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, June 27, 2008

Parshat Korach

One Mutiny or Two or Even Three?

In this week's parsha, Korach organizes a rebellion against Moshe. However, the text is quite confusing. Moshe seems to be going over the arguments a few times, it's unclear what the rebellion is about and even the rebel's punishment.

Let's clarify the complaints:

Claim 1: Moshe responds to the Levi'im: "He (God) drew you near, and all your brothers, the sons of Levi with you, and now you seek the priesthood as well?" (16:10).

The Levi'im seem to want more and be priests as well.

Claim 2: Datan and Aviram say to Moshe: "You have not even brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Even if you gouge out the eyes of those men, we will not go up" (ibid 14).

They claim that Moshe's political leadership is a failure as he has been unsuccessful in delivering his promise of bringing Israel into Canaan.

Claim 3:
You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?" (ibid 3).

The people are claiming that everyone has a right to be a priest.

Moshe argues, or tries to argue, his case a few times:

"He (Moshe) spoke to Korach and to all his company, saying…" (ibid 5).

"Moshe said to Korah, "Please listen, sons of Levi" (ibid 8).

"Moshe sent to call Dathan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav" (ibid 12).

Finally there are two separate punishments:

Punishment 1:

"The earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses, and all the men who were with Korah and all the property" (ibid 32).

Punishment 2:

"The earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses, and all the men who were with Korah and all the property" (ibid 35).

What is going on here?

It seems that there was a coalition of disgruntled groups against Moshe. These groups were united only in their opposition to Moshe.

Group 1: The 250 men

From the challenge Moshe sets them, i.e. to put incense on their fire pans etc, it appears that they wanted to be priests. Ibn Ezra suggests that they were first-borns who had their priestly duties removed from them and given to Levi.

Group 2: Korach and the Levi'im

They seem to be unhappy at being Levi'im and also want to be priests – Rashi suggests that Korach was disgruntled to being overlooked for a leadership position.

Group 3: Datan and Aviram – The tribe of Reuven

They are unhappy with Moshe's leadership – Ibn Ezra suggests that they are disgruntled ate their tribe losing its first-born rights.

Nevertheless, each group has a common claim: Moshe's nepotism.

Korach is the troublemaker. He is the focal point and he unites the group: "Korach the son of Izhar, the son of Kohat, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Datan and Aviram, the sons of Elia, and On the son of Pelet, descendants of Reuven. They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel".

However, as each group has distinct claims Moshe has to negotiate with each group separately. Adiitionaly, each group is given a separate punishment which is relevant to them, the 250 men are burned and Datan and Aviram are swallowed up.

What about Korach – well he's in both camps he seems to share both fates:

Fate 1: "The earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses, and all the men who were with Korah and all the property" (ibid 32).

Fate 2: "So Eleazar the kohen took the copper censers which the fire victims had brought, and they hammered them out as an overlay for the altar, as a reminder for the children of Israel, so that no outsider, who is not of the seed of Aaron, shall approach to burn incense before the Lord, so as not to be like Korach and his company, as the Lord spoke regarding him through the hand of Moshe" (ibid 17:4-5).

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Korach, entitled: "The Innocent and the Guilty" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Korach, entitled: "Aharon’s Blossoming Rod" appears at

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Parshat Shelach

The Giants and the Nephilim – Who were They and Where are They Now?

When the spies surveyed Hebron, they came across three people: "They went up in, the south, and he came to Hebron, and there were Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the descendants of the giant (Anak)" (Bemidbar 13:12).

It seems that an ancient race of giants once lived in the hebron hills.

Interestingly enough, when the spies try to persuade the people of the strength of the inhabitants of Canaan, they change the facts slightly:

"The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. There we saw the Nephilim (fallen ones), the sons of Anak, descended from the fallens. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes" (ibid 32-33).

Suddenly, the Hebronites were not just very tall people, the spies described them as Nephilim, the fallen ones.

Who were these Nephilim, who were the giants and where are they now?

The first time we come across the Nephilim is in Sefer Bereshit. There we read a very cryptic story of sons of gods (or God or nobles) who marry human girls. These people are then called Nephilim, fallen ones, who are mighty men (See Bereshit 6:1-4). This story acts as a prologue to the Flood.

This story is not easy to understand. Many have understood this episode to be about a myth of angels who were seduced by the beauty of the female. They descended to earth and mated with these women, in course becoming fallen angels. Their offspring had mighty, superhuman powers.

However, the book writes: "The Nephilim were on the earth in those days" (Bereshit 6:4), meaning that in the time that the Torah was written, i.e. Moshe's and therefore, the spies' days, they no longer existed, presumably they perished in the flood.

Nevertheless, the legend continued to exist and so, after Calev proclaimed: "We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it" (Bemidbar 13:30), the spies tried to frighten the people by saying that these peoples are not just strong people that we can fight, they are supernatural and therefore, we have no possibility of winning.

Therefore, the Anak, the giants are not actually the Nephilim. There were merely a race of very tall and mighty people. What happened to them?

In Sefer Yehoshua we read about the Israel's conquest of Hebron:

"At that time,Yehoshua came and cut off the Anakim from the mountains, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the mountains of Judah,and from all the mountains of Israel; Joshua destroyed them completely with their cities. There was no Anakim left in the land of the children of Israel; only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod, they remained" (Yehoshua 11:21-22).

