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, January 28, 2007

Parshat Beshalach

The Shorter Way

I’ve always understood why Israel took the “Desert Road” to Canaan. They had to go to Sinai to receive the Torah before conquering it. Furthermore, God had previously told Moshe at the Burning Bush that: Israel “would worship God on this mountain” (Shemot 3:12). Therefore, the plan from the outset was to go to Canaan via the wilderness. And so, I’ve never really understood the opening pasuk in this week’s parsha.

“God did not lead them by the Land of the Philistines Road for it was near, because God said, ‘Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt’” (ibid 13:17).

I fully appreciate the dangers fraught by the quick route to freedom, but was that really the reason they did not take it? As far as I understood, it was never the actual plan!!

Unfortunately I do not have a good answer to this question, but the following point may shed more light on the subject.

God promised the Patriarchs that their descendants would inherit the Land of Canaan. However He never promised them that He would give them the Torah. He did not even promise them that He would be their God.

Indeed, when Moshe first approached Israel all he said was: “I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites…to a land flowing with milk and honey” (ibid 3:17).

He said nothing about going via Sinai, let alone receiving the Torah. In fact, Israel did not even know anything about worshipping God in the wilderness. That message was only given to Pharaoh, not Israel. As far as Israel were concerned they were going straight to Canaan.

This idea perhaps explains a later conversation between God and Moshe at Sinai. Before He gives the Torah, God insists that Moshe tell the people the explicit terms of the covenant and ask if they accept it:

“'If you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel" (ibid 19:5-6).

Notice how Israel has a genuine choice. They are not ordered to accept the Torah nor are they threatened with any repercussions if they do not. Perhaps it is because it is a new item on the agenda that they were never prepared for, that they knew nothing of previously.

Therefore, let’s examine the beginning of this week’s parsha from Israel’s angle, without an inkling of future events at Sinai. All they know is that God has promised to take them to Canaan. For them, the diversion to the “Desert Road” must have come as a surprise.

There are therefore two possibilities, either they imagined the reason for themselves, that they were not yet ready for battle, or that God diplomatically gave them this message; it being true, but incomplete.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Beshalach, entitled: "The 3 Day Game" appears at

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Parshat Bo

They will Go Forth with Great Possessions

There’s one thing that has always bothered me about the Exodus. God had promised Avraham at the covenant between the pieces (berit ben habetarim) that his descendants would leave the people that persecuted them with enormous wealth.

Well the redemption was imminent, but the Israelites were penniless slaves. So God tells Moshe to ensure that they ask the Egyptian neighbors: “silver vessels and golden vessels” (Shemot 11:2)

Surprisingly, the Egyptians agree. Later we are told with this action: “they despoiled the Egyptians” (ibid 12:36).

Was that really necessary? Couldn’t God have come up with a more earnest way of bringing wealth to Israel?

This issue deeply troubled Joseph Hertz, late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire. He went so far as to say that the translation of "נצל" as “despoil” is “misleading and mischievous” (Hertz on ibid 3:22).

He goes on to say the verb: "נצל" appears 210 times in the Tenach and this is the only instance in which it is translated as: “despoil”. On every other occasion it is translated as: “save”. Hertz argues that this is the correct translation: “they saved the Egyptians” (ibid 12:36).

That is, by Israel asking and receiving from the Egyptians their wealth, “they saved the Egyptians”.

What does this mean?

The Egyptian slavery was a cruel slavery. Not only did Israel suffer from “backbreaking labor” (ibid 1:14), but their newly born male children were cast into the river. How would Israel be able to keep laws such as “You shall not scorn the Egyptian, for you were strangers in his land” (Devarim 23:8)? Egypt would forever remain a blot in Israel’s history and its people would be eternally scorned.

God needed to save Egypt so that Israel would not forever scorn them. A friendly parting gift would solve that problem. As Hertz explains, Israel would realize that their oppressor was not the Egyptians but Pharaoh and his courtiers. Indeed we had been previously told that not only did Israelites and Egyptians live side by side as neighbors, but that some Egyptians and Israelites even lived in the same houses (Shemot 3:22).

