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.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Parhat Mattot

The Combatant's Tax

After the war against Midian, the Israelite soldiers were left with a large bounty. It should be noted that in the ancient world, soldiers were not paid for their efforts. Therefore, they were allowed to keep the booty that they captured from the battle. In this instance, the Israelite soldiers were forced to share the booty with the rest of the people: "You shall divide the plunder equally between the warriors who went out to battle and the entire congregation" (Bemidbar 31:27). This was because it was considered that the fighters were representing all Israel, in avenging the apostasy at Baal Peor, and so all the people merited a share of the spoils Nevertheless, the combatants received a much larger share,.

However, the fighters volunteered an extra tax since not one of them fell in battle: "We therefore wish to bring an offering for the Lord. Any man who found a gold article, be it an anklet, a bracelet, a ring, an earring, or a body ornament, to atone for our souls before the Lord" (ibid 50). The purpose of this tax is "to cover (or repent) for their souls".

What was the meaning of this tax?

The Sephorno explains that by paying this tax, the soldiers were finally exorcising the apostasy of Baal Peor from the people. If that is the case however, then why didn't the tax come from the spoils of the nation? Why was it only the soldiers who were forced to pay this tax?

Moreover, the Ramban explains that the reason why only 12,000 soldiers (1,000 from each tribe) were selected to fight Midian, a great and mighty people, was because there were too many sinners amongst the people for them to send the whole army. Therefore, only people who did not sin at Baal Peor were selected to fight. Therefore, again, why were these soldiers were forced to pay the tax?

We saw in Parshat Ki Tissa, that when the people were about to be counted, i.e. an army was being gathered for war, each person counted, was forced to pay a half shekel, as tax "to cover (or repent) for their souls" – again.

We have also seen from other examples that the term "לכפר על נפש" – "to cover (or repent) for souls" has been used in lieu of "blood money", i.e. payment used to compensate for the taking of another life.

The Torah forbids the taking of blood money save two situations:

1) When someone's ox has killed another. The owner of the ox must pay compensation, i.e. blood money, to the family of the victim (Shemot 21:30).
2) Soldiers who killed in war (ibid 30:12). (See for a further discussion on the subject.)

Soldiers must kill as part of their duty. This is not considered to be murder.
Nevertheless, the act of killing must be recognized as a necessary evil, never should it become a natural instinct of the soldier. The soldier must recognize the gravity of his actions and pay blood money, "to repent for his soul".

By volunteering to pay this tax, the Israelite soldiers accepted that they had much to be grateful for in that no one died, but that they also had to atone for their souls, for the blood they spilt.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Mattot-Massei, entitled: "Moshe and the Transjordan" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Mattot-Massei, entitled: "Tribe and Tribalism" appears at

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Parshat Pinchas

It was After the Plague

After the apostasy at Baal Peor, God told Moshe: "Distress the Midianites, and you shall smite them" (Bemidbar 25:17).

However, before Israel could attack Midian, Moshe needed to organize an army. Therefore, the Torah relates the new census in Chapter 26. From this census an army was organized.

However, in between these two episodes are three Hebrew words, translated as: "It was after the plague" (ibid 26:1) that interrupt the flow of the story. What is this interruption trying to teach us?

In order answer this question, we first need to realize that the purpose of the census was not merely to organize an army. It was also to know the size of the tribes so that the land could be divided fairly.

After the census, the Torah writes: "Among these there was no man who had been [included] in the census of Moses and Aaron when they counted the children of Israel in the Sinai desert. For the Lord had said to them, "They shall surely die in the desert," and no one was left of them but Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun" (ibid 64-65).

This means that all the previous generation, the generation that were forbidden from entering the land, had already died out.

Perhaps, therefore, the words: "it was after the plague" teaches us that the plague finished off all those that had survived up until this point. The fact that the plague was over, meant that it was now the right time to count Israel again.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Pinchas, entitled: "Zelafchad's Daughters and Feminism” appears at .

