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, November 30, 2006

Parshat VaYetseh

Yaakov's Guilt

Yaakov is constantly cheated by Lavan. First he works for him for a month without being paid (Bereshit 29:14-15). He is then given Leah instead of Rachel and is forced to work another seven years for Rachel.

After the fourteen years were over Yaakov then made a deal with Lavan that: "every speckled and spotted kid, and every brown lamb among the sheep, and [every] spotted and speckled [one from] among the goats" (ibid 30:32), would be his wages.

Rather then being satisfied with this good deal, Lavan "removed on that day the ringed and the spotted male goats and all the speckled and spotted female goats, whichever had white on it, and all the brown [from] among the sheep, and he gave [them] into the hands of his sons" (ibid 35).

He wanted to ensure that Yaakov would not have any of those types of sheep and goats in his flock to breed. It would therefore be unlikely that Yaakov would be able to earn any wages. Lavan even "set three days' journey between himself and Yaakov" (ibid 35) so that there could not even be accidental contact with those sheep and goats.

When Lavan saw that Yaakov had nevertheless succeeded, Yakkov claims that he: "mocked me and changed my wages ten times...If he would say thus, 'Speckled ones shall be your wages,' all the animals would bear speckled ones, and if he would say thus, 'Ringed ones shall be your wages,' all the animals would bear ringed ones" (Bereshit 31:7-8).

Slowly but surely, Lavan enslaved Yaakov to such an extent that when Yaakov asked for his freedom, he used the language of a slave being released from his master: "Send me away, and I will go to my place and to my land" (ibid 25 and compare to Shemot 5:1).

Why did Yaakov allow this to happen?

On one occasion Yaakov did confront Lavan, when he switched Rachel with Leah. However, even then his response was minimal and when Lavan said: "It is not done so in our place to give the younger one before the firstborn" (Bereshit 29:26), which appears to be a poor response to a major fraud, Yaakov remains silent. Why?

The answer lies in the events of Parshat VaYetsh and Parshat VaYishlach.

Yaakov was not a willing partner to the snatching of the berachot from Esav. Rivka insisted he do it. She waived away his protests saying that she would be responsible for the repercussions; she cooked the food, put it into Yaakov's hands and even dressed him in Esav's clothes (see ibid 27:13-17). Yaakov was a reluctant partner in this treachery, barely succeeding in disguising his voice.

Nevertheless he is duly punished. He is exiled from his home and comes into darkness. The man that dwelt in tents found himself sleeping in the open air, all alone. He is actually shocked that God hadn't forgotten him (ibid 28:16). Perhaps he thinks that he is getting all he deserved.

Lavan did not give a feeble excuse to Yaakov; he chose his words well: "…in our place to give the younger one before the firstborn" (ibid 29:26). Lavan is playing on Yaakov's conscience for he, the younger son, had pushed himself ahead of Esav, his older brother. Yaakov is stunned into silence. He cannot respond to Lavan's simple defense and proceeds to accept all of Lavan's further frauds, asking nothing of substance for himself.

Yaakov's deeds linger so much on his conscience that when he finally returns to Canaan, he humbles himself before Esav, describing himself as a slave to Esav, his master. He is trying to say that the blessing that he would be his master was nonsense. Yakov says that he was promised: "dew of the heavens and the fatness of the earth and an abundance of corn and wine" (ibid 27:28) but in reality all he got was exile with Lavan.

Yaakov finds the guilt of his actions all consuming and eventually begs Esav: "to take my blessing" (ibid 33:7), which Esav reluctantly does.

Perhaps Yaakov's taking of the Yitzchak's blessing was not such a good thing.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYetseh entitled: "The Dust of The Earth", appears at

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Yitchack Avinu – Action Man

Yitzchak appears to be a passive, weak and even pitiful character. We so how he needed protection from Yishmael’s influence, how Avraham almost offered him up as a sacrifice (Bereshit 21:9-10), how Avraham needed to find a wife for him (the only time someone did not find their own wife in the Tanach) (ibid Ch.22), his son Yaakov tricked him into giving him the Berachot (ibid 27:19-28) and even his wife Rivka twice manipulates the situation to circumvent him from making what in her opinion, was a mistake (ibid 5-12 & 46). Indeed, Yitschak is blind, not just literally, but also to reality in that he does not recognize Esav’s true character and he does not see the hostility between his two sons in the way Rivka does.

Furthermore, Yitzchak’s life seems to be a carbon copy of Avraham’s: His wife was sterile, just like Avraham’s; he said that Rivka was his sister when he entered hostile territory, just like Avraham; he made a peace treaty with Avimelech and Phichol, just like Avraham; and he even named a place Be’er Sheva, just like Avraham.

Indeed, in the only episode with which we see Yitzchak on his own, i.e. without Avraham or his sons, he is simply re-opening wells that Avraham had previously dug. They had become blocked. He struggles to unblock and eventually succeeds. He then gives them the same names that Avraham had given them.