This gesture literally saved Egypt in Israel’s eyes, and allowed Israel to learn the importance of showing compassion and understanding to strangers.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Bo, entitled: "The Humiliation of Ra" appears at

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Parshat VaEra

Discovering God

When Moshe first ordered Pharaoh: “So says the Lord (Hashem) God of Israel, Let My people go...” (Shemot 5:1-2), Pharaoh gave three responses:

  • “Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice…” – essentially Hashem had never proven Himself in the pantheon of gods and so didn’t need to be obeyed.
  • “I do not know the Lord” – essentially Hashem is not involved with humanity, He does not have a relationship with any people on earth
  • “neither will I let Israel out" – finally, Pharaoh declares that he alone is the supreme authority and that no god can order him to free Israel

Pharaoh needs a lesson in theology, so God sends him three series of plagues; each series is a response to a different point that Pharaoh made.

Series 1 begins with a declaration: “So that you will know that I am the Lord” (ibid 7:17). And so God pollutes Egypt’s main water source, the frogs leave the water and when they die, lice attack the Egyptians. Pharaoh’s magicians cannot replicate the third plague and so concede defeat declaring: “It is the finger of God” (ibid 8:15). Pharaoh’s first question has been answered as his own magicians acknowledge God. Round 1 to God.

Series 2 begins with the declaration: “So that you know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth” (ibid 18), i.e. that God exists on earth and has a relationship with humanity. God does this by bringing three plagues that “separate on that day the land of Goshen, upon which My people stand” (ibid), i.e. Israel does not suffer from these three plagues. Pharaoh even checks that that has been the case: “Pharaoh sent, and behold, not even one of the livestock of Israel died” (ibid 9:7). Pharaoh’s servants again concede defeat after the third plague as they “could not stand before Moshe because of the boils” (ibid 11). Pharaoh’s second question has been answered; God is involved in humanity’s fortunes. Round 2 to God.

Series 3 begins with the declaration: “So that you know that there is none like Me in the entire earth” (ibid 14), i.e. that God, not Pharaoh, is the supreme authority. God does this by bringing three plagues “the likes of which has never been in Egypt from the day of its being founded until now” (ibid 19). Pharaoh’s servants acknowledge defeat after the warning about the second plague, locusts, when they tell Pharaoh: “Don't you yet know that Egypt is lost?” (ibid 10:7). Pharaoh himself acknowledges partial defeat when he promises for the first time that he will allow Israel’s males to leave Egypt (ibid 10). However, Pharaoh is too stubborn to acknowledge total defeat and so while God does win Round 3 on points, only a knockout will cause Pharaoh to fully concede and recognize the Lord.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat VaEra, entitled: "Knowing God" appears at

Monday, January 08, 2007

Parshat Shemot

The Ark and the Princess

There are two things that have always bothered me about this week's parsha. Firstly, what on earth was Moshe's mother, Yocheved, thinking about when she put him into the ark into a crocodile infested Nile? Was that the best rescue plan she could come up with? Secondly, Pharaoh is on a crusade to kill all newborn Hebrew male children, how come he allows his own daughter to adopt one and to raise him in his palace as a prince of Egypt? Pharaoh's daughter recognized him as a Hebrew; surely, Pharaoh would have too!!

To answer to these questions we need to look at Pharaoh's plan against Israel.

Pharaoh has a major concern: "lest they increase, and … depart from the land" (Shemot 1:10).

Note from this source that Pharaoh is not interested in the physical destruction of Israel. On the contrary, he sees them as an important resource. He is worried that they will become too powerful for him to stop them from leaving Egypt. In order to prevent their departure, he devises a plan to restrict their growth allowing him to maintain his control over them.

His first plan; to burden Israel with backbreaking hard labor fails because "the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied" (ibid 12). So he moves onto Phase 2; murder of newly born males by the midwives. The mothers of the children would have assumed that they were still born. However, this plan also fails as the "midwives feared God" (ibid 17) and refused to cooperate.

So Pharaoh moves onto Phase 3 ; again murder of all new born males, but this time there was to be no secret dirty work. The mothers themselves were required to throw their new born sons into the river (ibid 22).

It is with this decree in mind that Yocheved acted in the way that she did. She succeeded in hiding her son for three months, but after three months "she could no longer hide him" (ibid 2:3). She had been caught and was required to execute the evil decree. However, instead of casting him into the river, Yocheved places him into it in a box in the river and rather than allowing him to float into oblivion, she placed him "in the reeds by the river's bank" (ibid). The ark did not move but remained in its place while "his sister stood from a distance, to find out what would happen to him" (ibid 4). Thereby, Yocheved obeyed the decree, but in such a way that it left hope for her son's survival.

