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, October 25, 2007

Parshat VaYera

The Fate of Mrs. Lot

You can't say she wasn't warned: "Flee for your life, do not look behind you, and do not stand in the entire plain. Flee to the mountain, lest you perish" (Bereshit 19:17). Essentially, Sedom was going to be destroyed. "Brimstone and fire" was going to rain down onto it turning into "soil devastated by sulfur and salt" (Devarim 29:22). The local bitumen pits would ignite and everything nearby would be destroyed. Therefore, the angel advised them to flee to the mountains, the high lands. There they would be safe.

Lot's wife fled but "she looked behind him, and she became a pillar of salt" (Bereshit 19:26). The angel warned her not turn around, she did and so faced instantaneous retribution. Or did she?

The Hizkuni would give low marks for this translation. He offers an alternative interpretation. The words" "
ותהי ניצב מלח" do not refer to Mrs. Lot, but to the site that she saw. "It (i.e. the city) was being turning into a block of salt."

This explanation is strange because:

  • The angel warned her not turn round and she did – surely she deserves punishment.
  • It implies that she survived the destruction, but she does not appear again in the story.

Indeed, it would be hard to argue that she survived, for Lot's daughters end up seducing their father. It is unlikely that they would have been able to do that had she been alive..

Nevertheless, is the legend that she was instantaneously turned into a pillar of salt correct? Well, it appears that none of the medieval exegetes actually say that.

The Rashbam explains that the reason the angel told them not to look back was because it would slow them down. You recall that Lot kept on delaying: "He tarried, so the men took hold of his hand and his wife's hand, and the hand of his two daughters, out of the Lord's pity for him, and they took him out and placed him outside the city" (ibid 16).

The angels had to physically remove Lot from the city as he wasn't leaving. Even after that, he kept on delaying despite the fact that the angels were urging him to leave.

Lot wasted so much time, that by the time he fled, he no longer had a second despair. Any further delay, if they slowed down even an instant, they would be swept up and covered by the fire and brimstone and then by salt, just like everyone else.

Therefore, when Lot's wife, who was already some distance behind Lot, turned around, she gazed and witnessed the destruction that was taking place. After a few minutes of gazing, she decided to continue her climb, but by then it was too late. The exploding bitumen pits and the rising sulfur eventually caught up with her. Perhaps earth tremors even he caused her to stumble and fall.

Her final fate therefore, was to become a pile of salt, just like everyone else in Sedom. However, it wasn't instantaneous – God rarely works like that.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat VaYera, entitled: "Yishmael the Impersonator” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat VaYera, entitled: "She's my Sister – Again!!" can be found at

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Parshat Lech Lecha

The Cannanites Were Then in the Land

God told Avraham to go "to the land that I will show you" (Bereshit 12:1). When he arrived there, the passuk tells us that "the Canaanites were then in the land" (ibid 6). The word "then" – "אז" in Hebrew, has troubled traditional Jewish commentaries for it implies that at the time Sefer Bereshit was written, the Canaanites were no longer in the land. Orthodox Jews believe that Sefer Bereshit was written by Moshe. That makes the word "then" problematic, for the Canaanites were the unchallenged rulers of Canaan in Moshe's day.

Rashi states that Avraham's time marked the beginning of the Cannanite conquest. The word "then" then implies that the Canannites were then taking control of the land, as opposed to today, Moshe's day, when the Cananites had supreme control.

This interpretation is difficult to accept for it cannot be historically justified. The Canannites were firmly in control of Canaan well before Avraham arrived on the scene.

The Chizkuni therefore, explains that the word "then" was included for later generations, such as ours, so that we should understand that when Avraham first arrived in Israel, it was actually a strong holding of the Canaanites.

Ibn Ezra however, has real trouble with world and hints, though he doesn't say it openly, that the word was added at a later date.

I would like to add an alternative suggestion that will make the traditionalists more comfortable. But before I do I would like to ask, why God repeats His promise to Abraham numerous times throughout the parsha, God had already told Avraham that he would become a great nation in the land. Why does God then repeat "To your descendants I will give this land," (ibid 7)?

If we recall, Avraham was not told specifically what land he was directed to go to and that he had never been to Canaan before. It is possible that Avraham assumed that he would arrive in a sparsely populated region, a place that he could claim and inherit to his children.

