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, December 27, 2007

Pashat Shemot

The Abandonment of Moshe

Pharaoh had issued an evil decree: "Every son who is born you shall cast into the Nile, and every daughter you shall allow to live" (Shemot 1:22). Moshe was born at the time of this decree. Yocheved succeeded in hiding him for three months (ibid 2:30), however she eventually realized that she had no choice but to obey Pharaoh's decree.

It is interesting to note that by putting Moshe into the Nile in an ark, she actually fulfilled Pharaoh's decree, though not in the way Pharaoh had intended. By doing so, she gave her son a chance to survive. But what kind of chance was it really?

The Nile was a crocodile infested river that flows into the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, for a three month old baby would not be able to survive the Egyptian heat without being fed.

It seems that for all intensive purposes, it appears that Moshe's parents accepted their son's fate. They tried to delay things as much as possible, by hiding him for three months and creatively obeying Pharaoh's decree, but nevertheless, if not for the stroke of luck that Pharaoh's daughter found him, they must have assumed that they would never see him again; or did they?

If we examine the text carefully, we will notice that it was not mere luck, that Moshe was not attacked by crocodiles, that did not sail off into the Mediterranean or that he was found by Pharaoh's daughter.

First of all, note that Yocheved put the ark "into the reeds at the river's edge" (ibid 2:3). This means that the Ark could not float off as it was stuck in the reeds. Also notice how Miriam "stood from afar" (ibid 4). She did not move. There was no need for her to as the ark was not moving. Indeed, should the ark have been freed, Miriam would have been on hand to secure it again.

Moreover, the fact that Pharaoh's daughter was bathing there means that Moshe was not placed into the Nile. The Nile would have been unsafe for Pharaoh's daughter. Therefore, they must have put him into one of the Niles many safe tributaries that leads to the Nile.

Is it possible that Yocheved carefully selected the spot she put Moshe? Is it possible she looked for the spot where the childless Egyptian princess bathed?

Is it also possible that when Miriam waited "to know what would be happen to him” (ibid) she was actually waiting to see if their plan of action would succeed? Is it also possible that Miriam's suggestion to Pharaoh's daughter that Yocheved act as a wet nurse for the child, was pre-planned?

We will never know the answer to all these questions, but it is clear that the spot Yocheved chose to put Moshe was carefully selected and that Miriam was waiting on hand to ensure that no harm befell Moshe and that she was also ready to supply Pharaoh with an intelligent plan of action.

All the above, suggests careful planning, that Moshe was not abandoned to his doom by his family and that his family were very meticulous in securing his future. It also shows that while God does work in mysterious ways, humans need to be on hand to do their share of the work.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat VaYechi, entitled: "The Ark and the Princess" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Shemot, entitled: "Moshe - Assimilated Jew" appears at

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Parshat VaYechi

The Adoption of Ephraim and Menashe

When Yaakov felt that he was dying, he asked Yoseph to ensure that he will be buried in Canaan, in Hevron, together with Avraham and Yitzchak and his wife Leah. Yoseph promises that he would do that (See Bereshit 47:28:31).

Some time later, Yoseph heard that Yaakov was dying. He brings his two sons Menashe and Ephraim to him. Yaakov then begins along story of how God appeared to him on his way back from Padan Aram and how Rachel, Yoseph's mother died and how he buried her Bet Lechem. In the middle he interrupts the story and adopts Ephraim and Menashe as his two own sons.

It's a strange episode. Rashi explains that the reason why Yaakov is apologizing to Yoseph. He has just asked Yoseph to embark on an ambitious project. i.e. to take his body from Egypt to Ca naan, yet he did not do this for Yoseph's mother Rachel. She died in Bet Lechem and he buried her there. So he's saying even though I did not make the effort to take Rachel's body from Bet Lechem to Hevron, a relatively short journey, I still want you to take me from Egypt to Canaan.

The problem with this explanation is that it is in the wrong place. If this was Yaakov's intention, this story should have been in the previous chapter, when he actually asks Yoseph to bury him in Canaan. Yet this episode occurred sometime later. It also does not explain why Yaakov interrupts the story with the adoption of his grandchildren.

It is likely that Yaakov tells this story because it explains why he is adopting Ephraim and Menashe. How does it explain it?

When Yaakov returned from Paddan Aram, God appeared to him, saying: "a nation and a multitude of nations shall come into existence from you, and kings shall come forth from your loins" (Bereshit 35:11).

The problem with this is that Yaakov has no more children after this point; nothing more will come forth from his loins. Yaakov therefore understands this prophecy as referring to his grandchildren and so he adopts Ephraim and Menashe. He then goes on with the story to explain why he had no more children; it is because that Rachel his wife died.

Rather than being an apology, Yaakov is raising her status, ensuring that she has a larger share in "congregation of peoples" (ibid 48:4) that would come forth from him.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat VaYechi, entitled: "The Mummification of Yaakov" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYechi, entitled: "Yoseph's inheritance" appears at

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Parshat VaYigash

The Descent to Egypt

After Yoseph revealed himself to his brothers, he organized for them and their family, including to Yaakov, so that he could protect them from the famine because: "for another five years, there will be neither plowing nor harvest" (Bereshit 45:46). Indeed, he even believed that the whole purpose of him being sold to Egypt was so that he could protect them from the famine.