Furthermore, the area she placed him could not have been crocodile infested, as Pharaoh's daughter would not have been bathing there. Who knows, perhaps she even spent he first three months selecting that spot. In the Holocaust many Jewish parents gave up their children for adoption to Christian families. Maybe she was hoping that an aristocratic Egyptian, possibly even Pharaoh's daughter, would take him.

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that whenever the Bible recalls the horrors of Egypt, it surprisingly never mentions this decree. We also have no information as to how long this decree was in place and to how faithfully it was observed. It is very possible that this phase in Pharaoh's plan failed just like the previous phases failed. In short, the Egyptian inspectors may have turned a blind eye to a creative fulfillment of the decree.

With this in light and with the knowledge that Pharaoh's plan was not for the elimination of Israel but for its restricted growth, Pharaoh may not have been too concerned about the survival of one child, especially with one that was to be raised as an Egyptian.

Pharaoh's plan was to ensure that Israel survived and remained under his dominion in Egypt. Of course, this plan also failed.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Shemot, entitled: " Moshe - Assimilated Jew" appears at

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Parshat VaYechi

The Mummification of Yaakov

"Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years" (Bereshit 47:28). For a country, whose religion was obsessed with death, that is an ironic statement.

The Egyptians spent their whole lives preparing for death, or better, for life after death. They spent years, building sealed air tight crypts, ensuring that the food buried with them would not spoil, that the wealth that had would accompany them would not be stolen and that of course, their bodies would be preserved.

In order to stop the decomposing of bodies, the Egyptians mastered the skill of embalming.

Yaakov, on his deathbed, begs Yoseph: "do not bury me in Egypt" (ibid 29). He wants nothing of the Egyptian faith in the after-life. Yaakov makes Yospeh swear that he will "carry me out of Egypt, and you shall bury me in their (i.e. his fathers') tomb" (ibid 30).

Therefore, we find it strange that up on his death, "Yoseph commanded his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel" (ibid 50:2). Indeed, Yoseph himself is also mummified: "Yoseph died at the age of one hundred ten years, and they embalmed him and he was placed into a coffin in Egypt." (ibid 26).

What's going on here?

Of course, there was a practical purpose to embalming both of them, as they had both requested that they be buried in Canaan. Yoseph knew that it would take many years for himself to be re-interred in Canaan.

"Yoseph said to his brothers, 'I am going to die; God will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Avraham, to Yitschak, and to Yaakov.' Yoseph adjured the children of Israel, saying, 'God will surely remember you, and you shall take up my bones out of here.'" (ibid 24-25).

Yoseph did not seem to have the influence he had once had and could not organize his immediate burial in Egypt. Indeed, the words he used, suggest that there had been deterioration in Israel's status. If they feel the need to remembered, they must have been feeling forgotten. Nevertheless, Yoseph believes that one day they will return to Canaan. However, that will happen in many years. Therefore, in order to preserve his body for its re-interring, it needed to be embalmed.

Now, even though Yaakov's burial was to be relatively quick, it was not immediate. The embalming process took forty days (see ibid 3). The Egyptians mourned for him for 70 days (possibly concurrent with the embalming). After that, Yoseph asked Pharaoh for permission to bury Yaakov in Canaan (it would have been inappropriate for a mourner to approach the royal court). Not only did "Yoseph's entire household and his brothers and his father's household" go up to Canaan, but also a large procession of "chariots and horsemen also went up with him, and the camp was very numerous" (ibid 9-10). There was a further seven days of mourning when Canaan's borders were reached (see ibid 10) and then the journey was resumed until they reached Hebron.

It would have been disrespectful for Yaakov's body to remain in a state of putrefaction for this lengthy period and journey. Mummification may have been the only respectful option available.

However, note that Yoseph orders his physicians to do the embalming and not priests (ibid 2). Furthermore, Yoseph's remains are placed in a coffin not a crypt (ibid 26). Through this simple act of using the scientific rather than the ceremonial aspects of embalming, Yoseph ensures that his father and he are not contaminated by the religion of Egypt. They are merely preserved for a monotheistic burial in their homeland.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat VaYechi, entitled: "Yoseph's inheritance" appears at