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.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Parshat VaYigash

The Saving of Egypt

This week’s parsha spends no less than 14 pesukim describing Yoseph’s radical agrarian policies and how he helped Egypt survive the remaining five years of famine.

First, Yoseph sold the Egyptians crops with all their silver; the wealth he transferred to Pharaoh (Berehit 47:14). When the Egyptians had no more money, he bartered the crops for all their livestock (ibid 16-17). When the Egyptians had nothing else to give, they sold their land and themselves to Pharaoh (ibid 20). In the wake of the nationalization of land, Yoseph organizes a huge population transfer and allows the Egyptians to work the land, on condition that a fifth of all their crops go to Pharaoh (ibid 24).

All this did not apply to the priests, who by law “had an allotment from Pharaoh” (ibid 22) and so, did not have to sell their lands. It also did not apply to his family since Yoseph “sustained his father and his brothers and his father's entire household” (ibid 12). Therefore, as well as having been given the “best of the land” (ibid 6), the children of Israel “acquired holdings in it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly” ibid 27).

Some commentators explain that the purpose of this lengthy description is to emphasize the ingratitude that Egypt later showed Israel. While the Egyptians declare to Yoseph: “You have saved our lives” (ibid 25) and Yoseph had brought Pharaoh great wealth and power, Pharaoh returns the favor enslaving the children of Israel!!

However, perhaps the opposite is true.

God had promised Avraham that his children could only inherit the land in the fourth generation, as “the sin of the Emori will not be complete until then” (ibid 15:16). The Emori (and the rest of the Canaanites) did not yet deserve to lose their holding in Canaan. However, why would the nation amongst whom Israel resided: “enslave them and oppress them”? (ibid 13).

Perhaps, it is because of Yoseph’s actions that Israel were enslaved. “Let us find favor in my lord's eyes, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh” (ibid 47:25). Yoseph essentially enslaved the Egyptians to Pharaoh, who became their feudal lord: In a measure for measure act, Israel themselves were enslaved to the Egyptians.

We can possibly even find a criticism of Yoseph in laws that the Torah later enacted. Unlike the laws Yoseph approved, slaves could not be slaves forever, land could not be sold in perpetuity and priests could not be landowners.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat VaYigash, entitled: "Confrontation and Reconciliation" appears at

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Parshat Miketz

Measure for Measure

The theme of “measure for measure” (middah kenegged middah), that what goes around comes around, occurs frequently within the Tenach. There are many examples within the Yoseph epic. We will examine a few:

1. Yaakov cheated his father and sold out his brother by using Esav’s cloak and covering himself in with the skins of a kid goat (Bereshit 27:15-16). Yakkov’s sons cheated him by bringing him Yospeh’s cloak, daubed in goat’s blood when they sold their brother (ibid 37:31).

2. Yaakov sent Yoseph into his brothers’ hands (ibid 37:13). Yaakov sends the brothers into Yoseph hands (ibid 42:2).

3. The brothers schemed against Yoseph when they threw him into a pit and destroyed his dreams (ibid 37:19-20). Yoseph schemes against the brothers and has all of them thrown into a pit when he remembers his dreams (ibid 42:9-17).

4. The brothers eat a meal as they plot selling Yoseph into slavery (ibid 37:25-26). Yoseph dines a lavish meal as he plots selling the brothers into slavery (ibid 43:32-33).

There are numerous other examples of this theme within the episode. Indeed, this vicious circle of fraternal strife fills the book of Bereshit. It begins with Kayin and Hevel, proceeds to Shem, Ham and Yafet. The midrash even senses strife between Avraham and his brother Charan. The rivalry between Yitschak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Esav and of course Yoseph and his brothers are legendary. It seems that this vicious circle could have continued eternally. What caused the cycle to end?

The answer is teshuva, repentance.

Yehuda, the brother who masterminded the selling of Yaakov’s favorite son (i.e. Yoseph), insists on taking the place of Benyamin (Yaakov’s new favorite), when Yoseph enslaved him. Yehudah breaks the cycle by offering himself as surety for Benyamin (ibid 9).

Unlike Kayin, he boldly asserts that he is his brother’s keeper. He will not allow his brother’s blood to cry out to God from the ground.

Yehuda’s actions leads to the reconciliation of the brothers and the unification of the sons of Israel.

Yehuda was no saint. His instigated Yoseph’s sale and he used the services of what he thought was a harlot (ibid 38:15). However, in both cases, even when he had a face-saving alternative, he took responsibility, saved someone’s life and ensured the survival of Israel.

In these days of fraternal strife amongst modern Israel, who will be brave enough to take responsibility and bring about the reconciliation of brothers?

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Miketz entitled: "One Dream or Two?", appears at

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Parshat VaYeshev

Who sold Yoseph?

A silly question. Everyone knows that his brothers sold him. However, it is not at all clear from the text and a number of commentators argue that while the brothers discussed selling him, they were pre-empted by Midianite traders:

“'Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, so that our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.' His brothers listened. Then Midianite men, merchants, passed by, and they pulled and lifted Yoseph from the pit, and they sold Yoseph to the Yishmaelites for twenty silver [pieces], and they brought Yoseph to Egypt” (Bereshit 37:27-28).

