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, August 31, 2006

Parshat Ki Tetseh

The Impaled Criminal

In the ancient world, vicious criminals or enemies were impaled for all to see, either as a warning to future criminals and enemies, or as a celebration of victory.

Israel's first king, Sha'ul's body was hung up on the walls of Bet Shan for a lengthy period of time, until it was rescued by the inhabitants of Yavesh Gilad and given a dignified burial (See I Shmuel 31:9-13).

Yoseph told Pharaoh's baker that he would be left impaled for such an extended period of time that: "the birds will eat your flesh off you" (Bereshit 40:19).

Indeed it was common for the impaled to be left unburied as it was considered the ultimate punishment, guaranteeing no after-life.

Nevertheless, in this week's parsha, the Torah limits the length of time a person may be left hanging unburied:

You shall not leave his body on the pole overnight. Rather, you shall bury him on that day, for he that is hanged is a reproach of Elohim, and you shall not defile your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance" (Devarim 21:23).

Indeed, Yehoshua was careful to obey this law:

"The king of Ai he hanged on a tree until the eventide; and at the going down of the sun Joshua commanded, and they took his carcass down from the tree" (Yehoshua 8:29)

The Torah brings two reasons as to why the body must be buried by nightfall:

"for he that is hanged is a reproach of Elohim"
"you shall not defile your land"

What do these two ideas mean?

We have deliberately left the word: "Elohim" untranslated, for there are two ways we can understand it.

According to Rashi, it means: "God". As humans are created in the image of God, leaving a carcass hanging is an insult to God. Therefore, even though the person was a criminal or an enemy, he must still be treated with respect and be buried by nightfall.

However, according to the Sephorno, Elohim here refers to the person's godly image, or his spirit. Leaving an unburied corpse is an insult to his spirit, which remains alive even aftehis body has expired. This spirit can also be dangerous to the community if the body is not buried, deferring the spirit from moving on.

The body defiling the land can also be understood in two ways:
One could easily argue that leaving an unburied corpse is not just insult to the person and God, it also signifies a moral defiling of the land or the people.

Nevertheless, one could also understand these words literally. When a corpse is left unburied, animals and birds, as was evident with Pharaoh's baker, eat the corpse. The body also decomposes. This means that the body will end up being spread across the land. Since a dead body is the most defiling tuma there is, the land will literally become defiled, as dead body parts, even in the form of small pieces of bone and dust, will be spread over it.

Treating a dead body with respect, is not just a moral imperative and an example of Israel being a light unto the nations, it is also a halachik imperative, ensuring that Israel remains a holy people.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Parshat Shoftim

The King

This week’s parsha sets out the rules of four strands of leadership: The Judge, The King, The Priest and The Prophet.

Israel may be governed by kings when they ask for one: “I will appoint a king over myself, like all the nations me” (Devarim 17:14). Yet, when the elders approached Shmuel, the prophet and said: “Appoint a king over us to judge us like all the nations” (I Shmuel 8:4), using the same formula and language of this week’s parsha, “the request displeased Shmuel” (ibid 5).

Certainly Shumel saw this request as a rejection of himself (ibid 7), nevertheless, it is difficult to understand God’s problem. After all, He himself permits it!!

Through a close examination of both the text in Sefer Devarim and Sefer Shmuel, we can understand the problem with the people’s request.

To begin with there are three things forbidden to an Israelite king:

    • “he may not acquire many horses for himself” (Devarim 17:16)
    • “he shall not take many wives for himself” (ibid 17)
    • “he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself” (ibid)

At the same time, the King has a requirement that he must uphold: “he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll…and he shall read it all the days of his life” (ibid 18-19).

What type of king is bound by laws? How can horses, wealth and wives be forbidden to a king?!! These are things that signify a king’s power and grandeur. Furthermore, why is a king required to do study the law? The king IS the law. He makes the law.

The Torah explains why: “so that his heart not be lifted over his brothers” (ibid 20). Is this a joke? Is this a king?!!

Yes. This is Israel’s leadership. The king is not beyond the letter of the law. The king may not be all-powerful. He must be a constitutional king, a servant of his people and subservient to the law.

This was not the standard type of king of the ancient world. They were ruled by absolute, despotic kings; kings who did what they like, who were challenged by no one and who were believed by their peoples to be gods.

