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.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Parshat Bemidbar

Counting the Levi'im

This week's parsha begins with two censuses – one where all Israel besides the tribe of Levi was counted and the other where only Levi was counted.

While the instruction to count Levi appears immediately after Israel had been counted, it is likely that the instruction to count them and the actual counting occurred simultaneously with the ret of Israel.

The purpose of both censuses is obvious. While it turned out that Israel remained in the wilderness for forty years, this was not the original plan. Israel's sojourn in the wilderness was meant to be short.

Now that the Mishkan had been built, Israel was ready to enter the Promised Land. To do this they needed to have an operational army.

Therefore, Moshe counts Israel in order to assemble an army. Therefore, Moshe is instructed: "From twenty years old and upwards, all who are fit to go out to the army in Israel, you shall count them by their legions you and Aaron" (Bemidbar 1:3).

Indeed, their formation around the Mishkan is a military formation. Israel is preparing for war.

However, they are also preparing for conquest. Once Canaan has been conquered, Israel will need to settle it. Therefore it is crucial that they know the size of each tribe so that the land can be divided since "To the large [tribe] you shall give a larger inheritance and to a smaller tribe you shall give a smaller inheritance, each person shall be given an inheritance according to his number" (ibid 26:64).

It is therefore, also obvious why Levi is not counted together with the rest of Israel. Levi does not receive any land, and does not fight for his portion is the Lord's.

So why is Levi counted at all then? Now that the Mishkan has been built, the Levi'im must be divided into groupings so that their levitical roles can be organized.

However they are counted differently. While Israel is counted from the age of twenty, Levi is counted from the age of one month. At first glance this does not make sense since their levitical duties only began once they be came 25. It would make sense to count them from that age.

The Levites were chosen to replace the firstborns: "As for Me I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel in place of all firstborns among the children of Israel who have opened the womb, and the Levites shall be Mine (ibid 3:12).

The firstborns belong to God from the moment they are born. Therefore, they have to be redeemed. This is done after 3 days, since only then is the child considered to be a "bar kayama", a child that will live (in the ancient world newborns had a mortality rate – if an infant survived 30 days it was considered to be living child).
Now that the Levites are replacing the firstborns, they are dedicated to God from the moment they are born. Therefore, they are counted from the age of one month.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Bemidbar, entitled: The Levites appears at:

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Bemidbar entitled: "Re’uel or De’uel?" appears at

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Parshat Bechukotai

Taming the Wild

In this week's parsha, God promises Israel that as a result of their loyalty: "I will remove wild beasts from the Land, and no army will pass through your land" (VaYikra 26:8)

What does the Torah mean when it says that it will remove the wild beats from the world?

The simple explanation is that because the land of Israel will flourish, it will be full of people. As a result wild animals will leave the land. Why?

Even though human s are afraid of wild animals such as jackals, lions and tigers, the truth is they are much more afraid of humans and they stay away from human habitation. Indeed, the presence of these animals is usually a signal for the absence of humans.

The Talmud in Bava Batra relates a story of a group of rabbis passing by Mount Scopus. From the peak they were able to look down upon Temple Mount. There they witnessed jackals walking around the Temple ruins. They cried. The presence of these animals brought home to them the Temple's destruction. Seeing wild animals in cities is evidence of destruction. Therefore, the Torah promises us that should we obey God, there will not be any wild animals in the land, meaning that the whole country will flourish and will be fully populated.

Nevertheless, the Ramban suggests an alternative explanation. He says that this promise refers to the end of days. Rather than removing wild beats, God will remove the wild from the beasts.

At creation it was forbidden for both humans and animals to eat flesh. After the flood, this law was rescinded and humans together with many animals, became meat eaters. Therefore, this promise says that once Israel fulfills their destiny, the world will return to its original state and all creatures will be vegetarian.

More than that humans and wild animals will no longer be enemies, as Isaiah promises:

"A wolf shall live with a lamb, and a leopard shall lie with a kid; and a calf and a lion cub and a fatling [shall lie] together, and a small child shall lead them. A cow and a bear shall graze together, their children shall lie; and a lion, like cattle, shall eat straw. An infant shall play over the hole of an old snake and over the eyeball of an adder, a weaned child shall stretch forth his hand" (Isaiah 11:6-8).

On that day, God also promises: "I will grant peace in the Land" (VaYikra 26:8).


Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Bechukotai entiled: "The Blessing and the Curse" appears at

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Parshat Behar

Jubilee and Freedom

This week's parsha teaches about the strange institution called Yovel – Jubilee.

"You shall count for yourself seven sabbatical years, seven years seven times. The days of these seven sabbatical years shall amount to forty nine years for you. You shall proclaim [with] the shofar blasts, in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month; on the Day of Atonement, you shall sound the shofar throughout your land. You shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom [for slaves] throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family" (VaYikra 25:8-10).