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Pinchas, entitled: "Moshe and Yehoshua” appears at

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Parshat Balak

Bilam and his Talking Ass

In this week's parsha we witness a strange event which is almost unprecedented in Biblical literature, the episode of Bialm and his talking ass.

The episode is quite simple. Bilam is on a journey to curse Israel and is riding on his ass. Unbeknown to him, an angel with an outstretched sword is waiting to stop him. Seeing the angel, the ass strays from the path into an open field. Bilam is angry with his ass and hits it. They continue on journey and the angel appears again. This time they are not on open field but in avineyard ith: "with a fence on this side and a fence on that side" (Bemidbar 22:24). In order to bypass the angel, the ass is forced to squeeze up to one side of the path. In so doing, it squashes Bilam's leg up against the wall. Bilam is angry again and beats the ass again and they continue on their journey.

The angel appears again, this time on a very narrow path. There is no way of bypassing the angel and so the ass stops "it crouched down under Bilam" (ibid 27). Bilam again hits the ass. But then something strange happens. "The Lord opened the mouth of the ass" and spoke with Bilam (ibid 28).

The ass asks Bilam if had it ever been disloyal before. Bilam, rebuked can only answer with one word: "No" (ibid 30). Only then does Bilam recognize he angel.

What is going on here? What is the message of this story?

Bilam was a prophet of God, a person with extra insight and the ability to God's message to his people. The ass is the most stupid of all animals, with little insight and intellect, yet it humiliates Bilam.

  • Bilam is on a journey to kill Israel with words, yet he can't even kill his own ass.
  • Bilam is a prophet with prophetic sight, yet he can't see what is own donkey sees.
  • He claims to be wise, but he doesn't know the basic truth that his ass does.
  • Bilam has the word of God in his mouth, yet he cannot win an argument with his own ass.
  • Bilam says he would kill his ass if only he had a sword, but he can't see that there is a sword nearby, in the hands of the angel.

God is trying to teach Bilam the error of his ways. If he follows the will of God, he can be a supreme being with the power of prophecy. However, if he strays from God's path, he is even lower than his own ass.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Balak, entitled: "Pinchas’ Legal Precedent” appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Balak, entitled: "Balak's Fear” appears at

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Parshat Chukat

The Deadly Serpents

While skirting around the land of Edom, Israel complained again.

"The people spoke against God and against Moses, 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread'" (Bemidbar 21:5).

We should not be surprised by these complaints. Israel was on the verge of entering the Promised Land, when they were suddenly attacked and defeated by the King of Arad in the Negev.

This defeat forced them to take a detour: "They journeyed from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to circle the land of Edom" (ibid 4). Rather than entering Canaan via they are now going on a diversion. Perhaps this setback would make them wait another forty years. It was therefore, only natural for the people to become "disheartened because of the journey" (ibid).

The problem with this complaint is however, twofold. Firstly the people complain against God. Secondly, they do not say what the problem really is, rather they complain that God does not provide for them. Yet, within their complaints, there is an inherent contradiction. First they say "there is no bread" and secondly "we are disgusted with this rotten bread".

God punishes Israel by sending them deadly, fiery, snakes. Why? What does this punishment teach them?

We first come across the snake in Sefer Bereshit. There he tempts the woman to eat from the tree of knowledge, saying that she would "surely not die" (Berehit 3:4). The woman than sees that the "tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes" (ibid 6).

The punishment for the snake was: "you shall walk on your belly, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life" (ibid 14). All food for the snake was like dust.

God had given Israel manna was a delicious food that: "tasted like a wafer with honey" (Shemot 16:31), yet Israel now called it "rotten bread".

God therefore, sent Israel snakes. They were sent to remind Israel how grateful they should be for the manna from heaven.

In a future Sedra Short we will look at the Nechushtan, the copper serpent that Moshe built to save Israel from the snake bite.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Chukat, entitled: "How Red was the Red Heifer?" appears at .

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Chukat, entitled: "The Red Heifer and Sefer Bemidbar" appears at

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