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.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Parshat Noach

The Tower of Bavel

Towards the end of this week’s Torah reading, a brief episode, merely nine verses long, is recorded. The people of Shinar, also known as Bavel, build a tower whose “top is in the heavens” in order to “make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth" (Bereshit 11:4).

It is difficult to decipher the precise crime of the ancient Babylonians. Jewish tradition brings many different opinions as to their intentions.

Modern scholarship has also enabled us to understand the issue a little better. The people of Shinar built many tall towers, called ziggurats. The remains of many are scattered over modern Iraq. We will examine why they built them.

The Psalmist writes: “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; but the earth He has given to the children of men” (Tehillim 115:16). Essentially, the ancient world took this idea literally. God dwelt in the heavens while humanity dwelt upon the earth. If man wanted communion with God, he had to go to the place where heaven and earth meet, i.e. the mountains. Up in the clouds, heaven and earth meet and man can be at one with God. This idea exists within Judaism; after all, the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, with the cloud of God resting on the mountain after Moshe had ascended. So too, the Temple was built on Mount Moriah, the highest mountain in Jerusalem, Eliyahu Hanavi held his competition with Baal at the peak of Mount Carmel, and even the unofficial sanctuaries were known as the Bamot, the High Places.

This concept still has echoes in Christianity and Islam where churches and mosques are generally built on a village’s highest point.

However the people of Shinar had a problem. They had traveled “from the east” from the mountainous region of Ararat, and had “found a valley in the land of Shinar” (Bereshit 11:2). Their new home was a large, flat valley; there were no mountains and so, no place to have communion with God.

They solved the problem by building artificial mountains, i.e. very tall towers whose tops were in heaven, the ziggurats. Therefore, these towers, as the Sephorno writes, were actually temples. Hence, the name “Bavel”. “Bava” means “Gate” and “El” means “God”. The ancient Babylonians believed that “Bavel” was the gate of God, the place where heaven and earth connected.

The Torah mocks this idea saying that Bavel was more a place of confusion than the gate of God. As the Sephorno explains, Bavel’s leaders exploited religion to control the masses and to persecute humankind. They aimed to maintain power for themselves (”make ourselves a name”) and to keep a tight control of the people (“lest we be scattered”). God will not allow such ideas to endure and so the ziggurats crumbled. True worship of God calls for the freedom of humanity, not its persecution and enslavement.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Noach, entitled: "Why an Ark?" can be found at:

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Parshat Bereshit

The Good the Bad and the Woman

God created the world in six days and six times the Torah declares: “God saw that it was good”

However there was one thing that was not good. “The Lord God said, "It is not good that man is alone; I shall make him an Ezer Kenegdo” (Bereshit 2:18).

Unlike the animal kingdom, which was created “according to their kind” (ibid 1:21), humanity was created “male and female He created them” (ibid 27). Obviously there were male and female animals, nevertheless the Torah points that the creation of the two sexes was an integral part of humanity’s being.

Indeed, “God created humanity in His image; in the image of God He created it”. According to this understanding it is only when the man and the woman were together that they are in the image of God. Independently, they were not a complete image of God.

Without each other they are incomplete, but when they get together they become one and restore the image of God, or as the Torah puts it: “a man shall…cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (ibid 2:24).

Therefore it was not good for the man to be alone.

Being godly requires partnership, someone to share with and to care for. Choosing to be a hermit, alone and a celibate is not the way of the Torah. It is choosing to be an incomplete image of God.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Bereshit, entitled: "Shattering Ancient Creation Myths" can be found at:

Friday, October 13, 2006

Parshat Vezot Haberacha

The Disappearance of Shimon

Ancient Israel was a confederation of twelve tribes. Sometimes the number twelve was arrived at by counting all twelve sons of Yaakov, while at other times the tribe of Levi was excluded and Yoseph was counted by his two eldest sons, Menasheh and Ephraim. This is because the tribe of Levi was not awarded any territory, since “the Lord is his inheritance” (Devarim 10:9) and because Yaakov awarded the birthright (i.e. a double portion) to Yoseph, Rachel’s eldest son, saying: “Ephraim and Manasseh, are like Reuben and Simeon; they shall be mine” (Bereshit 48:5).

Indeed, Yoseph was awarded two portions of territory in the Land of Israel, while the Levi’im were not awarded any. They worked in the sanctuary and were awarded cities within the territories of each of the tribes and they acted as the educators of the people and their conduit to God.

In essence therefore, Israel was actually made up of thirteen tribes, however the thirteen tribes were never counted as thirteen, only as twelve; sometimes with Levi with Yoseph counted once and sometimes without Levi, with Yoseph counted twice.

In this week’s parsha, in Moshe’s final address to the people, he blesses each tribe, one by one; “This is the blessing which Moshe the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death” (Devarim 33:1). However, Moshe only blesses eleven tribes. Levi is blessed and Yoseph, as one tribe, is also blessed. Shimon is not mentioned. What happened to it?

If we look at the two censuses recorded in Sefer Bemidbar we see that the tribe of Shimon was facing extinction. In Bemidbar chapter 1, Shimon numbered a healthy 59,300 (Bemidbar 1:23), however forty years later it had shrunk to 22,200 (ibid 25:14). The rabbis claim that most of the 24,000 people who died in the plague as a result of the worship of Baal Pe’or (ibid 25:9) were from Shimon. This makes sense as the leader of the revolt was Zimri ben Salu, a chieftain of Shimon (ibid 14).

Shimon was not destined to recover from this blow. When Yehoshua divided the land and awarded each tribe their lot, as well as putting Shimon in the far south, the desert portion of Israel, an area of land that was hard to live in, he did not give Shimon an independent lot. Shimon’s portion was within the mighty tribe of Yehuda: “Out of the allotment of the children of Yehuda was the inheritance of the children of Shimon, for the portion of the children of Yehuda was too much for them; therefore the children of Shimon had inheritance in the midst of their inheritance” (Yehoshua 19:9).

When it came to conquering their portions, Yehuda offers support to Shimon: “Yehuda said to Shimon his brother: 'Come up with me into my lot, that we may fight against the Canaanites; and I likewise will go with you into your lot.' So Simeon went with him” (Shoftim 1:3). Under these circumstances, Shimon got swallowed up by his more influential brother and became integrated into Yehuda. Indeed, Shimon is not mentioned again on the Bible after the initial conquest of Canaan.
It seems that Yaakov’s deathbed testimony was fulfilled: “Shimon and Levi are brethren…I will divide them in Yaakov, and scatter them in Israel” (Bereshit 49:5-7). Both Levi and Shimon were incorporated into the rest of Israel. However, while Levi became God’s portion and maintained its identity, Shimon assimilated into Yehuda and was never heard of again.