However, when he arrived in Canaan he was shocked. This land was already full of people, not just any people, but the Canaanites; a highly developed people with a distinct culture and strong army. Could this be the land where he was to become a great nation?

Therefore Avraham may have assumed that he was at the wrong place. God immediately appears to him therefore and says: "To your descendants I will give this land". God explains that the promise is to be fulfilled in the future. Avraham's immediate reaction is to build an altar and show his trust in God. The word "then" therefore, expresses to Israel four hundred years later, Avraham's shock and surprise.

Moshe explains that they should not think that when Avraham arrived in the land it was unoccupied and that he was claiming it for them. No, even in Avraham's day, the land was fully occupied and controlled by Canaan.

Therefore, the pesukim can be understood as follows: "Avram passed through the land, until the place of Shechem, until the plain of Moreh, and [found that] the Canaanites were [already] then [firmly entrenched] in the land. [In order to allay Avram's doubts] the Lord appeared to Avram, and He said, 'To your descendants I will give this land'. There [showing his faith and new understanding of God's promise] he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him" (ibid 6-7).

Therefore, the word "then" need not be a post-Mosaic addition to the text, but merely a tool to teach us and ancient Israel:

  • That Avraham had problems understanding God's promise in light of the facts
  • Why God repeated his promise to Avraham
  • Why Avraham did not build the altar immediately upon arriving in the land.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Lech Lecha, entitled: "Sarah, Wife of Avraham” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat Lech Lecha, entitled: "The Double edge of Circumcision" can be found at

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Parshat Noach

The Raven and the Dove

The Torah is full of doublets – stories that are told more than once from different perspectives. The episode of the Flood in this week's paraha, is undoubtedly two accounts of the same story, interwoven into one story. Let's see an example of this.

"The Lord saw that the evil of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that He had made man upon the earth, and He became grieved in His heart. The Lord said, 'I will blot out man, whom I created, from upon the face of the earth, from man to cattle to creeping thing, to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I made them.' But Noach found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (Bereshit 6:5-8).

Essentially, humanity, save one man, Noach, had become corrupted so God decided to destroy it. Let's now read the next few pesukim.

"These are the generations of Noach, Noah was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God…Now the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth became full of corrupion. God saw the earth, and behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. So God said to Noach, "The end of all flesh has come before Me…and behold I am destroying them from the earth'" (ibid 9-13).

Essentially, humanity, save one man, Noach, had become corrupted so God decided to destroy it!!

Bible critics concluded that each account was written by a separate author, probably in the two separate ancient Israelite kingdoms. Each recorded different traditions of Israel's history. A redactor later, interwove the accounts. The critics call one account "J" as it uses the Hebrew "J" name of God, translated here as "The Lord". The second account they call "E" as it uses the Hebrew "E" name for God, translated here as "God". I will show why I am not convinced by their arguments.

The two accounts continue throughout the parsha, and conclude with Noach sending a bird to see if the waters had receded. In Account E, Noach "sent forth the raven. It went out, back and forth until the waters dried up off the earth" (Ibid 8:7).

While the raven circled the ark, Noach understood that the earth was still flooded, and once the raven flew off, he understood that the waters had receded. Let's see what he does in the next pesukim.

"He sent forth the dove from with him, to see whether the waters had abated from upon the surface of the earth. But the dove found no resting place for the sole of its foot; so it returned to him to the ark because there was water upon the entire surface of the earth; so he stretched forth his hand and took it, and he brought it to him to the ark. He waited again another seven days, and he again sent forth the dove from the ark. The dove returned to him at eventide, and behold it had plucked an olive leaf in its mouth; so Noah knew that the water had abated from upon the earth" (ibid 8-11).

When the dove returned, Noach understood that the earth was still flooded. When the dove returned with the olive branch, Noach understood that the land was now visible.

Note, however, how the two accounts differ. In "J", God is grieved by humanity's plight and by His own actions. He cares for Noach. Noach cares about the dove and the dove cares about him. The "E" account, however, is cold and factual, devoid of relationship.

Also note how opposite the raven and the dove are. The raven is a predator, while the dove is an herbivore. The Raven is a symbol of aggression while the dove is a symbol of peace. The raven is black, while the dove is white.

