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, May 31, 2007

Parshat Beha'alotecha,

Moshe's Leadership

A number of challenges are posed to Moshe's leadership in this week's parsha. Interestingly enough, some of those challenges are posed by Moshe himself. "Moshe said to the Lord, 'Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me?'" (Bemidbar 11:11).

God's response to Moshe is an acceptance of his leadership limitations. God tells Moshe to gather seventy people to act as elder and says "they will bear the burden of the people with you so that you need not bear it alone" (ibid 17).

Furthermore God even imbues them with his (unclear if Moshe's or God's) spirit: "The Lord descended in a cloud and spoke to him, and He increased some of the spirit that was on him and bestowed it on the seventy elders" (ibid 25).

These elders begin prophesying. Two men, Eldad and Medad prophesied among the people to such an extent that Moshe's aids saw it as a challenge to his leadership. Yehoshua begs Moshe to "imprison" (or even "execute") them (see ibid 27-29). Once again, Moshe allows this challenge to go unopposed.

Is it then surprising that a further challenge arises, this time from Moshe's own siblings. Miriam and Aharon both said: "Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn't He spoken to us too? (ibid 12:2).

Once again, Moshe does not respond to this challenge. The Torah explains that: "Moshe was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth" (ibid 3), which also explains why he allowed Eldad and Medad's challenge to go unopposed.

Under these circumstances. God intervenes to restore Moshe's unequivocal standing and explained that with Moshe: "I speak mouth to mouth; in a vision and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of the Lord. So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moshe?" (ibid 8).
He then punishes Miriam by making her a leper and Aharon is forced to eat humble pie by asking Moshe to pray for her. By this action, Aharon admits that he was not a great enough prophet to intervene on her behalf.

Through this incident, God restores to Moshe his leadership dignity and the march towards Canaan could continue.Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Beha'alotecha, entitled: "The Incident at Tav'era" appears at

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Parshat Naso

The Nazir's Hair

Three things are forbidden to a nazir, a person who makes a vow to "abstain for the sake of the Lord (Bemidbar 6:1) making him/her "holy to the Lord" (ibid 8):

They are forbidden to consume grapes and any derivatives of grapes (ibid 4).
They are forbidden to have contact with the dead (ibid 7)
They may not cut their hair (ibid 5)

The Nazir is a type of priest, someone dedicated to the worship of God, and so it easy to understand why they cannot consume grapes. Grapes can have an intoxicating effect and so, just as priest in worship cannot drink wine, so too nazirites, who are dedicated for every minute of the day, cannot drink wine.

The same goes for contamination with the dead. Kohanim are forbidden contact with the dead, so too is a nazir.

However, what's with the hair? What does not cutting the hair have to do with sanctification to God? Furthermore, this rule is in contradistinction to the Kohen Gadol who is forbidden to let his hair grow long (See VaYikra 21:11).

Even more interesting is the case of Shimshon, the judge who was dedicated as a life long nazir from the womb (Shoftim 13:2-7). He certainly did contaminate himself with corpses (he killed thousands and also ate honey from the carcass of a dead lion cub) – though he was not expressly forbidden from being in contact with the dead. He also participated in a seven day feast (called "mishteh" a word synonymous with wine consumption) (ibid 14:12). However, he was most strict about his hair.

What's even more fascinating is the strength that his hair seemed to give him. Shimshon was a fearless and mighty man who rips apart lion cubs with his bare hands, captures 300 foxes, defeated an entire army with a donkey's jaw bone, he can break through the strongest of bonds "as if they were flax" and he single-handedly demolished a Philistine Temple, again with his bare hands.

The Philistine's attribute his strength to supernatural powers and Shimshon himself attributes all his strength to his hair saying: "If I will be shaven, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any man" (Shoftim 16:17). Indeed after the Philistine shaved off his seven locks of hair "his strength left him" (ibid 19). Furthermore, his strength returns once his grew back.

In biblical times hair was considered a source of virility and strength. Indeed, when Hanun, King of Aram wanted to humiliate King David, he "took David's servants and he shaved off a half of their beards" (II Shmuel 10:4). These men were too ashamed to return to David, so he told them: "Remain seated in Jericho until your beards grow, and then you shall return" (ibid 5).

Furthermore, when Devorah and Barak sand their song of victory, they began by saying: "When men let grow their hair in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly, bless ye the Lord" (Shoftim 5:2).

Essentially, letting one's hair grow long was a sign of strength and readiness for battle. The troops would in essence be taking a vow that they would not cut their hair until God had given them victory in battle.

The Nazir's vow has to be understood in this light. He is vowing to abstain from certain pleasures and to dedicate himself to God until he has achieved a certain closeness with Him. The Nazir, will therefore, not cut his hair until that vow has been fulfilled.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Naso, entitled: "The Mishkan’s Opening Day – Again! !appears at

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Parshat Bemidbar

The Levites

Moshe was instructed to "Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel" (Bemidbar 1:2).Moshe subsequently counted twelve of Israel's tribe. They totaled 603,550 men over the age of 20.