Little did he know that it was actually part of a greater plan that God had. He had promised Avraham many years earlier "You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years" (ibid 15:13).

Perhaps this is why Yaakov goes with trepidation to Egypt. On his way he actually stopped in Be'er Sheva. There God appears to him and says: "I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation" (ibid 46:3).

It is interesting that God calls Himself: "the God of your father", i.e. Yitschak, and not the God of Avraham. Yaakov knows that that his father and grandfather had both experienced famine in Canaan. Both wanted to go down to Egypt. God expressly forbade Yitschak from going to Egypt. Therefore, God is saying that He, the God who prohibited Yitschak from going to Egypt, is allowing Yaakov to go.

The question is why. Why did God want Israel to go to Egypt? Why was it necessary for them to be "strangers in land that is not theirs"? Why will He "make you into a great nation there"? Why can this not be done in Canaan?

The answer appears in this week's parsha. Immediately, after God appeared to Yaakov, the Torah lists seventy of the names of those people who went down. Let's examine some of them. There was: "Saul the son of the Canaanitess" (ibid 10) and there was "Shelah, Perez, and Zerah" (ibid 12), Yehuda's sons from two different Canaanite women (Batshua and Tamar). We do not know the identity of the wives of any other of the brothers, but they had certainly not gone through the process of Yitschak and Yaakov, of marrying women from Avraham's family in Padan Aram.

At least two of Yaakov's children had married Canaanite women, something that was expressly forbidden to Yitschak and Yaakov, and something that would be forbidden to all of ancient Israel. Yet, what would have happened to Yaakov's grandchiuldren? It is very likely that would all have marry local girls.

Therefore, God says to Yaakov that only: "there (i.e. in Egypt) I will make you into a great nation". In Canaan, you will be absorbed into the locals and form part of the Canaanite nation. The only option was to go to Egypt where they could keep their own identity and become a great nation.

Why only Egypt? The answer again appears in this week's parsha: "because all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians" (ibid 34). The Egyptians did not like foreigners. We had seen last week how Yoseph could not eat together with the brothers because of Egyptian law. Now, the brothers' profession, shepherds, a profession abhorrent to the Egyptians, would ensure that they would be kept isolated from the locals, therby remaining intact and growing into a great nation.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYigash entitled: "The Saving of Egypt " appears at

A second Sedra Short entitled "Confrontation and Reconciliation" appears at

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Parshat Miketz

The Silence of God

God remains silent throughout the whole of the Joseph narrative. In fact, the Divine voice has not spoken since God ordered Yaakov to Bet El to fulfill his vow (Bereshit Ch. 35) and was not heard until He appeared to Moshe at the Burning Bus (Shemot Ch. 3) over 400 years later.

However, not only was God silent this whole period, He is absent throughout the latter part of Sefer Bereshit. That is correct. God does not appear in the Torah between Bereshit 35:13 and Shemot 2:34 (except for the killing of Er and Onen, in an episode set apart from the Yoseph narrative and God reassuring Yaakov over his descent to Egypt). Yoseph was sold, because his brothers hated him, he ended up in a dungeon in Egypt because of his mistresses rape allegations and he becomes grand vizier in Egypt because of his dream reading abilities. The Torah does tell us that God was the cause of all these events, as it does with Rachel's childlessness and eventual labor etc.

Nevertheless, these stories do not have a secular feel, for while the narrator does not explain God's actions, the characters all feel presence.

In these week's parsha alone, the main character's, even the Egyptians, utter God's ten times:

· Joseph replied to Pharaoh, saying, "Not I; God will give an answer (Bereshit 41:16)
· God is about to do He has shown Pharaoh (ibid 28)
· Pharaoh said to his servants, "Will we find [anyone] like this, a man in whom there is the spirit of God?" (ibid 38)
· Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, for "God has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father's house" (ibid 51)
· The second one he named Ephraim, for "God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction" (ibid 52)
· On the third day, Joseph said to them: "Do this and live I fear God" (ibid 42:18)
· They turned to one another, saying, "What is this that God has done to us?" (ibid 28)
· May the Almighty God grant you compassion before the man (43:14)
· Fear not. Your God and the God of your father gave you a treasure in your sacks (ibid 23)
· God has found your servants' iniquity (ibid 44:16)

All the protagonists see God's hand, for both the good and the bad, working behind the scene. The most important claim will come in next week's parsha, when Yoseph placates his brothers by saying: "But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you" (ibid 45:5).

In the modern world we find it hard to see the actions of the living God. Many have therefore, concluded that He does not existed. From this narrative, we learn that God was silent even in the early biblical period. The conclusion to be drawn is not that He does not exist, but to find the way to see Him through the occurrences in our lives.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Miketz entitled: "Measure for Measure" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Miketz entitled "One Dream or Two?" appears at:

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