Every fifty years is a Yovel year – all land that has been bought must be returned to their previous owners and all slaves must be freed.

The basic principle behind the institution is that the people acknowledge God is the Master of the world, not humans.

Therefore, land cannot be the permanent property of its owners, nor can slaves be the permanent property of their masters. Without Yovel, Man would believe that he was supreme and that all can be subservient to him as landowners would be eternal masters.

The parsha continuously refers this principle to being the opposite that existed in Egypt.

At one point when Israel was enslaved in Egypt, the Pharaoh died: "Now it came to pass in those many days that the king of Egypt died, and the children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to God from the labor" (Shemot 2:23).

One of the first acts of a new king was generally the freeing of prisoners and slaves. Israel could therefore have believed that Pharaoh's death would have heralded their freedom from their slavery. However, they had no relief, their enslavement continued.

What's more their slavery was described as "avodat parech" – "back breaking labor" (Shemot 1:13). This week's parsha refers to this type of slavery and forbids it: "He shall be with him as an employee hired year by year; he shall not enslave him with rigor in your sight" (VaYikra 25:53).

Egypt was the epitome of Man's control of earth. Pharaoh was god and all his citizens were his eternal slaves.

God teaches that this model evil. All land and slaves must be freed every fifty years, for man must never be the master of his fellow man.
A Sedra Short on Parshat Behar, entitled: "Shemitta and VaYikra" appears at

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Parshat Emor

Priestly Defects

Just as the animal that may be used a sacrifice to God, must be perfect without blemish, so too, the Kohen who performs the service must be a well formed person without any major handicaps or disabilities.

Some of the defects include: "A blind man or a lame one, or one with a sunken nose or with mismatching limbs; or a man who has a broken leg or a broken arm" (VaYikra 21:18-19).

This portion of Torah is not very politically correct. Indeed, modern governmental legislation would probably outlaw this rule and would require that the Temple be an equal opportunities employer, as well as ensuring that it grants access for people with disabilities!!

I am not going to justify this legislation but if we accept the principle that the handicapped kohen is ineligible to perform the Temple tasks, we must still ask why a broken leg or arm would prohibit the Kohen from participating. Obviously this rule does not apply to the kohen whose leg or arm is presently broken as he obviously cannot perform the service. This rule applies to the kohen whose leg or arm was once broken. Why would the kohen not be allowed to perform the service once his arm healed?

The answer to this lies to understanding a small amount of ancient medicine – broken limbs rarely healed properly in the ancient world. Modern medicine enables us to set the broken limb and fix it in a cast so that that it does not move. This allows the bone to grow and heal in the position it is meant to be. Therefore, when the limb heals it is as good as new.

However, in the ancient world, this medical procedure was not available. When a broken bone began to heal and grow, it rarely returned to its original position. Therefore, when someone broke a limb in the ancient world, they would almost certainly join the ranks of the disabled – disqualifying them from resuming their Temple service.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Emor, entitled: "Say it with love" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Emor, entitled: "The Tale of the Blasphemer" appears at

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Parshat Kedoshim

Rebuking One's Neighbor

This week's parsha teaches that when one sees fault in or fellow man "You shall surely rebuke" him (VaYikra 19:17).

This is not an easy task, as people do not like being told what their faults are. Furthermore, this course of action can often lead to further disintegration of one's relationship. This issue is further complicated in the modern age, when general society allows one to do as they please, as long as the action does not infringe on the rights of others.

Nevertheless, many religious people use this rule as justification for openly and publicly harassing less observant neighbors, even though the halacha is quite cautious as to when one is permitted to rebuke one's fellow.

So the question remains, how do we know when it is correct to intervene and point out the errors in someone else's life choices.

I think that the Torah itself provides the answer.

The rules stated in this parsha are all dedicated to the task of encouraging Israel to attain holiness. A number of lists of rules are stated – each list ends with the statement "I am the Lord".

The law of rebuking one's neighbor is not followed by the words "I am the Lord" until the following passuk has been completed. The following passuk states: "Love your fellow like yourself" (ibid 18).

The Torah clearly links rebuking one's fellow with loving him as much as one loves oneself.

This means that the rebuke can only come from a person whose love for the person he is rebuking, is pure and untainted. This ensures that the rebuke is made in a loving manner and is carefully and intelligently stated, with any scorn or malice.

The Torah teaches that while one should try to help one's neighbors to overcome the mistakes, one can only rebuke them if one's motives are solely out of love and for the benefit of one's neighbor.

If one is unsure of one's true motives and cannot guarantee that one tuly loves one's neighbor, then it is best to remain silent.

A pevious Sedra Short on Parshat Acharei-Kedoshim entitled: "The Gathering" appears at

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