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, July 27, 2006

Parshat Devarim

Devarim, Chazon and Tisha Be'Av

Parshat Devarim is always the Shabbat prior to Tisha Be'Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Chazon, after the haftara from the book of Yeshayahu, which begins with words: "Chazon Yeshayahu" – "The vision of Isaiah". It castigates Israel for its moral disintegration and forecasts disaster.

Is there something special about Parshat Devarim in it is always Shabbat Chazon and connected to Tisha Be'Av, or is it simply a coincidence: since the cycle of Torah readings must be completed by Simchat Torah, Parshat Devarim will always precede Tisha Be'Av?

Interestingly enough, the Midrash, even though it was written in Eretz Yisrael where there was a three year Torah reading cycle and so, Devarim would not have been attached to Tisha Be'Av, does find a connection.

The connection is the word: "Eicha" – "איכה"-, which appears in the parsha, the haftara and in Megillat Eicha, the book read on Tishe Be'Av.

"How (איכה) can I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by myself?" (Devarim 1:12)

"How (איכה) is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers" (Yeshayahu 1:21)

"How (איכה) does the city sit solitary that was full of people!" (Eicha 1:1)

Aside from the word: "Eicha, what is this connection between these three pesukim? We can develop this midrashic idea further. Each Eicha is answering the question of a different Eicha.

To begin, the prophet asks or exclaims: "How does the city sit solitary that was full of people!" Jerusalem, the capital of once mighty empire lay in ruins, its inhabitants deported and its leaders massacred. How did this happen?

The answer can be found in Yeshayahu: "How is the faithful city become a harlot!" The reason why the city was deserted, was because it morally bankrupt – it was absent of honesty. Once its commitment to God had gone, it was only a matter of time before the city became destroyed.

Yet how did the city in which God's Temple resided, the city which hoted the word of the Lord, become so unfaithful and lost in harlotry.

The answer can be found in Moshe's Eicha: "How can I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by myself?"

A gulf developed Moshe and the people. They found it hard to wok with each other and to speak a common language. Their communication became tiresome and burdensome.

This breakdown in communication, led to a breakdown in justice which in turn led to the physical destruction of the people

May all Israel see better days.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Parshat Matot-Massei

Tribe and Tribalism

The ending of Sefer Bemidbar is a little depressing. Previously the daughters of Zelofchad had been told that they could inherit their father’s portion of land, despite the fact that they were women, in order for the family name to survive.

Now, Zelofchad’s clan, Machir from Menasheh, is worried: “if they marry a member of another tribe of the children of Israel, their inheritance will be diminished from the inheritance of our father” (Bemidbar 36:3).

Simply put, were Zelofchad’s daughters to marry people from a different tribe, their portion of land would be transferred to that tribe, causing Menasheh a loss of territory. In order to avert this, a new decree is issued: “Every daughter from the tribes of the children of Israel who inherits property, shall marry a member of her father's tribe” (ibid 8). Landowning women could only marry members from their own tribe.

A barrier between different types of Israelites was erected, and tribal identity was enhanced.

Throughout the Bible, tribal identity was stronger than Israel’s national identity. Chapter 2 of Sefer Shoftim describes how the tribes were left on their own to conquer their lands. Only two tribes, Shimon and Yehuda cooperated and helped each other.

Furthermore, after Devorah’s victory over Sisera, she sings a song praising the six tribes who aided her and criticizes the five who did not. Yet, she does not even mention Yehuda. Apparently, there was no doubt that Yehuda would remain neutral despite Israel’s troubles.

Interestingly enough, when King Sha’ul gathers an army, “he numbered them in Bezek; and the children of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand” (I Shmuel 11:8). He did not gather 330,000 soldiers from Israel, but 300,000 from Israel and 30,000 from Yehuda. The author is saying that Sha’ul was so successful in uniting the people that he even succeeded in gathering a large force from Yehuda.

Indeed, only with Sha’ul is the country first called: “Erets Yisrael (ibid 13:9); until this point, the country was really twelve independent states.

King David is so conscious of the tribal loyalties, that when he reunites the people after years of civil war, he chooses a new capital, Jerusalem, a border city that had never been in Israel’s hands, so that no one tribe could claim dominion over the other. His heir King Shlomo tries to destroy tribal identity by creating twelve new administrative districts not based on tribal allotments: “Shlomo had twelve officers over all Israel, who provided victuals for the king and his household: each man had to make provision for a month in the year” (I Kings 4:7).

