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.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Parshat Balak

Pinchas’ Legal Precedent

Towards the end of this week’s parsha, we see Israel’s apostasy at Ba’al Pe’or – “Israel became attached to Baal Peor, and the anger of the Lord flared against Israel” (Bemidbar 25:3).

Moshe and his followers seem to be paralyzed with inactivity- “Then an Israelite man came… before the eyes of Moses and before the eyes of the entire congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping…” (ibid 6).

However, one man took action: “Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen saw this, arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand” (ibid 7) and saved the day.

The rabbis debate the legality of Pincha’s actions, nevertheless Rashi says that that Pinchas’ actions were legal. On the words “Pinchas…saw”, Rashi states: “He saw the deed and reminded himself of the law. He said to Moses, “I learned from you, ‘If someone cohabits with an Aramean [heathen] woman, zealots have a right to strike him [dead].’ ”

Based upon this law, Pinchas takes his spear and executes the cohabiting couple.

Nevertheless, this law does not appear anywhere within the Bible, Mishna or other Jewish legal texts. On what legal basis could Pinchas have executed the sinful couple in this manner?.

It is possible that Rashi bases his ruling on a legal precedent from the episode of the Golden Calf. Moshe had called upon zealous men to act upon the rebellion saying: “So said the Lord, the God of Israel: 'Let every man place his sword upon his thigh and pass back and forth from one gate to the other in the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his friend, every man his kinsman (Shemot 32:27).

The apostasy at Ba’al Pe’or has parallels with the apostasy of the Golden Calf. To begin with, both incidents recall Israel’s worship of other gods. Furthermore, both incidents included adulterous fertility rites (see Rashi on ibid 6).

Moshe also treated the people in a similar fashion to the woman suspected of adultery for “he took the calf they had made, burned it in fire, ground it to fine powder, scattered [it] upon the surface of the water, and gave [it to] the children of Israel to drink” (ibid 20).

Indeed, the Bible often compares idol worship to that of adultery – Israel’s unfaithfulness by being with other gods is comparable to someone’s infidelity with another partner. Additionally, some opinions consider the purpose of the Two Tablets of the Covenant to compare the first five statements of the Ten Commandments to the second five. The second commandment on the first tablet forbade idol worship, while the second commandment on the second tablet forbade adultery.

Therefore, the adulterous cohabitation of the Israelite and the Moabite at Ba’al Peor was comparable to the apostasy at the Golden Calf. In that instance, Moshe ordered the summary execution of the guilty. Based on that legal precedent, Pinchas reacted, making his extra-judicial act legal.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Balak, entitled: "Balak's Fear” appears at

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Parshat Chukkat

How Red was the Red Heifer?
This week’s Sedra Short is dedicated to my brother in law, Daniel Turnberg,
who perished in a tragic accident last weekend. Daniel was the kindest
person you could ever meet. He saw the beauty and richness in life and was
highly motivating and inspiring. Yehi Zichro Baruch.

The main ingredient of purification ritual for someone who has been in contact with a corpse is a “perfectly red unblemished cow” (Bemidbar 19:2). The Mishna(Para) explains that the cow must be perfectly red. As little as two black hairs would be enough to invalidate it. There were also other strict regulations which meant that it is virtually impossible to actually have one.

Indeed, the Temple institute in Jerusalem has tried to genetically create a para aduma, and has twice come close. However, even with the cutting edge technology that the modern world offers, we have failed to witness a one since the fall of Jerusalem just under 2,000 years ago.

In fact the Talmud states that there were only nine throughout history. Their ashes were peserved so that they could be continuously used.

Some have suggested that this fact proves that we are as yet unready for redemption and
hat God will provide us with the necessary animal when H is ready for us to rebuild the Temple. Nevertheless, all this makes the Para Aduma a halachik anomaly, a highly unlikely possibility.

Modern scholars have suggested that the Toraho was referring to a brown cow not a red cow. They make two points. First of all, red is one of the three primary colors. Brown is a derivation of red. Furthermore, the Bible contains no word for Hebrew for the color brown.

Since, ancient Hebrew lacked the appropriate for brown, they suggest that the next closest alternative, i.e. red, was used.

I am someone who is color blind. Playing snooker was always frustrating for me as the table is covered with 15 red balls and one brown. It was very difficult for me to distinguish the brown from among them. They were practically identical in my eyes.

This explanation therefore, resonates with me and gives us food for thought.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Chukat, entitled: "The Red Heifer and Sefer Bemidbar" appears at

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Parshat Korach

The Innocent and the Guilty

The question: "why good things happen to bad people" is an ancient question and I will not try to solve this question, but this week's parsha touches upon it a number of times.

Just before God is about to vaporize the 250 would be priests, God warns Moshe and Aharon: "Separate yourselves from this congregation, and I will consume them in an instant" (Bemidbar 16:21). The implication is obvious, if Moshe and Aharon, innocent parties in the conflict, remain in the presence of the men, they too will die.

