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, August 30, 2007

Parshat Ki Tavo

The Return to Egypt

As well as the covenant at Sinai, this week's parsha sees Moshe make a covenant with Israel at the Plains of Moav.

It contains a long and mostly tortuous description of what Israel would suffer should it break this covenant. It ends on an ironic note: "The Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships, through the way about which I had said to you, You will never see it again. There, you will seek to be sold to your enemies for slaves and handmaids, but there will be no buyer" (Devarim 28:68).

The people who began its history with freedom from slavery from Egypt, with the Egyptians doing their utmost to maintain their hold over them, will find themselves returning to Egypt in an attempt to sell themselves as slaves, but will find the Egyptians uninterested in buying them.

However, there is even more bitter irony here. Yaakov originally went down to Egypt to escape famine. In this instance we see that God "will bring back upon you all the diseases of Egypt which you dreaded" (ibid 60). The previous passuk described them as plagues that would bring sickness.

These conditions would entail famine and would explain why the people would be so impoverished that would feel the need to sell themselves as slaves.

This covenant, also called the Tochecha, sees an undoing of history. All the good that Israel had achieved would be undone and the people would revert to their original state.

In relation to all the horrors threatened in this chapter, seeing one's own history and achievements folding up and reverting to state as if they never actually existed, must be the bitterest pill for Israel to swallow. No wonder some commentaries understand the word "be'oniyot" – "in ships" to be "be'aniyut" – "in mourning".

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Ki Tavo entiled: "The Tochecha" appears at

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Parshat Ki Tetseh

The Stubborn and Rebellious Son

This week's parsha lists a group of laws that often makes us feel uncomfortable; none more so than that of the " ben sorer umoreh " – the stubborn and rebellious son. We are told that "all the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die" (Devarim 21:21). Such actions "shall clear out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear" (ibid).

The Rabbis appear to also find this law uncomfortable. They write in one place (Sanhedrin 68b) that the child is judged "al shem sofo" - in anticipation of how he will transgress when he matures, i.e. even though he at presents has not done a crime that is deserving of punishment, it is better for him to die now without sin – well that doesn't make me feel any better about this law.

Later they say that the case of a ben sorer umoreh never happened and never will (ibid 71a). They seem to be saying that we shouldn't worry about this rule, after all it never actually happened – yes, we're still a moral people. This doesn't make me feel any better either.

Perhaps we can solve this problem by trying to understand ancient Near Eastern culture and the subject of honor killings – something that still exits today amongst Middle Eastern cultures.

Essentially, when a child (often the daughter) brings dishonor to a family, the culture allows, and even expects the father to restore the family's honor, by killing the child.

This sad and horrible culture existed amongst the culture of ancient Israel. How did the Torah deal with it – simply! Firstly it said "His father and his mother shall take hold of him" (Devarim 21:19). Generally, mothers are not involved in honor killings. It is often done behind their backs and when they know of it, they do their outmost to stop it. This requirement that the mother be involved in the process is likely to reduce the frequency of the honor killing.

The second and more important thing that the Torah did was that it required the parents to "bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place" (ibid). The Torah took honor killings out of the realm of extra judicial practice and put it into the realm of judicial law.

This means that no longer were parents allowed to summarily execute their children if they had shamed their family's honor. They must bring the child to court. It is then the court's right to decide if the child is guilty or not. In this context we can be proud of the Talmudic statement that there never was case of the stubborn and rebellious child – the Bet Din would ensure that no child would be found guilty and thereby, it exorcised this ugly phenomenon from ancient Israel's culture.

Rather than being ashamed of the law of the ben sorer umoreh, we can proud of the efforts our ancient ancestors made to remove immoral practice from our culture.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat entiled: "The Impaled Criminal" appears at

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Parshat Shoftim

The King and Sha'ul

Sefer Shmuel introduces Sha'ul, Israel's first king, with a strange story.