Who was Yitzchak? Was he merely the link between Avraham and Yaakov or is there something unique about him in his own right that entitles to the title of Patriarch of the Jewish people, or was he just a poor copy of Avraham.

The answer to this question lies in the episode of the wells. Avraham took the Middle East by storm. He acquired a following in Charan, (see Rashi on ibid 12:5), the Canaanite locals recognized him as a holy man (ibid 14:20) and a “prince of God” (ibid 23:6). He defeated kings in battle (ibid Ch14) and kings came to him to make treaties (ibid 14: 22 & 21:22-34).

Avraham dug new wells and found fresh water, however, by the end of his life the wells became blocked, his ideas were no longer new and exciting. What happened to all “the souls he had acquired in Charan”, to the altars he had built and the treaties he had made?

New fads and fashions often become popular very quickly but they soon lose their staying power. Keeping them going is a difficult. That is where Yitschak comes in. He is totally different to both Avraham and Yaakov.

Unlike Avraham and Yaakov, he never leaves Canaan, he never had his name changed, he was named by God and he only had one wife. Yitzchak is the epitome of stability.

Yitzchak does not try and copy Avraham. He does not start anything new, he keeps what was already existed going and, despite the opposition to him telling him that Avraham’s ideas were old, that his wells had dried up, Yitzchak actually succeeds.

Without Yitzchak, everything that Avraham had built would have been lost and there would have been no Jewish people.

Yitzchak’s decisive actions and his attempts to gain stability gave new life to Avraham’s work and gives us good reason to stand in awe at our glorious progenitor.

Last year’s Sedra Short on Parshat Toldot, entitled: “Twins in her Womb” appears at:

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Parshat Chayei Sarah

The Legacy of Terach

After Sarah's death, Avraham sent his servant to "go to my father's house and to my family, and take a wife for my son" (Bereshit 24:38). The servant found Rivka and she followed him to Canaan to marry Yitschak.

Yitschak was not the only one to marry within Terach's, Avraham's father, family. Yitschak also told Yaakov to marry within the family: "Go to Padan Aram, to the house of Betuel, your mother's father, and take yourself from there a wife of the daughters of Laban, your mother's brother" (ibid 28:2).

So did Avraham. Sarah was Terach's daughter, as Avraham explained to Avimelech: "Also, indeed, she is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife" (ibid 28:12).

Indeed, the Torah seems to have genuine concern for all of Terach's descendents. Twice the Torah departs from its story line to tell us how Lot was saved from danger (see ibid Ch 14 & Ch.19). It also lists all twelve of Nahor's descendants (ibid 22:20-24), all twelve of Yishmael's descendents (ibid 25:12-18), all twelve of Esav's descendents (ibid Ch.36) as well as all twelve of Yaakov's descendents.

Furthermore, while the Torah records all the toldot (legacies) of all the above mentioned patriarchs as well as the toldot of Yitschak, there is no toldot of Avraham. Yet, there is a toldot of Terach: "These are the toldot of Terach: Terach begot Avram, Nachor, and Caran, and Charan begot Lot" (ibid 11:27).

Finally, in Yehoshua's final address to the Jewish people before his death, he begins with origins of the Jewish people. However he does not begin with Avraham. He begins with Terach: "Your fathers dwelt of old time beyond the River, even Terach, the father of Avraham, and the father of Nachor; and they served other gods" (Yehoshua 24:2).

What was Terach's legacy? What was it about him that caused Avraham to follow a special path that made Avraham ensure that his children only marry from within his own family?

This is a hard question to answer as the Torah tells us very little, in fact only one sentence, about him: "Terach took Avram his son and Lot the son of Charan, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter in law, the wife of Abram his son, and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees to go to the land of Canaan, and they came as far as Charan and settled there" (Bereshit 11:31).

Avraham's mission to move to Canaan actually began with Terach. Terach may have been Avraham's inspiration and the one who set him on the path of his glorious journey.

For some reason, Terach was not able to follow through. Rabbi Menachem Liebtag suggest that like many Jewish parents, Terach taught his children the importance of Eretz Yisrael without himself being willing to make the final leap of moving there. Nevertheless, Avraham learned enough in order to complete the mission. It is reasonable to assume that Nachor, Avraham's only surviving brother, may also have had sympathies with living in Eretz Yisrael and possibly even taught Rivka about it.

Indeed, Avraham gives Rivka exactly the same test that God gave him. Could she leave her homeland, her birthplace, her father's house and go to a land she had never seen? Rivka did not hesitate. When Lavan and his mother asked her "Will you go with this man?" Rivka did not waver. She responded: "I will go" (ibid 24:54).

How was it that Rivka could be so decisive that she could move to Canaan without any hesitation, at a moments notice in the same manner that Avraham did? Perhaps she had inspiration from the same man that Avraham had. Perhaps the union of Yitschak and Rivka was part of Terach's legacy.

