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, June 29, 2006

Parshat Chukat

The Red Heifer and Sefer Bemidbar

Sefer Bemidbar tells the story of the wanderings of ancient Israel in the wilderness, as they prepared to conquer Canaan.

Yet, this week's parsha begins with the laws of the Para Aduma, the Red Heifer. Its main focus is cleansing people from impurities gained from being in contact with the dead.

It therefore, seems to be totally inappropriate for Sefer Bemidbar. It is ideal material for Sefer VaYikra, for it deals with keeping Israel's habitation holy and what to do when that holiness has been breached. Indeed, the rituals for the sacrifices are denoted in VaYikra. So, why is Para Aduma the exception, why does it appear in Sefer Bemidbar and not in VaYikra?

To answer this question, we must examine the episodes immediately prior and following this parsha.

Preceding Para Aduma, we have Korach's rebellion and its aftermath. After Para Aduma, we have the death of Miriam. Korach's rebellion occurred in the first year or two after the exodus from Egypt, while Miriam's death transpired at the end of the forty years.

What happened in those 38 years in between? The Torah tells us nothing, but fills in the gap with the laws of the Parah Aduma. Why?

While the Torah does not relate anything about those 38 years, we do know of one thing that did happen. The generation that left Egypt all died as a result of the sin of the twelve spies. That is, over 600,000 adult men plus, presumably, a similar number of women, perished in those years.

Every family had at least two of its members die in that period of time. Every person would, therefore have been in contact with the dead and would subsequently have been contaminated with their impurity.

Therefore, every family would have needed the services of the Para Aduma at some point during those 38 years.

Consequently, it is highly appropriate for this parsha to be the episode that divides between the events of the first year and those of the fortieth year.

Accordingly, Para Aduma appears here in Sefer Bemidbar and not in Sefer VaYikra. It is the subject with which all Israel busied itself with during the 38 years.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Parshat Korach

Aharon’s Blossoming Rod

God had previously warned Moshe of the dangers of Him living amongst the people: “I will not go up in your midst since you are a stiff necked people, lest I destroy you on the way” (Shemot 33:3).

The people mourned and God relented. The Mishkan was built and God was living among the people. Israel was now suffering the consequences.

Firstly, no impurities could exist within the camp. If someone was impure they had to leave the camp. So too, if they were contaminated with tsaraat.

Yet now, they were dying. Without warning, fire is coming out from God and consuming the people. It began already in Parshat Bhalotecha. First the people on the edges of the camp were consumed for a minor offence (Bemidbar 11:1), while in this week’s parsha, Korach and the 250 chieftains (ibid 16:35), as well as other people in the subsequent plague (ibid 17:14) were also struck down. People were also swallowed by the earth (ibid 16:33), as well as by the quail (ibid 11:33). Miriam also sufferd immediate punishment for a singular indiscretion.

The execution was swift and even Moshe seems to be unaware of its imminence and its indiscriminate nature: “Stand aside from this congregation, and I shall consume them in an instant” (ibid 17:10). Had Moshe not stood aside, he would have suffered the same fate as those in the vicinity.

The people’s panic is therefore understandable:

“Behold, we are dying, we will perish, we are all lost! Whoever comes the closest to the Mishkan of the Lord dies! Have we been consigned to die?” (ibid 17:27-28).

The people are now fully aware of the dangers of God living amongst them. Therefore, measures are set into motion in order to protect them for unintentionally encroaching the sanctity of the sanctuary. Aharon and all the Levi’im are charged with protecting the Mishkan from encroachment. Guards are set up twenty-four hours a day and they are also given instructions on how to protect themselves (ibid Ch. 18).

Nevertheless, surely it would have been better for God to depart the camp altogether? Rather then set up a safety system, wouldn’t it have been better to remove the danger?

God remains in the camp, because as well as being a danger, God’s presence brings with it many opportunities.

“On the following day Moshe came to the Tent of Testimony, and behold, Aharon's rod for the house of Levi had blossomed! It gave forth blossoms, sprouted buds, and produced ripe almonds (ibid 17:23).