Kish, Sha'ul's father had lost his mules. He sent Sha'ul and a servant to find them. After a few days' fruitless search, Sha'ul suggests they give up – his father would probably be more worried about their safety than the mules. The servant suggests that they consult a nearby holy man. Sha'ul questioned this saying they had no payment to offer him. The servant responded that he had a quarter of a shekel of silver. Sha'ul agreed. They set off for the holy man and came across young women drawing water. Sha'ul asked them girls if the Seer was present. They give him a long wonded, partially comprehensible, answer, lasting the length of two whole pesukim, which in short said "yes" (See I Shmuel 9:1-14).

This episode is anti-climactic and perhaps even embarrassing. There are no heroic deeds, no examples of kindness and no sign of leadership. Indeed, Sha'ul even fails at the task of finding the mules. What is this story trying to teach us?

We can suggest that this episode mirrors the rules given to kings, the Mishpat HaMelech, coded in this week's parsha. We are told that a king:

  • may not acquire many horses for himself
  • shall not take many wives for himself
  • shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself (Devarim 17:16-17)

Well, from Sefer Shmuel it is clear that Sha'ul did not even have mules, nevermind too many horses. As for silver and gold, Sha'ul didn't even have a penny on him and had to rely on his servant who had also had little.

What about wives? Throughout the Bible, whenever someone arrived at a well, there was always a marriage. Eliezer found Rivka at a well, Ya'akov found Rachel and Moshe found Tsipporah.

Sha'ul met many women at the well. They seem to be fighting over themselves to talk to him. Rash even suggests that they were flirting with him, trying to keep him in conversation so that they could continue to gaze at his handsome face. Yet, Sh'aul does not even answer them, certainly he does not marry any of them. So once again Sha'ul fits the bill. He does not have too many wives.

Furthermore, when Shmuel tells Sha'ul that he is destined to rule, he responds: "Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? and my family the least of all the families of Benjamin? Now, why have you spoken to me after this manner?" (I Shmuel 9:21).

Even though that same chapter tells us that Sha'ul "was taller than any of the people" (ibid 2), he still had the requirement of modesty that the Mishpat HaMelech requires: "his heart will not be haughty over his brothers".

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Shoftim entiled: "The King" appears at

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Parshat Re’ay

Doing the What Seems Right

Moshe warns the people that once a permanent sanctuary is established: “You shall not do as all the things that we do here this day, every man [doing] what he deems fit” (Devarim 12:12).

In Israel’s early history, communities would have their bamot – high places, where they would offer sacrifices to God. These bamot were considered illegal. Moshe states clearly that “only in the place the Lord will choose in one of your tribes; there you shall offer up your burnt offerings” (ibid 14).

Even though the bamot were established to worshipping the true God and not idols, they were considered illegal. Indeed, when the Transjordanian tribes established an altar on the banks of the Jordan, a task force, led by Pinchas the High Priest, was sent to investigate and if necessary attack those tribes for this blasphemy. The attack was called off after the tribes explained that the altar was ceremonial and not functional (See Yehoshua 22:9-34)

Nevertheless, we see that the bamot were tolerated and were at times, even used at the word of God. Shmuel often traveled the country and offered sacrifices in different locales (see I Shmuel 9:25 and 16:2-5), while Eliyahu HaNavi is famed for the altars he built on Mount Carmel (see I Melachim Ch.18). They were finally destroyed only during the reign of Yoshiyahu (II Melachim Ch.23).

The question is why the bamot should be wrong. The temple was a long distance for most of Israel and was not convenient for the daily worship of God. It is logical that each area should have its altar and priests so that the people could worship God daily, in a similar way that Jewish areas today each have a number of synagogues.

This is the logic that ancient Israel used and is presumably the reason that they were tolerated.

Nevertheless, there are problems with “every man [doing] what he deems fit”, i.e. each area or even family building their own local altar, and Israel during the reign of the Judges suffered from it: “In those days (there was) no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his eyes” (Shoftim 17:6).

