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, January 31, 2008

Parshat Mishpatim

The Kid and the Mother's Milk

Following on from the Ten Commandments of last week's parsha, this week's parsha sees the introduction of many laws.

They include: "You shall not cook a kid (goat) in its mother's milk" (Shemot 23:19).

From this the Rabbi's teach us that we may not mix milk and meaty foods. We must ask the question as to ho the Rabbis made this jump. The passuk is talking specifically about goats. While we might possibly understand that it could be referring to all animals, how do they get from that to all milk?

Avraham Ibn Ezra notes that has two other mitzvot, that are similar to the mitzvah we just saw:

  • You shall not slaughter an ox or sheep, it and its offspring on the same day. (VaYikra 22:28)
  • If you come across a bird's nest on the road, on any tree, or on the ground, and [it contains] chicken or eggs, if the mother is sitting upon the chicks or upon the eggs, you shall not take the young in front of the mother (Devarim 22:6-7)
Note that each case is slightly different than the other. In one case the mother and offspring are being killed on the same day, in another the offspring are being taken in front of the mother, while in our case, the mother's milk, a symbol of her fertility, is being used to marinate her offspring.

The main point is that each case involves an action that is permitted. It is permitted to slaughter a young calf. It is also permitted to slaughter the mother (on a different day). It is also permitted to take young chicks or eggs and it is also permitted to cook a young kid goat.

However, all three of these mitzvot draw their inspiration from a single idea: killing a mother and its children at the same time, taking young chicks in the sight of the mother or boiling a kid in its mother's milk, all reflects a lack of sensitivity to animal life. Therefore, when the Torah forbade the mixing of milk together, it used an example that would teach us sensitivity to animals and their feelings.

Now that we have examined why the Torah uses an example of an animal in its mother's milk, we must understand why it highlights goats and not other animals.

The answer to this lies in Mishlei (Proverbs). There the scribe sepks of a time when Israel will have abundance. He states: "enough goat milk for your food, for the food of your household, and sustenance for your maidens" (Mishlei 27:27).

It appears that the staple milk that people drank in biblical times was goat's milk, not cow's milk. Therefore, the Torah uses an example that ancient Israel could relate to.
Nevertheless, the Rabbis explain that this example was applicable to all types of meats and milk.

Therefore, it we can now understand how "You shall not cook a kid (goat) in its mother's milk" (Shemot 23:19), applies to all animals and all types of milk.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Mishptim, entitled: "The New Covenant" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Mishpatim, entitled: "The Law" appears at

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Parshat Yitro

Revelation and Distance

This week's parsha discusses ancient Israel's Judiciary system, how Yitro advised Moshe to set up different levels of courts, with Moshe being the Supreme Court. It then follows on to discuss how those very laws were given to Israel, with the revelation of God to Israel at Mount Sinai.

Both these episodes have common themes running through them. One of them includes the need for closeness but the practicality of distance.

The scene is set when Yitro encounters his son law sitting in session: "people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening" (Shemot 18:13).

Yitro finds this procedure inpracticle: "You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone" (ibid 18). He goes on to suggest a system of lower courts and Moshe readily agrees.

Before we try to understand the process underlying this innovation, we will take a closer look at Matan Torah.

There, God suggested distance: "Behold, I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever" (ibid 19:9). God does not plan to reveal the Torah directly to the people. He intends to give it to Moshe, who will the deliver it to the people. This is to be done in the sight of all the people so that they understand that Moshe is actually delivering God's words and not his own.

However, the plan seems to change suddenly. God told Moshe that the people should prepare themselves for three days for "on the third day, the Lord will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai" (ibid 10-11).

Rather than receiving the Torah directly through Moshe, the people were now to receive it directly from God. To find out why this plan seemed to change, we must find what happened in between passuk 9 and passuk 10.

All we have is: "Moshe relayed the words of the people to the Lord" (ibid 9). This means that Moshe told the people of God's plan, i.e. that God would speak to Him in front of everybody. The people responded and Moshe told God their response.

Rashi says that the people were not pleased with this plan. They wanted to receive the Torah directly from God. God therefore changed to plan B and gave them explicit instructions as to how to prepare for a close encounter with Him.

As it turns out, the direct revelation was too much for the people: "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die" (ibid 21:16).

Moshe wanted direct contact with the people and the people wanted direct contact with God.

These are wonderful ideals and perhaps that is why Moshe originally judged all Israel on his own; and why God accepted Israel's request.

Nevertheless, the reality was that closeness was too bothersome at best and deadly at worst.

The world is a complicated place. It is important for us all to have high ideals to aim for, but at the same time it is important for us to be rooted in the reality of the real world..

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Yitro, entitled: "The Chosen People" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Yitro, entitled: "Midyan, Amalek and Matan Torah" appears at

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Parshat Beshalach

The Miracle at the Sea

The splitting of the Red Sea is generally considered to be the greatest miracle ever performed.

Indeed, when Yehoshua takes over the leadership from Moshe, God tells him that he will make him great in the eyes of the people so "that they may know that as I was with Moshe, so will I be with you" (Yehoshua 3:7). God does this by performing for Yehoshua, a similar miracle that He had performed for Moshe. As Moshe had split the Red Sea, so too, Yehoshua would split the Jordan River (ibid 13-16).

It is therefore, of interest that the text of this week's parsha and some commentaries, explain the miracle in natural terms.

"The Lord led the sea with the strong east wind all night and He made the sea into dry land and the waters split." (Shemot 14:21). Note how the text does not say that God made the sea split. It says that He used an intermediary: the wind. The wind made the sea split and the sea into dry land.

How? Firstly, it as not just any wind: it was an east wind. Rashi states that the east wind is the strongest wind. Yet, it was not just any east wind: it was a strong east wind, i.e. the strongest of strong winds.