Until this point, Aharon’s staff was a dead piece of wood. It had been cut from a tree and fashioned into his insignia. It could no longer grow and certainly could it not sprout blossoms, bud and ripe fruit.

However, God’s presence restored it to life and allowed it to function once again, as a living tree.

While Israel needed protection from God’s presence, they could also be revitalized by it.

Today we are distanced, exiled from God. We pray for His return to us so that we can achieve the mission He has set us. Perhaps first, however, we should cleanse ourselves to be ready for Him, lest His presence destroys us.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Parshat Shelach

The Spies, Challa and Tzitzit

This week's parsha is a mixture of events that seem to be unrelated to each other and the rest of Sefer Bemidbar.

It begins reasonably enough, with the events recalling catastrophe of the spies. This is a direct continuation with the previous parsha's events and explains why Israel remained stranded in the wilderness for forty years. It continues with the Maapilim, those who refused to be condemned to die in the wilderness. They led an authorized attempt to conquer Canaan and were massacred. This is in line with Sefer Bemidbar's theme.

However, suddenly the parsha turns and teaches the following:

- Laws about fulfilling vows
- The laws of Challa
- How to atone for sins done in error
- The episode of the Shabbat desecrator
- The laws of Tzitit

The Torah, in next week's parsha, then resumes Bemidbar's theme, with the episode of Korah.

What is this interruption all about? The first two laws are doubly troubling as they begin with the statement:

"Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you arrive in the land of your dwelling place, which I am giving you" (Bemidbar 15:2).

That generation had just been told that they weren't going to "arrive in the land" at all. This seems to be rubbing it in their face.

Rashi says that actually, God is consoling them. He stresses that Israel should not despair - they will arrive. Moreover, the actual laws are about fulfilling vows, stressing that God will fulfill His vow and he will take them to the land of Israel, despite all that has happened.

The Torah continues and discusses the laws of Challa, the donation of the first dough to the Temple. This stresses that not only will God bring Israel to Canaan, they will be prosperous and have flourishing crops.

Nevertheless, despite these assurances, how does Israel know that God won't continuously delay this promise? They will likely sin again and God will, therefore again delay fulfillment of His vow. How do they get out of this cycle?

The Torah therefore, explains what to do when the nation errs. There is no need to fear; by bringing a sacrifice Israel can gain atonement.

However, the Torah then warns that this only applies to laws committed in error. If anyone deliberately breaks the law, such as the Shabbat desecrator, there can be atonement. That individual will be punished.

In order to allay the despair that keeping the Torah is just too difficult, the people are then taught the laws of Tzitzit. Its primary focus is: "when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them" (ibid 15:39).

Israel can now be confident that they have the tools to ensure their commitment to God so that He will keep His promise and bring them to the land of Israel.

Once this is complete, Sefer Bemidbar can resume its normal course and recount the story of Korach.

Therefore, rather than being a cause of despair, Parshat Shelach gives us the tools to enable us to avoid the pifals of the spies, enabling us to rejoice in God's fulfillment of His promise.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Parshat Behalotecha

The Incident at Tav'era

This week's parsha sees the first of a series of catastrophes that eventually led to Israel remaining in the wilderness for forty years.

The first incident was at Tav'era, the Burning, named because "the fire of the Lord had burned among them there" (Bemidbar 11:3). The story is only briefly recorded, with merely three pesukim devoted to it, and so it is difficult to understand what was going on.

"The people were looking to complain and it was evil in the ears of the Lord. The Lord heard and His anger flared, so a fire from the Lord burned among them, consuming the edges of the camp. The people cried out to Moshe; Moshe prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down. He named that place Tav'era…" (ibid 1-3).

We will focus on Rashi's commentary to investigate the events. First of all, let's ask some questions.

To begin with, what was the people's crime? It does not even actually seem that they did anything wrong. Furthermore, why does Moshe wait to pray only after the people cry out to him? Finally, why were the people only at the edges of the camp killed?

Rashi claims that the people did not really have anything to complain about, but they were looking for a pretext. The people were simply fed up. They had been in the wilderness for over a year, homeless, unsettled and traveling. They were cranky.