Last year's blog on Sedra Short on Parshat Chayei Sarah, entitled: "A Stranger and a Sojourner", appears at

Friday, November 10, 2006

Parshat VaYera

Yishmael the Impersonator

We have seen previously how Hagar attempted to usurp Sarah and become Avraham’s wife, in an attempt for God to fulfill His promise to Avraham through her and her progeny. The attempt failed when Avraham told Sarah: “Here is your handmaid in your hand; do to her that which is proper in your eyes” (Bereshit 16:6). Hagar tried to stake her freedom by fleeing, but an angel told her to return to he mistress, to accept that she was only a servant.

Hagar accepted her fate and returned to Sarah, but nevertheless, Yishmael’s fate was not yet determined. Indeed, Avraham begs God: “If only Ishmael will live before You” (ibid 17:18). God accedes to this reques: “regarding Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I have blessed him” (ibid 20). Nevertheless, Avraham’s special destiny was only with the progeny of Sarah: “My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year” (ibid 20).

It seems that Yishmael did not accept his fate. In this week’s parsha we see that Sarah saw a threat: “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, metsachek” (ibid 21:9).

Rashi brings three alternative explanations to Yishmel’s behavior, all based on other appearances of the word: “metsachek”. Yishmael committed either murder, adultery and murder or all three (See Rashi on ibid).

This explanation is difficult to understand. Could Yishmael be really doing any of theses activities in front of Yitschak and it only bother Sarah?

A friend of mine, Yisrael Sapperstein, showed me that the Torah deliberately chooses the root: “Tshk” in explaining Yishmael’s offensive behavior. This root makes up Yitschak’s name. Yishmael was “metschek”, i.e. he was attempting to be Yitschak. He was claiming the inheritance for himself appointing himself the true Yitschak.

Under these circumstances we can understand Sarah’s fear that her son might be usurped. While Avraham, and possibly us as well, might find it hard to understand Sarah’s instruction to: “Drive out this handmaid and her son”, we can now understand her fear: “for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac” (ibid 10).

We can also now understand God’s agreement with Sarah: “whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice, for in Isaac will be called your seed” (ibid 12).

Yishmael was not only claiming the inheritance for himself, he saying that he was the true Yitschak. He had to be shown that his impersonation was unsuccessful that he remained outside of Avraham destiny.

While Yishmael got the message, his descendants are yet to get it.
It was Yitschak not Yshmael who was bound up on Mount Moriah and it is only Yitschak who has inherited the blessings of Avraham.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Parshat Lech Lcha

Sarah, Wife of Avraham

God had promised Avraham that he would have a son. However Sarah was never promised that she would have a son. Being sterile, she gave Hagar her maidservant to Avraham. She would no longer hold Avraham back and Avraham could now fulfill his destiny.

Nevertheless, when Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarah became furious with her husband, saying: “May my injustice be upon you! I gave my handmaid into your bosom, and she saw that she had become pregnant and I became unimportant in her eyes” (Bereshit 16:5).

Why was Sarah angry with Avraham? Wasn’t that why she gave her to him? What else did she expect would happen?

It seems that while Sarah accepted the need for Avraham to have a son, she did not feel that she needed replacing. It seems that she felt that Hagar was taking over her role? When Sarah gave Hagar to Avraham she said: “perhaps I will be built up from her” (ibid 2). What did she mean?

There are two possible explanations: 1. Hagar’s pregnancy would affect Sarah psychologically, causing her to become pregnant (a common belief in the ancient world), 2. Hagar’s child would automatically be Sarah’s since being her maidservant, everything Hagar possessed, including her children, actually belonged to Sarah, her mistress.

Sarah never gave up hope of being part of Avraham’s future. She would either bear him a son, or she would be the legal mother of his son.

Nevertheless, Hagar did not see it that way. Sarah was now “unimportant in her eyes”. Hagar was claiming the destiny and partnership with Avraham, for herself. Sarah blames Avraham for this, for allowing Hagar to elevate herself to the status of wife.

Avraham accepted Sarah’s claim and tells her: “Here is your handmaid in your hand; do to her that which is proper in your eyes” (ibid 6), i.e. he tells her to ensure that Hagar understands her rightful place. He accepts only Sarah as his true wife.

Sarah does as he says. However, Hagar refuses to accept her fate and flees in order to secure her freedom. However, an angel reminds her who she really is. He calls her: “Hagar, Sarai's servant, where are you coming from?” Hagar realizes who she really is and responds: “From before Sarai my mistress I flee”(ibid 9).

Throughout the episode, the Torah describes Sarah as the “wife of Avram”, and Hagar as the: “maidservant of Sarai”. Indeed, the angel tells Hagar “Return to your mistress, and allow yourself to be afflicted under her hands” (ibid). Sarah is Avraham’s one and true wife.
Possibly as a result of Hagar’s actions, Sarah did not adopt Yishmael. He remained a slave and had no part to play in the blessings of Avraham.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Lech Lecha, entitled: "The Double edge of Circumcision" can be found at: