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, November 28, 2007

Parshat VaYeshev

Yoseph and Yehuda

From this week's parsha until the end of Sefer Bereshit, Yoseph is the central character. We witness his attempt and failure to set up himself up as the fourth patriarch. However, one episode in the parsha ignores Yoseph completely. Between Yoseph's sale and his descent to Egypt, the Torah recounts the Yehuda/Tamar episode.

What is the purpose of this episode and why does it interrupt the Yoseph narrative. The obvious answer is that it is in chronological order. "Around that time (i.e. when Yoseph was sold) Yeuhda went down from his brothers…"

However, if we consider the time span, we will see that this cannot be correct. Yoseph was 17 years old when he was sold to Egypt (Bereshit 37:12). He "was 30 years old when he stood before Pharoah" (ibid 41:46). There were then 7 years of plenty and two years of famine before his family went down to Egypt – a total of 22 years.

Yet the following things occur in the Yehuda/Tamar episode:

  • He leaves the family, goes to Timna and marries Batshua.
  • He has three children: Er, Onan and Shela.
  • Er marries Tamar
  • Er dies. Tamar marries Onan.
  • Yehuda tells Tamar to wait for Shela to grow up.
  • "Many days passed and Batshua died" (ibid 38:10).
  • Tamar entraps Yehuda and she becomes pregnant.
  • Tamar gives birth to Peretz and Zerach.
  • Peretz has two sons when they go down to Egypt (ibid 46:12).

It is unlikely that all this could have occurred in only 22 years.

So why does the Yehuda/Tamar episode interrupt the Yoseph narrative.

It is true that many themes in this episode parallel the Yoseph narrative:

  • Certain words appear in both, e.g.ירד (go down), ,הכר(recognize), נחם (comfort), ערב (pledge)
  • Deception - the brothers to Yaakov, Tamar to Yehuda
  • Temptation – Yehuda/Tamar, Yoseph/Potiphar's wife
  • A kid goat - Yoseph's coat was dipped in its blood, payment for Tamar's services

These parallelisms clearly show that there is a thematic link between these episodes. Indeed, both show the rise of leaders and the eclipse of Reuven. The route to Yoseph's leadership was through his position in Egypt. Yehuda's, however, was far more natural. At first Yehuda strays away from his brothers, perhaps signifying the tribe of Yehuda''s secession from the rest of Israel in the pre-monarchial era, i.e. the Judges. However, circumstance brings Yehuda to leadership. His older brothers Reuven, Shimon and Levi have fallen out of favor with Yaakov. Yoseph, Yaakov's favorite son was missing, presumed dead. Yehuda, therefore, found himself taking on the mantle of leadership when the brothers run into trouble in Egypt, he placates Yaakov into releasing Benyamin, he negotiates with Yoseph over Benyamin and he is sent by Yaakov to prepare for heir descent to Egypt.

These two represents two distinct realms of leadership within Israel, and show fulfillment of God's promise to Yaakov that "kings shall come forth from your loins" (ibid 35:11).

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYeshev entitled: "Who sold Yoseph?" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYeshev entitled "Yoseph: The Fourth Patriarch", appears at:

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Parshat VaYishlach

Israel and Shechem – a Varied Relationship

This week's parsha brings two explanations as to how Shechem became a possession of ancient Israel.

"Yaakov came safely [to] the city of Shechem…He encamped near the city. He bought the part of the field where he had pitched his tent from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, for a hundred kesitas" (Bereshit 33:18-19). Israel took control of the area peacefully when Yaakov purchased the city from a noble Shechemite family.

However, in the next chapter, we see a different explanation: "Now it came to pass on the third day, when they were in pain, that Yaakov's two sons, Shimon and Levi, Dinah's brothers, each took his sword, and they came upon the city with confidence, and they slew every male. They slew Hamor and his son Shechem with the edge of the sword" (ibid 34:25-26).

Israel became masters of the city through violent conquest, in the aftermath of Shechem's violation of Dinah, Yaakov's daughter.

This was the beginning of Israel's strange relationship with this Canaanite city.

