman called Zerach. However, in Bereshit 46:10, he is called. Zochar. “Zerach” and “Zochar” both have the same meaning, i.e. “shining light”. Therefore, he was known by both names and so the Torah uses both.

So too, De’uel and Re’uel. Both names mean: “One who is close to God”. Thereby, he was known by both names.

The English language has it’s own equivalent: Rob and Bob, Will and Bill and Richard and Dick. People with one of those names are also called by the alternative name.

Moshe Cassuto, professor of Bible at the Hebrew University, suggests an alternative answer. Bereshit Chapter 10 records the lists the nations descendent from Noach. In passuk 4 we are told of the descendents of Yavan: “The sons of Yavan were Elishah and Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim”. However the “Dodanim” are called: “Rodanim” in Divrei Hayamim I 1:7: “The sons of Yavan were Elishah, and Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim”.

Once again we have a “daled” and a “resh” interchanged. He suggests that the original name of the people was “Derodanim”, however, they were known better in its shorter form, as both the Dodanim and the Rodanim. So too, Eliasph's father. His full name was Deru’el. However, he was called by both its shoerter forms; sometimes called De’uel and sometimes Re’uel.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

Shemitta and VaYikra

The standard formula for introducing a new set of laws is: "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying…"

The formula in Parshat Behar adds the location: "The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying" (Vayikra 25:1)

We are told the location for obvious reasons. At the outset of the book of VaYikra: "He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting (Ohel Mo'ed), saying" (ibid 1:1). Since no location for all the subsequent laws were recorded, we can assume that they were also received in the Ohel Mo'ed.

However, since the laws of the Sabbatical year, Shemitta, had been previously given at Mount Sinai and not at the Ohel Mo'ed, we have to be told this information.

Nevertheless, we must ask why, if they were received at Sinai a year earlier, these laws then appear in Sefer VaYikra. Why were they not recorded in Sefer Shemot in the chronological order?

The Ramban argues that they are recorded in Sefer Shemot. At the giving of the Torah, Moshe receives a long list of laws, including: "Six years you may sow your land and gather in its produce. But in the seventh [year] you shall release it and abandon it" (Shemot 23:10-11). However, even though all the details were also given at that point, they were only recorded at this point.

The question, however, still remains, why? What is Shemitta's relevance to Sefer Vayikra?

The central theme of Sefer VaYikra is the attainment and maintenance of the people's holiness (see blog for Parshat Emor). The laws of Shemitta emphasize the holiness of the land and focus on the sanctity and dignity of Man.

Once entered, the cycle of poverty and servitude was inescapable in the ancient world. Bad harvests lead to borrowing to buy seed. If the harvest failed again one was forced to sell one's land to pay the debt. Without land one was eventually forced to sell oneself to escape hunger. It was then impossible to improve your lot. All future generations remained slaves and poor in perpetuity.

Indeed landowners always retained and increased their wealth. They allowed others, called serfs, to work their land, but they could only keep what they needed to eat. The rest of their labor went to the landowner whose wealth expanded.

In order to end this cycle, so that future generations would not suffer from the poor business acumen of an ancestor, the Torah insisted that land and servitude could not last more than 50 years. At the Jubilee, all land had to be returned to the original owner and all slaves had to be freed. At the same time, clan members had to work hard to acquire an early release and redemption of their relative's property.
Furthermore, laws regarding supporting the impoverished and protecting them from interest payments were introduced, as were laws designed to protect slaves during their servitude, thereby, guarding the dignity and sanctity of Man.

As the Torah explains: "the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt" (VaYikra 25:55). A person may not be enslaved to another in perpetuity. Perpetual enslavement of humans reduces them to being tradable commodities, not holy life forms.

If this message is lost, then all the sanctity that Sefer VaYikra aims for is pointless.

This message is therefore also appropriate for Matan Torah, for at Sinai, Israel was charged by God to restore the dignity of Man and to teach of humanity's sanctity.

As a result, the statement about Man's sanctity was recorded in Sefer Shemot and the fine points were described in Sefer VaYikra.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Parshat Emor

The Tale of the Blasphemer

Sefer VaYikra is not a historical book. It propagates the attainment of holiness, whether through the sacrifices, purification from ailments and other impurities and our ethical behavior. It does not generally tell stories. The tale of the blasphemer at the end of this week's parsha, is one of its two exceptions.

