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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Parshat Va'etchanan

The Two Tablets

In this weeks's parsha, Moshe recalled the revelation and the two tablets that recorded God's covenant with Israel: "He told you His covenant, which He commanded you to do, the Ten Commandments, and He inscribed them on two stone tablets" (Devarim 4:13).

Why was the covenant recorded in two tablets? Why was not one tablet enough?

A famous answer is recorded in the Midrash. Rabbi Chanina ben Gamliel explains that each tablet contained 5 of the commandments. The first tablet contained the first five commandments and related to laws between Man and God, while the second tablet contained the second set of commandments. They contained the set of laws between Man and Man. He goes on to explain that the commandments parallel each other, e.g. Idol Worship (Commandment number 2 on the first tablet) parallels Adultery (Commandment number 2 on the second tablet). In both instances, a relation is betrayed. (For a full explanation of each parallel, see

However, the Midrash continues and states a second opinion, that of the Rabbis. They claim that each tablet contained the full Ten Commandments (Mechilta on Yitro, section 8). How do they explain the need for two tablets?

To begin with there is the opinion of Sa'adia Gaon. He states that the first tablets contained the version of Sefer Shemot, while the second tablet contained the version that appears in our parsha.

However, there is another way to understand it. When two parties, whether they be individuals or countries make a contract, each party receives a copy of the contract. This enables them to know their own duties and obligations as well as their fellow's duties and obligations.

The same idea applies with the covenant Israel made with God. God took one copy and Israel took one copy. God's copy was kept in the Aron Hakodesh, the Ark of the Covenant, in His "abode", the Mishkan; while Israel's copy was kept by the guardians of the covenant, i.e. the priests, in the Mishkan, in the sacred spot.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Va'etchanan entiled: "Despair and Hope" appears at

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Parshat Devarim

Fighting in the Mountains

In the first of his three final addresses to Israel before his death, Moshe recalls the incident of the spies, the episode that caused Israel to wander for thirty years in wilderness.

Ironically, the immediate aftermath caused Israel to find its courage: "We have sinned against the Lord; we will go up and fight" (Devarim 1:41). However, by then it was too late and Moshe warned them of the pointlessness of impending battle. Again, the people would not listen: "So every one of you girded his weapons, and you prepared yourselves to go up to the mountain" (ibid).

Interestingly, from this and the following pessukim it is clear, Israel was in the valley, while the enemy held the mountain. The height disadvantage was disastrous for Israel: "The Emori dwelling in that mountain came out towards you and pursued you as bees do, and beat you down in Seir" (ibid 44).

This pattern was counter distinctive to Israel's battle plans during the biblical period.

Throughout that time, Israel lacked proper weaponry and until, King Shaul, an army. As a result, Shamgar's army was forced to fight using agricultural implements (Shoftim 3 :31), Shimshon made weapons from dead animals (15:16), while on the day of war in Shau'l's first army "neither sword nor spear was found in the possession of all the people" (I Shmuel 13:22).

No wonder, Sisera's 900 chariots were able to persecute the entire country in Devorah's time, and other enemies found Israel vulnerable.

Israel's response was to fight in the mountain, such as with Ehud (Shoftim 3:27), Devorah (ibid 4:6) and Gidon (ibid 6:33 & 7:9). Israels enemies, with superior weaponry, preferred the lowlands, while used the geography of the land as weapon by fighting in the highlands.

This situation was so much so that after a particularly humiliating defeat for Aram, their commission of enquiry concluded that the reason for their defeat was because "a God of mountains is their God: therefore they overpowered us. However, if we fight them in the plains, [you will see] if we will not overpower them" (I Melachim 20:23).

And so a year later, Aram again attacked, this time on the plains. However, the result was the same, "Because the Arameans said that God of the mountains is the Lord and He is not the God over the valleys, I will deliver all this great multitude into your hand and you will know that I am the Lord" (ibid 28).