This is the type of king Israel requested in the days of Shmuel. There is one word the people added to the formula that Devarim allows: "לשפטנו" – “to lead us” (I Shmuel 8:5 & 6).

The people, fed up with the weak leadership of the judges, wanted a strong king who could order them around as he wished, just as the nations did. Shmuel warned them: “he will take your sons …and they shall run before his chariots…to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest...he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. He will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive groves, … and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants” (ibid 10-15).

Israel is forbidden this type of king. Indeed, Israel's kings were powerless in the face of prophetical criticism and in circumventing the law. When Navot refused Achav’s request to give him his vineyard: “he laid him down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread” (I Melachim 21:4), accepting that he had no power to take it away. Izevel, his Phoenician wife, could not understand his powerlessness. Yet, even she was forced to go through the motions of the courts in order attain his desire.

Even more so, when Ben Hadad is defeated in battle and fears for his life, his servants advise him to surrender because: “the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings… perhaps he will let you live (ibid 20:31).

God permits Israel to have a constitutional king, but they requested an absolute king. Israel’s leaders are to be: "מלכי חסד" – “merciful kings”.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Parshat Re’ei

The Place

In this week’s parsha, Moshe tells Israel, that once the Land of Israel has been cleansed from idolatry, a place would be designated for God’s worship:

“Only to the place which the Lord your God shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there” (Devarim 12:5).

The expression: “the place which the Lord your God shall choose” appears many times throughout Sefer Devarim. However, not once does the Torah specifically say where that place is.

Indeed, even though the name: “Jerusalem” appears 152 times in the Hebrew Bible, it does not make an official appearance in the Torah at all.

However, the Torah does hint towards it.

After defeating the four kings, Avraham meets a strange character called Malki Zedek, King of Salem (see Bereshit Chapter 14). As well as being a king, he is also: “the high priest of El-Elyon” (ibid 19). It seems that Salem was a monotheistic monarchy in the midst of Canaan.

When Israel conquers Canaan, Adoni Zedek king of Jerusalem organizes a coalition to attack Israel (Yehoshua Ch. 10). The title “Malki” and “Adoni” are synonymous and so it is clear that Adoni Zedek is a descendent of Malki Zedek. Therefore, the rabbinical claim that Salem is an ancient name for Jerusalem is on solid ground. Consequently, it would seem that even in pre-Israelite times, Jerusalem was already the home of monotheism.

The Rabbis also say, less convincingly though, that the place that Yaakov slept was Jerusalem (Bereshit 28:10-22). This is because of the six-fold appearance of the word: “hamakom” (the place), in the episode. “The place” can only refer to: “the place which the Lord your God shall choose”, i.e. Jerusalem.

The Rabbis also claim that the binding of Ytischak (the Akeida) (Bereshit Ch. 22) occurred on Temple Mount in Jerusalem. At first glance this just seems to be based on tradition, but through a close examination of the text, we can be substantiate this claim:

“Avraham named that place, The Lord Yir’eh, as it is said to this day: ‘On the mountain, the Lord yei’ra’eh ’” (ibid 14).

This passuk is not easy to understand. The words: “yir’eh” and “yei’ra’eh” are normally translated as “will see” and “will be seen” respectively. Before we challenge this translation, we must first appreciate that the second half of the passuk is not what Avraham said, but something that is said: “this day”, i.e. at the time the sefer was written; Moshe’s day.

The root "ראה" which is incidentally, the first word and name of our parsha, can also mean “choose” and “appear”.

Indeed, rather than translating the first passuk of our parsha as: “See, I am placing before you today a blessing and a curse” (Devarim 11:26), it could be translated as: “Choose: I am placing before you today a blessing and a curse”.

So, let us have another look at Avraham’s passuk:

“Avraham named that place, The Lord will choose, as it is said to this day: ‘On the mountain, the Lord one should appear’”.

Throughout Sefer Devarim, Moshe tells Israel that three times a year they should appear at the place that God will choose.

The passuk echoes that thought. Avraham says that this place, where he was about to sacrifice Yitschak, is the place that God will choose. The passuk then goes on to say, this is the mountain upon which all males should appear.