Unfortunately, Shlomo’s efforts failed and within a generation, ten tribes broke away from Yehuda (ibid 12:19).

Tribal identity is only finally shattered in exile: “There was a Yehudi in Shushan the castle, whose name was Mordechai the son of Jair the son of Shimi the son of Kish, a Benjamite” (Esther 2:5). Even though he was from Benyamin, Mordechai was still considered a Yehudi, a member of Yehuda.

The process of tribalization seems to have been given a boost in Sefer Bemidbar. “The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his division with the flag staffs of their fathers' house; some distance from the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp” (Bemidbar 2:2). Moshe counts them in their tribes, settles them in camps based on their tribe, and gives them all flags and an insignia.

Indeed, the rebellions in the book of Bemidbar seem to be tribal; The spies had one representative of each tribe (bid 13:2), suggesting inter-tribal suspicion, and in the after math of Korach’s rebellion, each tribe had to present its staff with its insignia to the Mishkan (ibid 17:17).

The situation hits such a peak that at the beginning of this week’s parsha, that Moshe reports to the tribal heads: “Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying” (ibid 30:2).

Why did Moshe allow and even encourage this tribaliaztion process?

The solution to this problem can be found by the word Sefer Bemidbar uses to define a tribe: “Mateh” – "מטה". This word is almost unique to Bemidbar. Throughout the rest of the Torah, the word used is “Shevet” - "שבט".

What is the difference between a “shevet” and and a “mateh”? Both words mean: “staff”. Each staff had its unique insignia that was engraved on it. Clans identified themselves by their staff and were allied to it. It was the symbol of their tribe and the word came to mean “tribe”.

Yet there are two types of staff: a “shevet” and a “mateh”. A shevet is a stick used for hitting (“Your rod [shevet] and Your staff, they comfort me” - Tehillim 23:4), while a “mateh” is used for guidance (“Say to Ahron, stretch forth your hand with your staff [matheh]” - Shemot 8:1).

Moshe acknowledged the existence of 12 tribes with their identities. He tried to build a system whereby they would work together as Mattot. Unfortunately, soon after his death they started to work against each other, as Shevatim.

Today the tribes of Israel still exist, but in a different format. It is incumbent for us all to work together as mattot and not to fall into the conflict of shevatim.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Parshat Pinchas

Moshe and Yehoshua

In this week’s parsha, God informs Moshe that he is about to die. Moshe understands the serious ramifications of Israel being leaderless and asks God to appoint a new leader before he dies “so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Bemidar 27:17).

God tells him to appoint Yehoshua Bin Nun. His selection was to be done in the presence of the whole nation using the Urim. Moshe was also to “bestow some of your majesty upon him so that all the congregation of the children of Israel will take heed” (ibid 20).

Concerning the idea that Moshe bestowed some of his majesty on Yehoshua, the rabbis say: “The face of Moshe was like the sun, the face of Yehoshua like the moon” (Bava Batra 75a).

This expression can be understood in a number of ways. The sun and moon are both beacons that give light, meaning that Yehoshua was in Moshe’s mould. He had a similar style of leadership to Moshe, but was nevertheless inferior to him, just like the moon’s light is to the suns. Or perhaps, just as the moon gains its light from the sun, Yehoshua gained his right to lead as a result of Moshe.

Whatever, the case it is clear that the author of Sefer Yehoshua goes out o his way to show that Yehoshua indeed was the authentic replacement of Moshe. We will show four examples:

Firstly, after Moshe had died, God said to Yehoshua that He: “will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you” (Yehoshua 3:7).

As a result, God does a miracle that was similar to Moshe’s greatest miracle. Yehoshua splits the Jorden River. Moshe had split the Red Sea, a far greater miracle; nevertheless, the people could not fail to recognize that Yehoshua had done a similar miracle and that He was the inheritor of Moshe’s legacy.

Secondly, the expression: “The Lord spoke to _______ saying” is reserved only for Moshe. We do not find it with the any of the Patriarchs, King David or even Eliyahu the prophet, for only Moshe had such a clear prophecy that was like direct speech with the Almighty. (The expression does appear with Aharon, Moshe’s brother, but should really be seen as an extension of Moshe).