Historically, Shechem was different to other Canaanite cities. Regular Canaanite cities were city states, i.e. they were ruled by a king. Canaan's topography effectively allowed each city to remain self-sufficient and independent from each other. Indeed, Yehoshua conquers 31 kings (see Yehoshua Ch.12) in a tiny country barely the size of New Jersey. Indeed at least eight distinct nations lived in this land. Interestingly enough, Israel was the first nation to unite the land into one country.

However, Shechem's status was different. It was not ruled by a king: "Chamor and his son Shechem came to the gate of their city, and they spoke to the people of their city, saying, 'These men are peaceful with us'" (ibid 20:21). Note how Shechem and his father Chamor, have to persuade the inhabitants of Shechem to accept the agreement they had made with Yaakov's sons. Shechem might have been a leader of Shechem but he did not have ultimate power.

Interestingly enough, Shechem does not appear in the list of cities that Yehoshua captured. In fact, no conquest of Shechem is ever noted. Yehoshua even took all the people to make a covenant there (Yehoshua 8:30-35), and yet he does not fight with it. Moreover, from the Sefer Shoftim, it is clear that the people of Shechem were Israelite citizens, even though they were not Israelites.

There, Gaal Ben Eved inadvertently causes an uprising against Avimelech, Gidon's son and Israel's leader, saying: "'Who is Avimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should serve him? is not he the son of Yerubbaal (Gidon)? … serve the men of Chamor the father of Shechem" (Shoftim 9:28). From this source it is clear that the inhabitants of Shechem were clearly descendents of Shechem's original inhabitants, and yet they were Israelite citizens.

How did this happen? It is unclear. I would like to suggest two possible explanations that are linked..

Firstly, we have already seen how Israel in Yaakov's day became the legal masters of Shechem. It is possible therefore, that Shechem already saw itself as loyal servants of Israel at the time of Yehoshua's conquest, and hence, there was no need to conquer it.

Secondly, I would like to suggest that the Shechemites were part of the Givon alliance, the people who tricked Israel into making a non-aggression pact: "The men of Israel said unto the Hivites…" (Yehoshua 9:7). The Givonites were Hivites. So was Shechem: "Shechem the son of Hamor, the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her" (Bereshit 34:2).

Simon and Levi tricked Shechem and took advantage of them. The Hivites then turned the tables and tricked Israel by making a treaty with Yehoshua. These people then caused havoc in Israel during the period of the Judges.

Perhaps the seeds to this incident were planted in this week's parsha.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYishlah entitled: Reuven and Bilha" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYishlach entitled "Struggling with the Present", appears at:

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Parshat Vatezeh

Yaakov and Lavan's Working Relationship

When Lavan first met Yaakov, he embraced him, welcomed him into his house and declared: "Indeed, you are my bone and my flesh" (Bereshit 29:14), signifying a warm relationship.

However, it's very clear that Lavan often chose his words carefully, allowing them to be understood in a number of ways, so that he could take advantage of the situation. A prime example occurs after Yaakov has been with Lavan for a month. Lavan says:

הֲכִי אָחִי אַתָּה וַעֲבַדְתַּנִי חִנָּם הַגִּידָה לִּי מַה מַּשְׂכֻּרְתֶּךָ

There are two ways to translate and understand this passuk (ibid 15):

"Because you are my kinsman, should you work for me for free? Tell me what your wages shall be."

This translation implies that up until now Yaakov had been working for Lavan without pay. This put him on the level of a slave who does not get paid, but lives on the meals provided for him in return for his labor. Lavan seems to be saying to Yaakov that as he is family, he should be paid. Sounds good.

However, there is another way to understand the passuk:

"Are you my kinsman that you should work for me for free? Tell me what your wages shall be."

Slaves are not the only people that do not get paid a wage; the family members also do not get regular pay. They share a portion of the profits. Note that previously Yaakov had "stayed with him a full month" (ibid 14). Lavan, it appears, is therefore angry with Yaakov and is saying to him that he is not a clansman who does not have to pull his weight and yet share the profits. Lavan tells Yaakov that from now on he is a mere hired hand who must work hard to earn his keep.