As Calev had proclaimed 40 years earlier, Yehoshua succeeded in defeating the Anak and driving them out of Hebron. However, some survivors made it to Gath and other Philistine cities there.

A few hundred years later we meet a very tall Philistine, from the city of Gath:

"The champion emerged from the Philistines' camp, named Goliath from Gath; his height was six cubits and a span…" (I Shmuel 17:3).

Goliath was around 8 or 9 feet tall (some even say as tall as 11 feet), certainly a giant. However, he is described as a Philistine, not as an Anak. Therefore, we can logically assume that since the Anak fled to the Philistines, they actually assimilated with them and that Goliath is a descendant of the Anak.

As we all know, the Philistines no longer exist and so, neither do the Anak..

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Shelach, entitled: "The Spies" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Shelach, entitled: "The Spies, Challa and Tzitzit" appears at

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Parshat Beha'alotecha

Moshe's Response to the Complaints

Just as Israel is about to being their march toward the Promised Land, the complaints begin.

"The multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, "Who will feed us meat? (Bemidbar 11:4).

This is not the first time that Israel erred. We see a number of cases in the book of Shemot, including the infamous Golden Calf.

What is different here is Moshe's reaction.

Throughout Shemot, Moshe struggles with God and works with Israel to try and make things better. The climax of this idea is Moshe shattering the Two Tablets and his threat to God: "If You forgive their sin But if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written" (Shemot 32:32).

However, in our parsha, Moshe seems to give up at the first sign of trouble:

"Moshe said to the Lord, "Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,' to the Land You promised their forefathers? Where can I get meat to give all these people?" (Bemidbar 11:11-13).

God's response to Moshe is ok, you are fired: "Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the people's elders and officers, and you shall take them to the Tent of Meeting, and they shall stand there with You" (ibid 11:16). God then said that He "will increase the spirit that is upon you and bestow it upon them. Then they will bear the burden of the people with you so that you need not bear it alone" (ibid 17).

This challenge is so great to Moshe's authority that Yehoshua wants two of the elders reprimanded: "The lad ran and told Moshe, saying, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!" Yehoshua the son of Nun, Moshe's servant from his youth, answered and said, Moshe, my master, imprison them!" (ibid 27-28).

It is difficult to understand how the strong and resolute Moshe from Sefer Shemot, turns into the panicky and irresolute character he portrays in Sefer Bemidbar.

I think that the answer to this problem lies in the type of problems Moshe faced in Shemot to the type he faced in Bemidbar.

In Shemot he comes up against the Golden Calf - this is a spiritual and religious issue. Moshe, who has just spent forty days and night on Sinai with God, knows how to handle this issue. However, in Bemidbar, Moshe faces a materialistic issue. The people who have enough Manna as nourishment, want something different meat.

The same Moshe who "remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water" (Devarim 9:10) has difficulty understanding the issue.

"Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying, 'Give us meat to eat'" (Bemidbar 11:13). Moshe sees his leadership role as a religious and spiritual role, not as a supplier of meat. He has no patience for this issue and asks for help, for others to be concerned with these practical problems.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Beha'alotecha, entitled: "Moshe's Leadership" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Beha'alotecha, entitled: "The Incident at Tav'era" appears at

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Parshat Naso

The Priestly Blessing

This week's parhsa contains a lengthy description of the consecration of the Mishkan. The focus of the consecration is the tribal leaders who each bring an identical series of korbanot over 12 days.

Immediately preceding this description are the priestly blessings:

'The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them: "May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you. May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace." They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them' (Bemidbar 6:22-27).

This blessing itself is also preceded by the Nazirite laws.

What are the Priestly blessings doing sandwiched in between these sections when it seems to be totally out of place?

The most obvious answer is that the Priestly blessings are directly linked to the Mishkan's consecration. How?

We should recall that the book of VaYikra (Leviticus) contains a different account of the Mishkan's consecration. There the focus is the Aharon and his sacrifices.

Towards the very end of the consecration "Aharon lifted up his hands towards the people and blessed them" (VaYikra 9:22).

Many commentators logically tie this blessing to the Priestly blessing in our parsha, i.e. some time before the Mishkan's consecration, God told Aharon that he had the power to bless Israel and He also informed him of the text. Therefore, the Priestly blessing is thematically linked to the Mishkan's consecration and so it appears just before the account of the consecration, in this week's parsha.

We could ask then why the blessing is not recorded in VaYikra, immediately preceding its account of the consecration.

The answer is that the blessing is also thematically linked to that of the Nazir.

The Nazir is a type of priest as "he is holy to the Lord" (Bemidbar 6:8). He may also not come in contact with the dead, nor may he consume alcohol, just as Kohen may not when he is performing the Temple service.

With the kohanim playing no part in the Bemidbar description of the Temple service and with the Nazir taking on a priestly role, one might have thought that kohanim were being usurped.

Therefore, the Torah teaches that nothing could be further from the truth. Sandwiched in between these episodes is the priestly blessing, informing us that only the kohanim can bless Israel and that only they could bestow the Lord's countenance on His people.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Naso, entitled: "The Nazir's Hair" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Naso entitled: "The Mishkan’s Opening Day – Again! !appears at

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