Nevertheless, Yehoshua Chapter 20:1, states: “The Lord spoke with Yehoshua saying”. By using the expression reserved exclusively for Moshe, Sefer Yehoshua is once again, presenting him as Moshe’s legitimate successor.

Thirdly, Orthodox Jews believe Moshe to be the prophet who wrote the Torah. Nevertheless, after renewing Israel’s covenant with God, Sefer Yehoshua states: “Yehoshua wrote these words in the book of the Law of God” (ibid 24:26). We need not concern ourselves with the meaning of: “the book of the Law of God”, nevertheless, we have once again Yehoshua performing an act that was clearly unique to Moshe.

Finally, at the outset of the book Yehoshua is described as: “Moshe’s assistant” (ibid 1:1); perhaps that is how Yehoshua saw himself. However, at his death, he is given the same epitaph given to Moshe at his death “servant of the Lord” (compare ibid 24:29 and Devarim 34:5).
In this manner, the author of Sefer Yehoshua shows how exactly Moshe succeeded in bestowing his majesty to his successor, Yehoshua.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Parshat Balak

Balak's Fear

"Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moav became terrified of the people, for they were numerous…" (Bemidbar 22:2-3).

What exactly was Balak afraid of? At first glance, he is concerned that Israel will attack him and steal his land. However, from a simple reading of the text, we know that this cannot be true.

To begin with, Israel at this point, has already defeated Sichon and Og, the Amorite kings. They are now standing on the banks of the River Jordan waiting for the order to cross over into Canaan to conquer it. Therefore, it should have been obvious to Balak that Israel had no intention of engaging Moav in war.

Further, in Sefer Devarim, Moshe states: "The Lord said to me, Do not distress the Moabites, and do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land [as] an inheritance…" (Devraim 2:9).

Israel was forbidden to attack Moav. While it could be argued that Moav did not know that instruction, they nevertheless, could not have missed the fact that Israel had bypassed their land and went around them. If Israel had belligerent ambitions against Moav, they would have found out well before now.

Finally, after Bilam fails to curse Israel and Balak recognizes that he could not defeat them in battle, nothing happens. Bilam goes home, Balak goes home and there are no hostilities between Israel and Moav.

Therefore, it seems that he had aggressive ambitions against Israel and not vice versa. So why was he afraid? What did he want?

The answer can be found by looking at the story of Yiftach in Sefer Shoftim (The Book of Judges). In trying to come to a negotiated settlement with Amon (the sister nation of Moav), Yiftach asks them why they were attacking Israel.

They respond: "Because Israel took away my land, when he came up out of Egypt, from the (river) Arnon even unto the (river) Yabbok, and unto the Jordan; now therefore restore those cities peaceably" (Shoftim 11:13).

It seems that Moav has a territorial argument with Israel. They want Israels's settlements in east bank of the Jordan river, claiming that Israel had stolen them from them when they conquered Canaan. But is this so? We do not encounter any battle between Israel and Moav (or Amon) after the Exodus. However, we do have Israel conquering those areas, but from Sichon and Og not Moav. So again, what's going on?

The answer is in last week's parsha. While describing Israel's defeat of Sichon and Og, the Torah writes: "Heshbon was the city of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and he had fought against the first king of Moab, taking all his land from his possession, as far as Arnon" (Bemidbar 21:26).

The area that Israel had captured from Sichon, had been previously conquered by Sichon from Ar, the first king of Moav. Moav had never given up its hope of retaining this land. Indeed around 300 years later, in the days of Yiftach, they are still fighting Israel over it. Nevertheless, the Torah stresses: "Arnon was the Moabite border between Moav and the Amorites" (ibid 13). While Moav claim that the east bank of the river Jordan is their land, it is not. Their border is the Arnon river. North of the Arnon is not historically Amon's even though Amonites once lived there. As a nation it was never their land.

Yet, Balak still claimed it and wanted it back. It terrified him that Israel had now conquered it as "they were numerous" and he feared that he would never get back. So he asked Bilam to curse Israel. He believed that under those circumstances, he could attack and defeat Israel. When that plan failed, he came to terms with his loss and did not stop Israel from taking possession. However, his people's historical memory lasted and 300 years later they too tried to restore the eastern bank of the Jordan river. They also failed.