Indeed, it is clear that Yaakov is considered to be a slave, for when his second set of seven years is over, Yaakov asks Lavan: "Send me away, and I will go to my place and to my land" (ibid 30:25).

Yaakov asks to be sent away – this an expression of being released from servitude. Furthermore, Yaakov also says: "Give [me] my wives and my children for whom I worked for you, and I will go, for you know my work, which I have worked for you" (ibid 26). A master has the right to keep the wives and children of a slave when he sets the salve free. Yaakov is therefore saying that he is not a slave for he worked for his wives – but the underlying theme is that he is treated as a slave.

Indeed, once Yaakov flees, in a further sign that he was not a free man, he explains to Lavan: "Because I was afraid, because I said, 'Lest you steal your daughters from me" (ibid 31:31). Yaakov is afraid that Lavan will insist on keeping his wives and children.

Lavan even says this implicitly claiming that by secretly fleeing Yakkov had: "led away my daughters like prisoners of war" (ibid 26). Lavan even claims that he has: "the power to inflict harm upon you" (ibid 29), i.e. the legal right to punish Yaakov for fleeing.
However, by this time Yaakov has had enough: "What is my transgression? What is my sin, that you have pursued me?" (ibid 36). Yaakov is saying that he is an independent unit and has no need to seek permission to leave.

Furthermore, Yaakov calls for an independent tribunal to judge between them and to clarify this. "Put it here, in the presence of my kinsmen and your kinsmen, and let them decide between the two of us" (ibid 37).

Lavan is rocked by this tribunal and feebly responds: "The daughters are my daughters, and the sons are my sons, and the animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine. Now, what would I do to these daughters of mine today, or to their children, whom they have borne?" (ibid 43). I.e. all he really, meant was that he would never harm his daughters, not that he would actually take them away.

Lavan clearly loses this tribunal as he is forced to make a pact with Yaakov as equals acknowledging that Yaakov is his own separate clan over which he has no rights.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat VaYetseh, entitled: " Yaakov's Guilt” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat VaYetseh, entitled: " The Dust of The Earth" can be found at

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Parshat Toldot

Yitschak's Vision

"It came to pass when Yitschak was old, and his eyes were too dim to see" (Bereshit 27:1).

Yitschak was blind. Therefore, Yaakov was able to deceive him by announcing that he was Esav, thereby gaining the blessing that Yitschak had intended to give Esav.

Many seem to think Yitschak blindness was not just limited to his vision, he was also blind to Esav's true personality. Had he been aware of who Esav really was, he would never have intended to give him the blessing.

However, upon closer examination we will see that Yitschak was indeed aware of his son's abilities and personality. He was aware that Yaakov was to be the inheritor of the blessings God had given Avraham and had passed down to him. However, he also wanted to ensure that Esav had a future; that he wouldn't be left out.

This is clear from Esav's moving plea to Yitschak immediately after Yaakov's deception was revealed.

"When Esav heard his father's words, he cried out a great and bitter cry, and he said to his father, 'Bless me too, O my father!...Have you not reserved a blessing for me?'… Yitschak answered and said to Esau, 'Behold, I made him a master over you,' …Esav said to his father, 'Have you [but] one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father.' Esav raised his voice and wept" (ibid 34-35).

Three times Esav asks his father for a blessing and each time Yitschak responds that he does not have one. However, this is not true.

When Yitschak sends Yaakov to Padan Aram to find a wife, immediately after this incident, the Yitschak again blesses Yaakov saying: "May the Almighty God bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and you shall become an assembly of peoples. May He give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your seed with you, that you may inherit the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Avraham" (ibid 28:3-4).

Yitschak blesses Yaakov that he will be Avraham's inheritor, that he will receive the Land of Canaan and that God'ds blessings to Avraham would continue through him.

This is not the blessing that Yitschak intended to give Esav. That (ibid 27:28-29). That was a blessing about material wealth and power, it was not about Avraham's destiny.

Yitschak always intended to pass that onto Yaakov, he was aware that only Yaakov and not Esav, was worthy of it. However, he loved Esav, and just like Avraham with Yishmael, he did not want to leave him empty handed; he wanted to secure his future knowing fully well that Esav was not his inheritor.