These bamot often led people astray with the local leader manipulating the authority of the sanctuary to do what was right in his eyes. Examples of this include Gidon (ibid 8:27) and Micha (ibid Ch.17-18).

Both these individuals thought that they were doing the right thing. Micha even saw in the early positive outcome that God was leading him on the correct path: “Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, because I had a Levite as my priest” (ibid 17:13).

Nevertheless, as in the case of Gidon, all Israel went astray after it there; and it became a snare to Gideon and to his house (ibid 8:27).

The message is that man should not be making personal calculations to do what I right in his eyes. We often talk ourselves into believing ourselves too much. We should be aiming to do what is right in God’s eyes, not or eyes.

The problem is that it is not always obvious. For that we need a central authority for whom we can consult and help isolate all the smoke clouding our thought process, so that we can come to clear unselfish decisions.
Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Re’ei entiled: " The Place " appears at


Friday, August 03, 2007

Parshat Ekev

The Two Arks

When God instructed Moshe to make replacement Luchot, He told him to “make for yourself a wooden ark. I shall inscribe on the tablets the words that were upon the first tablets which you shattered and you shall place them into the ark. So I made an ark of acacia wood…I turned and came down from the mountain, and placed the tablets in the ark which I had made” (Devarim 10:1-5).

There are numerous problems with this account of the Ark’s construction:

  • Bezalel built the Ark of the Covenant, not Moshe
  • The Ark was made out three layers, the inner outer layer were made from gold while only the middle layer was made from acacia wood
  • The Ark was one of the final items of the Mishkan that was constructed. Moshe could not have placed the Luchot in it upon his descent from the mountain.

Some commentators explain away these problems.

  • Bezalel built the Ark unde Moshe’s instructions and guidenc. It is as if Moshe built it - in the same way that Shlomo ‘built’ the first Temple and Herod ‘built the Second’
  • Moshe’s account is brief and does not include the intricate materials and details in which the Ark was constructed
  • Moshe laced the Luchot into the Ark once it was constructed.

Nevertheless, some commentaries, such as Rashi, claim that this Ark refers to a temporary ark that was built to house the Luchot until the permanent Ark was ready. This Ark played a similar role to the temporary Ohel Mo’ed that existed outside of the camp before the Mishkan was built (see Shemot 23:7-9).

The existence of a second Ark solves a riddle abut one of the Ark’s purposes. “So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moshe would say, Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You” (Bemidbar 10:35).

It seems that the Ark had a military purpose. Indeed we see the Ark being used in a number of battles, e.g. at the conquest of Yericho (see Yeoshua Ch.6) and at Givon (Shoftim 20:27) and yet we have a perplexing episode in a fateful just before Shmuel’s leadership.

Israel had been defeated in battle, and so decided they needed Divine help and called for the Ark to be brought: “When the Ark of the Lord's Covenant came into the camp, that all Israel shouted a great shout, and the earth stirred. And the Philistines heard the sound of the shout, and they said, "What is the sound of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews?" And they knew that the Ark of the Lord had come into the camp. And the Philistines feared, for they said, "God has come into the camp." And they said, "Woe is unto us, for there was nothing like this yesterday and before yesterday” (I Shmuel 4:5-7).

If it was normal for the Ark to be used in battle, why wasn’t it used in the first place? Furthermore, from the Philistine cries, it seems that the Arkd hd not been used previously in battle.

We could suggest that the Ark regularly used in battle was the temporary Ark, while the Ark used in this battle was the main Ark of the Covenant.

Nevertheless, we could also suggest that while the Ark was once used in battle, at a later date it was no longer used for this purpose. This would be because of over reliance on the Ark in a similar way that the people claimed in Yirmiyahu’s day: “Do not rely on false words, saying: The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are they (Yirmiyahu 7:4). It is not the Ark or the Temple that brings victory, but only Israel’s loyalty to God”.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Ekev entiled: "Shema 1 and Shema 2" appears at

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