These two accounts could not have been written independently, they are two sides of the same coin.

So why then are two accounts recorded? The ancient rabbis have explained that God's "J" name represents His trait of mercy while His "E" name represents His trait of justice.

Ancient Israel had a problem: If God was merciful, how could He punish them and if He was just, how could He ever be merciful? This interwoven story attempts to solve this problem. God's mercy and His justice work side by side, complementing each other. While God was acting with justice when He flooded the world, He was also acting with compassion. As every parent knows, trying to juggle mercy and justice with our children is a difficult task. Perhaps we should try to imitate God and act in both manner, at the same time.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Noach, entitled: "The Tower of Bavel" can be found at:

A further Sedra Short for Parshat Noach, entitled: "Why an Ark?" can be found at:

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Parshat Bereshit

Humanity's Objectives

Rashi has difficulty as to why the Torah, a book of religious law, begins with the story of creation. He then goes onto justifying the choice. However, commentaries such as the Ramban cannot understand his question. For him, the Torah is more than just a legal document and it is only natural that it should begin with creation.

Indeed, this week's parsha contains the purpose to creation and answers the question as to why God created the Earth and to what His objectives for humanity are. As it turns out; there are three objectives:

"Be fruitful and multiply"
"Fill the earth and conquer it"
"Rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth" (Bereshit 1:28)
What does this mean? Essentially "God created humanity in His image; in the image of God He created it; male and female He created them" (ibid 27).

Humans are Godlike creatures as we are in His image. Our duty is therefore, to imitate Him, to act like God. Well, God is the creator so we too, must create.

Our first mission is therefore, to create life, the pinnacle of creation (Be fruitful and multiply). By having children we are being Godlike by literally, creating life.

However, God's creation was not just humanity. He also created the earth. So too, we must take the earth and use its resources to create new inventions, all for the betterment of creation (conquer the earth).

Finally, God created the animal kingdom the same day He created humanity. Man therefore, has a duty towards them: to rule them and to ensure their continued existence.

Humanity began this mission quite well: "The man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain… She continued to bear his brother Abel" (ibid 4:1-2). Humanity was fruitful and began to multiply.

"Abel was a shepherd of flocks" – he began to rule the animal kingdom - "while Cain was a tiller of the soil" – he began conquering the earth (ibid).

Unfortunately, things got bad when they began to worship God – but that's a story for another day – or possibly one we'd better steer clear of!!

Nevertheless, the basic message of Bereshit Chapter 1 is beautiful. By simply reproducing and going to work we are achieving Godliness and are doing something holy.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Bereshit, entitled: "The Good the Bad and the Woman" can be found at:

A further Sedra Short for Parshat Bereshit, entitled: "Shattering Ancient Creation Myths" can be found at:

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Parshat Vezot Haberacha

Moshe's Humanity

When ancient Israel first heard the words "God created humanity in His image" (Bereshit 1:27), the encountered a novel idea. The ancient world believed that only their kings, the actual living embodiment of their gods, were by definition in their god's image.

Judaism democratized the concept. All humanity is in the image of God and no leader has any greater claim to godliness than the people that he serves.

This week's concluding chapter to the Torah states that "there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face" (Devarim 34:1). No person ever had or could ever have as great a relationship that Moshe had with God. Nevertheless, the Torah constantly testifies that Moshe was human. Indeed, just a few pesukim earlier, God reminded Moshe of his great error and resulting punishment: "I have let you see it (the land) with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there" (ibid 4).

At the same time, while the birth of Moshe was obscure (See Shemot Ch. 2), once he is about to strike Egypt with ten devastating plagues, the Torah changes track and examines Moshe's lineage, stressing his human birth and origins.

The Torah seems to be concerned humanity's inclination to idolize and even deify its leaders.

The rabbis explain that the reason why "no person knows the place of his (Moshe's) burial, unto this day" (Devarim 34:6), is so that Moshe's tomb would not become a shrine and center of worship: God must be the only source of worship.

Being human means being capable of error, but also means, being in the image of God. The fact that our heroes were humans who erred and yet rose to great heights, gives us inspiration, that we too, even though we have flaws and make mistakes, can yet aspire to improve and to prove worthy the title of being in the image of God.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Vezot Haberacha entiled: "The Disappearance of Shimon" appears at

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