However, this was not to be because of Rivka's interference.

The real question therefore, remains, whether Rivka knew that her husband did understand his children. Did she know which blessing Yitschak had intended to give Esav? Would she have reacted differently had she known that Yitschak did not intend to give Esav the inheritance of Avraham?

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Toldot, entitled: "Yitchack Avinu – Action Man” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat Toldot, entitled: "Twins in Her Womb" can be found at

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Parshat Chayei Sarah

The Other Sons of Avraham

Most of the stories of Avraham revolve around his yearning and God's promise that he will bear a son. That finally occurs when he was 100 years old.

It is therefore, most surprising, to learn at the end of the parsha that Avraham not only did Avraham have another son, Yishamael, but that he had a further six sons!!

"Abraham took another wife and her name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Jishbak and Shuah" (Bereshit 25:1-2).

Nevertheless, God had previously promised Avraham that only "Yitschak will be called your seed" (ibid 21:12).

However, it is very common for brothers to fight among themselves for the leadership and inheritance. David's sons had a number of conflicts be fore David formally and publicly declared that Shlomo, not Adoniyahu, would be his successor (I Melachim 1:34). Even after this declaration, it was clear that Adoniyahu harboured dreams of claiming the monarchy (ibid 2:22).

The fact that the seven other sons were "sons of Avraham's concubines" (Bereshit 25:6), is irrelevant to their claims of inheritance. The four sons of Bilha and Zilpa equally inherited Yaakov with their brother, as did Avimelech, one of Gidon's seventy sons (see Shoftim Ch.8-9). Yiftach was also supposed to inherit with his brothers, but they drove him away (ibid 11:2).

Indeed, ancient law states that sons of concubines and slaves have an equal right of inheritance with legitimate heirs. However, there is one proviso. The father can disinherit "illegitimate" children by publicly proclaiming who his heirs are and by releasing them from slavery.

This is exactly what Avraham does. First of all he publicly states that Yitschak is his sole heir: "Avraham gave all that he possessed to Yitschak" (Bereshit 25:5). This is confirmed by his servant who tells Lavan and Betuel: "Sarah, my master's wife, bore a son to my master after she had become old, and he gave him all that he possesses" (ibid 24:36).

However, Avraham performs a further two acts to ensure that Yitschak will be protected from any uprising by his more numerous brothers.

Firstly, "to the sons of Avraham's concubines, Avraham gave gifts" (ibid 25:6). Avraham ensured that his other sons were well provided for materially and that they would have no material claims against Yitschak.

Furthermore: "and he sent them away from his son Isaac while he [Abraham] was still alive, eastward to the land of the East" (ibid). The words "to send away" is the same word used for "divorce", i.e. Avraham releases them from his servitude. We had previously seen how Avraham had done this to one son, Yishmael (ibid 21:14). The Torah now states that Avraham did the same treatment to his other sons. Note, that Avraham was not leaving them destitute, he was merely securing Yitschak's claim over the Land of Canaan.

Moreover, when Avraham died, note how the Torah states: "Yitschak and Yishmael his sons buried him" (ibid 25:9), with Yitschak's name being written first. Furthermore, we see that "after Avraham's death… Isaac settled near Be'er Lachai Ro'i" (ibid 11). This is where Hagar had fled to after she was freed from Avraham's household (ibid 16:14). Yitschak is clearly asserting his claim over this area.

Notice finally, at the list of Yishmael's toldot, he is described as: "these are the toldot of Yishmael the son of Abraham, whom Hagar the Egyptian, the maidservant of Sarah, bore to Abraham" (ibid 25:12), i.e. Yishmael was the son of Hagar who just happened to have been born to Avraham. Just a few pesukim later, while stating Yitschak's toldot, the passuk writes: "these are the generations of Yitschak the son of Avraham; Avraham begot Yitschak" (ibid 19).

Avraham may have had eight sons, but he only had one heir.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Chayei Sarah, entitled: "The Legacy of Terach” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat Chayei Sarah, entitled: "A Stranger and a Sojourner" can be found at

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