While this is not such a serious crime, God had previously warned of the consequences of Him living among the people: "if I go up into your midst for one moment, I will destroy you" (Shemot 33:5); even the slightest infringement could be disastrous.

So who was killed? The passuk states that it was those who were at the edges of the camp. This would explain why Moshe had to be told of what was going on. He resided near the Mishkan, the camp's epicenter and so was unaware of the death and destruction at the far reaches. As soon as the news reached him, he prayed and the deaths ceased.

However, Rashi adopts an alternative suggestion as to who died. He examines the Hebrew word for "edge" – "ketseh" - and relates it to "ketsineh" – the "distinguished". Why did the distinguished, i.e. leaders, deserve to die? Rashi does not explain here, but he does in Sefer Shemot.

At the Revelation at Sinai, God said: "Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and prostrate yourselves from afar" (Shemot 24:1). While on the mountain, Nadav, Avihu and the elders sinned: "gazed at the God of Israel" (ibid 10). Nevertheless, "upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand (i.e. execute)" (ibid 11).

According to Rashi, Nadav, Avihu and the elders all deserved to die, but God did not want Matan Torah to be remembered with death, so He stayed their execution until a later time.

Nadav and Avihu were consumed by God's fire at the Mishkan's dedication (VaYikra 10:2) while the elders were consumed by God's fire in this week's parsha, at Tav'era.

This interpretation allows us to understand the events in the following pesukim. God tells Moshe: "Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel" (Bemidbar 11:16) in order to assist Moshe in governing the people. This is strange, there are already elders! They already existed in Egypt and went up Mount Sinai with Moshe?

However, if we accept Rashi's explanation that it was the elders who died at Tav'era, then God's request for Moshe to select the elders is appropriate. Moshe is selecting a new group to replace the old group.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Parshat Naso

The Mishkan’s Opening Day – Again!!

“It was that on the day that Moses finished erecting the Mishkan…” (Bemidbar 7:1).

With these words the Torah returns us to the day the Mishkan was dedicated and tells of the sacrifices each tribal leader brought on that opening day.

This is the third time the Torah has told us about the Mishkan’s opening day:

“It came to pass in the first month, in the second year, on the first day of the month, that the Mishkan was set up” (Sehemot 40:17). There we are told how Moshe built it and that God’s presence rested on it.

“'Take a he goat as a sin offering…for today the Lord is appearing to you'” (VaYikra 9:1-4). We are subsequently told how two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, died that day.

We do not see the deaths of Nadav and Avihu in Shemot and Bemidbar and we do not see the tribal leaders’ sacrifices in Shemot and VaYikra. How is it, that the Torah can tells us about the same day three times, and that each time, the story is so vastly different?

Modern commentators do not have a problem with this issue. The ancient Israelites had different traditions about what really happened and each tradition was recorded in a separate book.

However, we can come to an alternative solution. However, to begin with, we first ask why there are five books of the Torah. Why is there simply not one long Torah? Why was it divided into five separate books?

Each chumash has a central theme running through it and the story of the Mishkan’s dedication, is told in each book from the aspect of that chumash’s theme.

Sefer Shemot is Sefer HaGe’ula; “The book of Exodus”. Its central theme is Israel’s exodus from Egypt and their journey towards Canaan. Hence, the Mishkan is described in it’s role of leading the people through the wilderness: “When the cloud rose up from over the Mishkan, the children of Israel set out in all their journeys. But if the cloud did not rise up, they did not set out until the day that it rose” (Shemot 40:36-37).

Sefer VaYikra is Sefer Torat Kohanim; “The Book of Priestly Laws”. Its central theme is the maintenance of holiness amongst in Israel. Hence the Mishkan is described in its role as being a medium for God to rest amongst Israel. It tells the story from the angle of its sanctification and sacrilege of that role: “Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them.Fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died” (VaYikra 10:1-2).

Sefer Bemidbar is Sefer HaPekudim; “The Book of Orders”. It tells how Israel was organized in their tribal units around the Mishkan, in preparation for Canaan’s conquest. Therefore, the story is told from the aspect of the tribal leaders, and hence we see their plethora of sacrifices in preparation of the day.

Each account has no place in the other Chumash's account, for each chumash is unique with its own unique message.