Who were the “they” that pulled Yoseph out of the pit and sold him to the Yishmaelites? Were they the brothers or the Midianites?

Evidence that the brothers sold Yoseph:

1. The brothers determine to sell him (ibid).
2. When Yoseph reveals himself to his brothers he says: “I am Yoseph whom you sold to Egypt” (ibid 45:4).

Evidence that the brothers did not sell Yoseph:

1. Who were the Midianites? How did they suddenly become Yishamelites?
2. Why are the brothers spurred into action, appearing surprised, when Re’ueven tells them that Yoseph is missing? (ibid 37:30-31)
3. Yoseph himself says that he “was stolen from the land of the Hebrews” (ibid 40:15).
4. When the brothers later face accusations from Yoseph, when he is incognito, Reuven says that their fate is doomed because “his blood is being demanded” (ibid 42:22) implying that they believe that Yoseph to be dead (possibly that a wild animal did actually savage him).

5. While standing upto Yoseph in defence of Benyamin, Yehuda actually declares that Yoseph is dead (ibid 44:20).

Both opinions respond to the challenges raised by the other, however wouldn’t it be nice to believe that even though the brothers talked tough, i.e. “let’s kill him”, “let’s sell him” they would have actually been satisfied with just leaving him in the pit for a few hours? Maybe that would have enough to teach their spoilt brat of a brother a lesson?

Perhaps this scenario can act as a lesson. Even a small amount of cruelty can lurch out of control and lead to the most evil of crimes.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYeshev entitled: "Yoseph: The Fourth Patriarch", appears at

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Parshat VaYishlach

Reuven and Bilha

Upon his return to Canaan, Yaakov managed ward off all his threats, to successfully settle in Canaan and to pay his dues to God.

He had paid off Esav (Bereshit 33:11), bought a field near Shechem (ibid 19), “the fear of God was upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue Yaakov's sons” (ibid 35:5) after the incident with Dina, and Yaakov built an altar in Bet El (ibid 6-7), keeping the promise he had made to God over 21 years earlier when he had fled (ibid 28:20-22).

However out of the blue, we have strange, barely reported incident: “It came to pass when Israel sojourned in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine, and Israel heard…(ibid 35:22).

What is going on here? What is Reuven trying to do? Is he merely succumbing to his lust like Shechem did with Dina and Amnon with Tamar, or is there something greater going on?

In order to answer this question we have to examine similar incidents of people taking the concubines of others.

Avner and Ishboshet

After Sha’ul’s death there was a civil war between Yehuda, led by David, and the rest of Israel, led by Ishboshet, Sha’ul’s only surviving son. Ishboshet was a weak man. The real power lay with his general, Avner ben Ner. Avner decided to take Sha’ul’s concubine, Rizpa.

Ishboshet challenged him saying: “Why have you gone unto my father's concubine?' Avner was furious over Ishboshet’s words” and threatened to defect to David, thereby handing over the kingdom to David. Ishboshet “could not answer Avner another word, because he feared him (II Shmuel 3:6-11).

Avshalom and David

After having forced David, his father, to flee Jerusalem, Avshalom seeks Achitophel’s advice on how to secure the kingdom. Achitophel responds: “'Go unto your father's concubines… the hands of all your supporters will be strong.' So they pitched a tent for Avshalom on the roof of the house; and Absalom went unto his father's concubines in the sight of all Israel (ibid 16:21-22).

Adoniya and Shlomo

Shlomo had previously spared the life of his half-brother, Adoniya, when he had crowned himself king. However, he warned him that should he attempt to usurp him, he would execute him.

Some time later Adoniya approached Batsheva, the Queen Mother. He asked her if she would ask Shlomo “for a small thing”; if he could give Avishag the Shunamite, David’s companion in his final years, to him as a wife. Shlomo responds angrily to Batsheva saying that is not a small request. She might as well “ask for him the throne” (I Melachim 2:22). Shlomo subsequently orders Adoniya’s execution.

From all these sources it is clear that taking a person’s concubines is tantamount to declaring oneself their successor. Avner was positioning himself as the real successor to Sha’ul, Avshalom was declaring himself as David’s successor and Adoniya was trying to assert himself as the true heir to David’s throne.

So too, Re’uven. He had already seen how two younger brothers, Shimon and Levi, had seized the initiative regarding Shechem. He is also aware of the impending challenge of Yoseph, the oldest of Yaakov’s favorite wife, and he knows that both Yishmael and Esav were overlooked in favor of the younger brother. He tries a desperate act in order to establish his rights over the brothers. He takes Bilha, his father’s concubine.

However, it was this act that actually cost him the leadership: “The sons of Reuven the first-born of Israel, for he was the first-born; but, forasmuch as he defiled his father's couch, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph the son of Israel…” (I Divrei Hayamim 5:1).

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYishlah entitled: "Struggling with the Present", appears at