A man has an argument which results in him blaspheming publicly. He is remanded in custody until God says that he is to be executed by stoning, which is subsequently performed.

The story is brief: we do not know what the argument was about, what his blasphemy entailed, why he did it publicly and why there was a doubt as to what to do with him. We do not even know his name!!

At the same time, we are provided with some information which appears to be superfluous: We are told his mother's name and her tribe, we are told of his mixed parentage, i.e. that his father was an Egyptian, and we are told that all those who heard his blasphemy had to be involved in his execution.

The rabbis tried to piece these fragments together. The mother's name Shlomit bat Divri, i.e. "greetings, daughter of talker" hints at her flirtatious nature. Her behavior resulted in her being raped by an Egyptian, possibly the man Moshe killed in his youth. Note how the root "נצה" – "argue" appears in both episodes.

Since the tribes were to be apportioned "by families following their fathers' houses" (Bemidbar 1:2), this man, whose father was Egyptian, found himself tribeless and therefore landless. The individuals charged with apportioning the tribes were "were indicated (נקב) by names" (ibid 17), so he argued with the Dan representative, his mother's tribe, over his predicament and subsequently, "pronounced (נקב) the Name" (VaYikra 24:11).

The people do not know what to do with him. He was a stranger, 'ger', someone who was landless. Do the laws also apply to him? God responds in the affirmative: "One law shall be exacted for you, 'ger' and resident (i.e. landowner) alike" (ibid 22).

Why are these details missing?

These details are irrelevant to Sefer VaYikra. Leviticus is concerned with maintaining the holiness of the people. This story only belongs in Sefer VaYikra because the consequences of the blasphemy could have been disastrous to the people. Therefore, all the people who heard his blasphemy had to be involved in his execution. They must understand the seriousness of the crime and not allow themselves or the camp to be polluted by his actions. This factor is irrespective of the perpetrator's background.

Therefore this story is also taken out of its historical and human context. Sefer VaYikra is not concerned with when and how it happened. It is also not concerned with showing compassion to the man, who is also a victim, just as it is not concerned with compassion for Aharon over his sons' deaths, nor with compassion for Elazar and Itamar and neither with the compassion for any priest whose relatives die. Sefer VaYikra's only concern is how we maintain the camp's sanctity in all circumstances, including death, illness and crimes such as blasphemy.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Parshat Acharei-Kedoshim

The Gathering

Generally, God instructs Moshe to: "speak to the children of Israel" (דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל). In the second of this week's parsha he is told: "speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel" (דַּבֵּר אֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל) (VaYikra 19:2).

The commentaries explain that Moshe would not personally transmit God's message to the entire people. He would delegate the task to the the elders of the community, so that it can be done in smaller manageable groups.

In this instance, however, God wanted every single person, young and old, men and women and even suckling children to be present and hear the laws personally from Moshe. It was "Hakhel", the gathering of the entire people.

Why? What is unique about these laws? The Ibn Ezra explains that the entire Ten Commandments appears in this sequence of laws, it is the essence of the Torah, and recalls the Giving of the Torah. Indeed, this section marks the epicentre of the Five Books of Moses, a sign that it is of great importance. Therefore, the entire people were assembled for this special gathering.

Nevertheless, this was not the only occassion that Moshe spoke: "to the entire congregation of the children of Israel".

"Moshe called the entire congregation of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: '... the seventh day shall be holy for you...'" (Shemot 35:1-2).

Building the Mishkan
"Moshe spoke to the entire community of the children of Israel, saying: '...Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord...'" to build the Mishkan (ibid 4-5).

Note how the entire people had to present to hear about the "Holiness Code" (our Parsha), the sanctity of Shabbat and the building of the Mishkan.

Each of these gatherings introduced a different concept of holiness:

Shabbat - the sanctity of time; Mishkan- the sanctity of space; and Israel - the sanctity of the human being.

Note also how each concept becomes holy through its separation. The seventh day from the other six days of the week, the materials of the Mishkan through its separation from the people's other possessions, and the people through its different mode of behavior to the other nations.

All the people, the entire congregation of the children of Israel, were to understand that they were capable of achieving holiness in their lives; by separating from aspects of their routine, home and behavior.