The same warning is given to the entire people before the earth swallowed Datan and Aviram: "get away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything of theirs, lest you perish because of all their sins" (ibid 26).

Again this warning was given when the people later rebelled: "Stand aside from this congregation, and I shall consume them in an instant" (ibid 17:10).

God clearly warns that when He punishes, He (or at least His messenger, in the words of the rabbis) does not discriminate between the innocent and the guilty.

Moshe was concerned about this state of affairs and even complains: "O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, if one man sins, shall You be angry with the whole congregation?" (ibid 16: 22).

However, this theology was not new. Avraham Avinu also had a problem with it. He argued with God saying that by destroying Sedom, "Will You even destroy the righteous with the wicked?" (Bereshit 18:23).

Indeed, we often see the righteous being killed for merely being in the wrong place at wrong time: e.g. Uzza (II Shmuel 6:6-7) and David's unborn child (ibid 12:14-19). In these cases too, David was concerned about the injustice of their deaths.

Moshe even urges Aharon to do something to stop a murderous plague. Aharon takes incense and "stood between the dead and the living, and the plague ceased" (Bemidbar 17:13).

Interestingly enough, God never offers excuses or answers these retorts. He seems to accept the righteousness of the arguments.

It is right to be disturbed about this state of affairs, just as Moshe, Aharon, Avraham and David were. However, more importantly, that like our ancestors, we must fight to help the innocent before the dye has been cast. Yet, just as David, fasted and prayed incessantly to save his unborn child, once the child had died, he removed his sackcloth, bathed and resumed his life, so too we must accept God's justice and continue with our lives once the decision has been executed.

According to these texts the question should not be "why do bad things happen to good people?" but rather: "how should humanity react in the face of human suffering?". The challenge should not be to question God about suffering but for us to do something about the suffering.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Korach, entitled: "Aharon’s Blossoming Rod" appears at

Monday, June 04, 2007

Parshat Shelach

The Spies

Israel's camp was established and the army had been mobilized. Israel stood on Canaan's southern border waiting for orders to advance. Moshe sent spies and the spies reported back evil tidings that delayed the conquest for forty years.

However, the problem was not that Moshe sent spies. Indeed forty years later, when Israel was finally ready to make the Promised land its home, Moshe again sent spies: "Moshe sent [men] to spy out Yaazer and they captured its villages…"(Bemidbar 21:32). Furthermore, Yehoshua sent spies before the capture of Yericho and Ai (see Yehoshua 2:1 & 7:2).

It is crucial before any military campaign to know as much as possible about the enemy. What are their strengths, weaknesses, moral etc? Military intelligence has always been a vital factor in war.

So where did Moshe's spies go wrong? The answer is that Moshe did not send spies!!

Not once in our story as are the spies actually referred to as "spies" ("meraglim"). Their mission was not "leragel et haaretz" - to spy out the land - but "latur et haaretz" – "to scout the Land" (Bemidbar 13:17).

Furthermore, their mission was not just military. Moshe instructed them to find out about "the land they inhabit? Is it good or bad? … What is the soil like? Is it fat or lean? Are there any trees in it or not?" (ibid 19-20). This information is irrelevant for military conquest.

Additionally, Moshe sent 12 men, one from each tribe. That second fact suggests that the mission was flawed from the outset; that Moshe had to appease each tribe. The "spies" themselves, unlike Yehoshua's who "sent two men out of Shittim to spy secretly" (Yehoshua 2:1), were not sent secretly. Indeed, "each one shall be a chieftain in their midst they were all" (Bemidbar 13:2). Each one was an important personality, not a professionally trained spy. Furthermore, unlike Yeoshua's (and all other) spies, whose identities were kept hidden, no one knew who they were or that they were even sent., Moshe's spies however, are all named publicly. I would not be surprised if a farewell banquet was even held in their honor.

The fact that Moshe sent 12 people is also a flaw. Such a large group would find it hard to blend in and go about their work unnoticed.

The biggest mistake however, has to be that the people were the one's that ordered the mission. Moshe admits this publicly in Sefer Devarim (See Devarim 1:22-23). However, this is obvious from the fact that the spies do not report their findings back to Moshe alone, but to all Israel: "They went, and they came to Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the children of Israel in the desert of Paran, to Kadesh. They brought them back a report, as well as to the entire congregation" (Bemidbar 1:26).

Moshe's spies failed because he didn't actually send spies. Instead, Moshe sent tribal ambassadors, with a confusing mission and purpose who were unqualified for the task at hand. If Moshe would have sent trained spies, in secret with a clear military mission, they might have succeeded.

No wonder, God considered Moshe at fault with this mission: "The Lord was also angry with me because of you, saying, "Neither will you go there." (Devarim 1:37).

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Shelach, entitled: "The Spies, Challa and Tzitzit" appears at

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