However, this wind did not just blow the waters apart; it also made the sea into dry land. How was it possible that the seabed was not muddy? The Rashbam says that the wind froze the soil, in the same way that winds freezes rivers. He is even bold enough to say that God used natural sources.

Yet, there was one final miracle. "The waters were to them as a wall from their right and from their left" (ibid 22). How was it possible the water stood still as two walls that encompassed them? The Sephorno explains that not only did the wind freeze the seabed; it also froze the waters into two walls.

We can therefore assume that the walls of ice began to melt and that once the first cracks appeared; they crashed down on the Egyptians.

However, none of these sources suggest that the splitting of the Red Sea was not a miracle. The fact that it was predicted, that began when Moshe raised his hand, that it ended when Moshe raised it hand, that there was enough time for all Israel to cross safely, that the waters crashed down right at the moment when all the Egyptians were trapped on the seabed, all show that the event was a truly fantastic miracle.

However, these commentators are arguing a subtle point. God always or almost always uses nature to make miracles, the miracle is in the timing. Therefore, miracles continue to happen today. When a natural event occurs to help us out in a difficult situation, we can thank God for the miracle that He has performed for us.

Rather than saying that God does not exist for He does not do miracles anymore, we are actually able to see God daily as He manipulates nature, to allow us to live.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Beshalach, entitled: "The Shorter Way" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Beshalach, entitled: "The 3 Day Game" appears at

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Parshat Bo

The Exodus

Towards the end of this week's parsha, the children of Israel leave Egypt after a period of 430 years in Egypt.

The Torah gives two separate reports of the Exodus:

"It came to pass at the end of four hundred and thirty years, and it came to pass on that very day, that all the legions of the Lord went out of the land of Egypt" (Shemot 12:41).


"It came to pass on that very day, that the Lord took the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt with their legions" (ibid 51).

Only ten pesukim separate these two accounts. Indeed, the language of these two pesukim is extraordinarily similar. Most notable is the double use of the rare expression "on that very day" (בעצם היום הזה).

Interestingly enough, this expression appears again twice in quick succession in two separate accounts of Avraham's circumcision.

"Avraham took Yishmael his son and all those born in his house and all those purchased with his money, every male of the people of Avraham's household, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskin on that very day, as God had spoken with him" (Bereshit 17:23).


"On that very day, Abraham was circumcised, and[so was]Ishmael his son, all the people of his household, those born in his house and those bought with money from foreigners, were circumcised with him" (ibid 26:27).

Once again, both these pesukim give exactly the same information. Why is there a need for two almost identical accounts in quick succession?

If we examine the pesukim carefully, we will notice that while they are very similar, in one aspect, they are very different.

The first account of both stories is written in the active, while the second account of both stories is written in the passive.

In the first account of the Exodus, Israel leaves Egypt; while in the second account, they are taken out of Egypt.

In the first account of the circumcision, Avraham actively circumcises everyone; while in the second account, everyone is circumcised.

These two ideas represent humans doing the will of God, with God accepting their actions. While we all look for God's help in our lives, we must recognize that in order for Him to intervene in our lives, we must first go forward and be an active partner.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Bo, entitled: "They will Go Forth with Great Possessions" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Bo, entitled: "The Humiliation of Ra" appears at

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Parshat VaEra,

Hashem and the Avot

This week's parsha begins with an incredible statement:

"I appeared to Avraham, to Yitschak, and Yaakov with [the name] Almighty God (El Shadai), but My name Hashem (the Lord) I did not become known to them" (Shemot 6:3).

Can this really be true, that the Patriarchs were unaware of God's name Hashem? We actually know that this is not the case. Indeed, Avraham says to the King of Sedom: "I raise my hand to Hashem, the Most High God, Who possesses heaven and earth" Bereshit 14:22).

In order to solve this problem we must examine 3 issues:
  • What does the name El Shadai represent?
  • What does the name Hashem represent?
  • What does Hashem mean when He says that the Avot did not know Him with this name?

When God made a covenant with the Fathers, promising their descendants the Land of Canaan, He did it with the name El Shadai.

We see this firstly with Avraham: at the Brit Millah: " At the Brit Milla: "I am El Shadai; walk before Me and be perfect" (Bereshit 17:1).

When Yitschak passed the blessing onto Yaakov he said: "May El Shadai bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and you shall become an assembly of peoples. May He give you the blessing of Avraham" (ibid 28:3-4).

God then confirmed this promise to Yaakov: "I am El Shadai; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a multitude of nations shall come into existence from you, and kings shall come forth from your loins" (ibid 35:11).

Therefore, the name El Shadai represents God's attribute of power to make this promise.

Therefore, when God tells Moshe: "I am El Shadai", He is saying that He is the God of the covenant. However, by adding that He is also Hashem, God is adding a new dimension, i.e. that this promise is about to be fulfilled. The name Hashem represents God's power to fulfil the promise.

Therefore, God reveals Himself to Moshe with both the name El Shadai and Hashem, because He has chosen Moshe to be the person to fulfill the promise.

Therefore, The avot may have intellectually known about God's power to fulfill the promise, i.e., they knew that he had a name called: Hashem. However, they did have any experience of this name. Indeed, they were always strangers in the the land. It was never theirs.

The Hebrew word: "לדעת", "to know" does not refer to intellectual capability. "The man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived" (Bereshit 5:1). Eve did not conceive because Adam knew her intellectually, but because he knew her intimately, he had a relationship with her.

So too, God not let the Avot experience Hashem, i.e. they remained strangers in the Land. Now, however, was the time for Israel and the world, to experience God as Hashem. It was the time for redemption.

Last year's Sedra Short on parshat VaEra, entitled: "Discovering God" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaEra, entitled: "Knowing God" appears at

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