However, this total does not include the tribe of Levi. They were counted separately as their men were not to be used in military conquest, but in the service of God. They were also counted from the age of one month (ibid 3:15) and again between the ages of 30 and 50 (ibid 4:3).

The first count was to signify their replacement over the firstborns while the second was to assign them their different roles.

Interestingly, the second census of the Levi'im was split into two. First the children of Kehat were counted (4:1-20) and then Gershon and Merari (ibid 21-49), in next week's parsha. Furthermore, God Himself tells Moshe and Aharon to separate Kehat rom the rest of the Levi'im: "Make a count of the sons of Kohath from among the children of Levi by their families" (ibid 4:2 and compare to ibid 22).

Kehat are given this extra special treatment not because Moshe and Aharon number among their ranks. They are treated differently because they have to be more careful, as God warned: "Do not cause the tribe of the families of Kehat to be cut off from among the Levies" (ibid 18). There is a real danger that Kehat's number will be drastically reduced through unintentional death. While Gershon's role was to carry the curtains of the Mishkan and Merari was to carry the beams, Kehat was to carry the sacred vessels such as the Ark and the Table.

These items must be handled with special care. Indeed, Uzza died from touching the Ark when his attention was to stop it from hitting the ground (see II Shmuel 6:6).

The slightest infringement and carelessness could result in death. Therefore God warns: "Do this for them, so they should live and not die, when they approach the Holy of Holies" (Bemidbar 4:19).

Kehat needs to be singled out so that they can live.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Bemidbar, entitled: " Re’uel or De’uel?" appears at

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

The Blessing and the Curse

The second of this week's parshat hashavua begins with all the blessings that Israel will receive should they "follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them" (VaYikra 26:3).

It then continues to give stark warning as to what will happen should Israel "despise My statutes and reject My ordinances" (ibid 15). These curses are so harsh that synagogue reader utters them quietly.

One cannot help but notice a major discrepancy between the blessing and the curse. The blessing, the reward for obeying God, covers a mere 11 pesukim, while the curse, the punishment for disobedience, covers 37 pesukim. Is this the behavior of a merciful, compassionate and a just God?

The answer is yes. If we notice the descriptions in these pesukim we notice an interesting pattern. The punishments do not come all at once.

  • "If you do not listen to Me and do not perform all these commandments" (ibid 14)
  • "And if, during these, you will not listen to Me, I will add another seven punishments for your sins" (ibid 18).
  • "And if, through these, you will still not be chastised [to return] to Me, and if you [continue to] treat Me happenstance" (ibid 23).
  • And if you treat Me as happenstance, and you do not wish to listen to Me, I will add seven punishments corresponding to your sins" (ibid 21).
  • "And if, despite this, you still do not listen to Me, still treating Me as happenstance" (ibid 27).

The curse does not come all at once. At each stage, God stops the punishment to check whether Israel has repented. Only, if Israel continues to sin the punishment continues.

This is God's mercy. He always gives us a chance to return to Him, to come back.

Furthermore, the blessing is bestowed all in one go. As soon as Israel is obedient, it receives all the blessings possible.

"The deeds of the Rock are perfect, for all His ways are just; a faithful God, without injustice He is righteous and upright" Devarim 32:4).

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, entitled: "Shemitta and VaYikra" appears at

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Parshat Emor

Say it with Love

All parshiyot get their name get their name by a major word that appears at the beginning of the parsha.

Our parsha, Emor, is no exception.

"The Lord said (ויאמר) to Moshe: Say (אמור) to the kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and say (ואמרת to them (VaYikra 21:1).

What is interesting an exceptional however, is that the root "אמר" – "say", appears three times in the opening passuk. Even more exceptional is the change from the regular "וידבר" – "He spoke" to "ויאמר" – He said, which appears ten times in the parsha.

Is there any significance to the use of "אמר" and how does it differ to "דבר"?

Rashi notes in Shemot 19:3, that the word: "אמר" is a "softer" form of instruction. Indeed, we often see the root used in non-halachik instructions and at times when God wants to establish a relationship, covenant with people, e.g. with Noach (Bereshit 9:5), Avraham (ibid 17:9) and Israel (Shemot19:3).

However, the word: "דבר" is a "harder" form of the expression, as Yoseph's brothers claimed: "the lord of the land spoke harshly with us".

When it comes to giving commandments, the Torah generall uses: "דבר" the people are being given instructions and have no choice but to accept the laws. However, a Moshe explained to Aharon, the Kohanim are closer to God (VaYikra 10:3) and "the bread of their God, they do offer" (ibid 21:6).

The Kohanim are being made to asked to make extra sacrifices, large burdens, that are not required of the regular Israelite. Our parsha begins with a prohibition for a Kohen to bury and even mourn his family. The chapter continues with other restrictions as to who he can marry. Furthermore these restrictions are so serious, that breaking them could lead to his death.

It is possible that because of the close relationship that God has with the Kohanim and because of these extra restrictions, He uses a softer tone, to express to them His desire to be close to them and show compassion to their sacrifice.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Emor, entitled: "The Tale of the Blasphemer" appears at

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