The passuk is therefore clearly hinting, that the akeida occurred in Jerusalem.
May we all soon see clearly that Jerusalem is the place that God has chosen, so that all humanity sees the word of the Lord coming forth from Jerusalem.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Parshat Ekev

Shema 1 and Shema 2

In last week’s parsha, VaEtchanan, we read the first paragraph of the Shema. In this week’s parsha, we read the second paragraph.

If we were to compare both paragraphs, we would notice that they are essentially the same. Both speak of:

    • Loving God with all one’s hear and soul
    • Placing these words on our hearts
    • Teaching these words to our children
    • Discussing these words on our journeys or while sitting or lying in our homes
    • Tying these words as tefillin to our bodies
    • Inscribing these words on our door posts
Nevertheless, they do differ in three areas:

Reward and Punishment
The second paragraph promises abundant material wealth if we keep these precepts. God promises that He will: “will give the rain of your land at its time, the early rain and the latter rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. I will give grass in your field for your livestock, and you will eat and be sated” (Devarim 11:14-15).

At the same time, He also threatens Israel with poverty and even exile, if they are disobedient: “He will close off the heavens, … and you will perish quickly from upon the good land” (ibid 17).

These promises of rewards and punishments do not appear in the first paragraph.

The second paragraph also promises longevity if these precepts are kept: “in order that your days may increase and the days of your children, on the land” (ibid 21).

This promise also does not appear in the first paragraph

The third difference between the paragraphs, which is not noticeable in an English translation, is that the first paragraph is in the singular, and the second paragraph is in the plural.

This change enables us to appreciate the other two differences. There is no guarantee to any individual as to their reward and punishment. A person could be righteous all his life, yet he will not necessarily be rewarded. So too, an evil person may not necessarily see his punishment. The reward and punishment exists only on the national sphere. If the people obey the Shema’s precepts, the nation will reap the rewards. If the people disobey the precepts, the nation will experience the consequences. There is no guarantee to the individual.

Indeed Avraham discovered this concept in Sedom, that the righteous would die with the wicked.

So too with the longevity issue. The Mosaic Law does not guarantee the righteous longevity. It only guarantees society its longevity if it upholds God’s law. But if the society is not just, it will collapse, along with its righteous..

Lord Jackobovitz, the late Chief Rabbi of the UK, used to say that these precepts, like all others in the Torah, still apply today. Israel’s only guarantee of survival is if it creates a just society. Without that, God forbid, it could fall.
In these days of war and terrible national suffering in Israel, we must remember the Shema so that: “your days may increase and the days of your children, on the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers to give them” (ibid).

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Parshat VaEtchanan

Despair and Hope

The Torah reading for Tisha Be’Av appears in this week’s parsha, which is apt, as the fast always falls in the week of VaEtchanan.

Like many of the kinot we read on Tisha Be’Av, the reading begins with despair and gloom but ends with hope.

“I call as witness against you this very day the heaven and the earth, that you will speedily and utterly perish from the land to which you cross the Jordan, to possess; you will not prolong your days upon it, but will be utterly destroyed. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will remain few in number among the nations to where the Lord will lead you” (Devarim 4:26-27).

The events of these pesukim seem terrifying and final, yet they do not signal the end of the Jewish people and nor do they even signal the Jewish people’s distance from God. On the contrary, they signal the restoration of that relationship.

“There you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are distressed, and all these things happen upon you in the end of days, then you will return to the Lord your God and obey Him” (ibid 29-30).

Furthermore, “He will not let you loose or destroy you; neither will He forget the covenant of your fathers, which He swore to them” (ibid 31).

The Jewish people will return to its historic homeland.

To amplify this point, Moshe brings evidence from the events of his day: “Has any god performed miracles to come and take Him a nation from the midst of another nation…as all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt” (ibid 33).

Moshe states that just as God brought the exiled Hebrews from Egypt to Canaan in the past, He would do so again in the future.

Our generation has been fortunate to witness that restoration and can take comfort in these difficult days of war in Israel’s northern (and south west) border that God does control our destiny and that He will always remember the covenant with the Patriarchs.
Nevertheless, even though the covenant with our ancestors is unconditional, the Jewish people must never forget that its claim to Eretz Yisrael is dependent upon its loyalty to God. The threat issued to a complacent generation, in passuk 25, still applies today. The Jewish people will be safe in its land if we “seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (ibid 29).