Thus concludes Israel's successes and failures. Israel was defeated when the men attacked from the ground up the mountains, not just because their tactics were flawed, but because God had declared: "I am not among you" (Devarim 1: 42).

The message is clear: When God is among us we succeed, when God is not among us we fail. We must work hard to ensure that God is always among us.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Devarim, entitled: "Devarim, Chazon and Tisha Be'Av" appears at

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Parshat Mattot-Massei

Moshe and the Transjordan

Moshe was not impressed by the request of the tribes of Re'uven and Gad to settle the Transjordan. To him it seemed that they lacked the courage to defeat the Canaanim: "Why do you discourage the children of Israel from crossing over to the land which the Lord has given them?" (Bemidbar 32:7).

They responded that this was not their intention. On the contrary to prove their courage and determination to defeat Canaan, they offered to "arm ourselves quickly [and go] before the children of Israel until we have brought them to their place" (ibid 17). Essentially in order to prove that they had the faith they could defeat Canaan and conquer the land, they offered to lead Israel into battle.

Moshe accepts this position making them swear an oath that they would uphold this deal, but he adds one interesting measure: The people had asked: "this land be given to your servants as a heritage - ahuza" (ibid 5) – i.e. as an eternal possession. In this manner, the land would be theirs eternally, never to be taken away.

However, Moshe was concerned that once the land became their ahuza, the tribes could backtrack on their agreement, with no legal redress. Indeed, Moshe says that: "If you do this thing…this land will become your ahuza before the Lord…But, if you do not do so, behold, you will have sinned against the Lord" (ibid 20-23) – implying that the tribes would not be forced to return the land.

Therefore, Moshe adds a clause. While both parties were consistently talking of the land being given as an ahuza, in the end, Moshe just "gave the descendants of Gad and the descendants of Reuben and half the tribe of Manasseh…the land together with its cities within borders, the cities of the surrounding territory" (ibid 33). He did not give it as an ahuza. Yet he commanded, that should they fulfill their side of the bargain, than Elazar should "give them the land of Gilead as an ahuza"… if not than they would merely receive "receive an ahuza among you in the land of Canaan" (ibid 29-30).

As it turns, these tribes did fulfill their side of the bargain (See Yehoshua Ch. 13).

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Mattot-Massei, entitled: "Tribe and Tribalism" appears at

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Parshat Pinchas

Zelafchad's Daughters and Feminism

The daughters of Zelafchad had a simple request: "Why should our father's name be eliminated from his family because he had no son?" (Bemidbar 27:4).

At that time, land could only be inherited by sons. As Zelofchad had no sons, his family would receive no land and thereby, his name would be lost from Israelite history. This loss dismayed his daughters.

So a new law was enacted: "If a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter" (ibid 8).

At first glance, this law appears to strike a first blow for Jewish feminism – women, in limited circumstances, could now become landowners.

The reality however, is somewhat different. The purpose of this law was not to give women land, but rather, to keep the family name alive. Indeed, an addition to this law clearly states that the women had to marry within their tribe so that "their inheritance remained with the tribe of their father's family" (ibid 36:12).

The daughters essentially acted as guardians of the land until a male child was born that could carry on the family name.

Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society because it was a community of tribes, rather than a unified nation. Each tribe was concerned about its land mass. That is why the tribe of Menasheh complained to Moshe about this ruling. They were very concerned that should Zelofchad's daughters marry outside of their tribe, the whole tribe would have a weakening of their power as the land would be transferred over to another tribe. Therefore, a new rule was instituted that "every daughter from the tribes of the children of Israel who inherits property, shall marry a member of her father's tribe" (ibid 8). Female land owners could only marry within their tribe.

Therefore, in a tribal society, there had to be strict rules about landownership regulations for women.

However, once Israel ceased its tribalism and became a unified nation, the rabbis were able to show more compassion and find ways to boost inheritance rights of women.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Pinchas, entitled: "Moshe and Yehoshua” appears at

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