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, August 29, 2008

Parshat Re'ay

The Empty-Handed Slave

The Torah has strict rules governing the Hebrew slave. Apart from not allowing to give him back-breaking work and not allowing him to wok for you for more than six years (under some circumstances the slave can ask for an extension), the Torah adds a further requirement on the master.

"When you send him forth free from you, you shall not send him forth empty-handed. You shall surely provide him from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your vat, you shall give him from what the Lord, your God, has blessed you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord, your God, redeemed you; therefore, I am commanding you this thing today" (15:13-15).

Upon freeing the slave, the master must grant him a one-off award. This sounds incredible: The master must free his slave with valuable gifts.

Why? The Torah answers: "You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord, your God, redeemed you."

What is the connection between the two?

Rashi brings a simple answer. When Israel was redeemed from servitude in Egypt, "the children of Israel did according to Moshe's instructions, and they asked from the Egyptians silver objects, golden objects, and garments. The Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians" (Shemot 12:35-36).

At the Exodus, god had "arranged" for the Egyptians to grant gifts to the now freed Israelite slaves.

God is therefore now saying that just as when He redeemed Israel from slavery, they did not go empty-handed, so too when someone releases a slave, the slave should not go empty-handed, they should be granted gifts.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Re'ay entiled: " Doing the What Seems Right " appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Ekev entiled: " The Place " appears at

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Parshat Ekev

The Mountainous Country

In this week's parsha, Moshe describes a major difference between the Land of Israel and Egypt:

"For the land to which you are coming to possess is not like the land of Egypt, out of which you came, where you sowed your seed and which you watered by foot, like a vegetable garden. But the land, to which you pass to possess, is a land of mountains and valleys and absorbs water from the rains of heaven" (Devarim 11:10-11).

The ancient Egyptians built a series of canals that allowed the water to flow directly to their farms, avoiding their homes. The Egyptians directed the canals by opening and closing the vents with their feet, or by carrying the water with their feet from the river, or by a foot pump.

Biblical Israel however is mountainous. Farmers could not water the fields. They had to rely on rainfall. The rain would come down the mountains in wadis and the fields would be watered. However, if it did not rain, Israel would be in serious trouble.

Therefore, even though Israel is considered to be "a land of honey" (Bemidbar 13:27) it is also described as a “land that devours its inhabitants” (ibid. 32).

The Torah considers the fall and lack of fall of rain as being dependent on Israel's loyalty to God: "a land the Lord, your God, looks after; the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it" (Devarim 11:12). If Israel is loyal to God, the rain will come. If Israel is not loyal to God "He will close off the heavens, and there will be no rain" (ibid 17).

However, it is for this reason that throughout ancient history Egypt was always a wealthy country and a super-power, while Israel had long periods of impoverishment and vassal status. Is this really good?

In Bereshit we see that the richness of Egypt's land is compared to two other countries: Sedom and the Garden of Eden: "Lot raised his eyes, and saw the whole plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, (before the Lord destroyed Sedom and Gomorrah), like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt (Bereshit 13:10)".

What is in common with all these places?

Firstly, each place "was well watered", as they were fed by full flowing rivers: Egypt had the Nile, Eden had four rivers (Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates), while Sedom had the Jordan (The Torah here relates that after Sedom's destruction, the area was no longer well watered; the destruction may have altered the Jordan River somehow.

Another factor they had in common was: sin. In Sedom the "sin has become very grave" (ibid 11:20), that God destroyed it. Adam and Eve were driven from Eden as a result of their sin (ibid Chapter 3), while Israel is frequently warned to avoid acting: "Like the practice of the land of Egypt" (VaYikra 18:3).

The wealth of the water led to sin. Therefore, Israel was given a land that would help keep them on God's path: "a land the Lord, your God, looks after; the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it" (Devarim 11:12).

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Ekev entiled: "The Two Arks" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Ekev entiled: "Shema 1 and Shema 2" appears at

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pashat Va'Etchanan

The View From On High

At the beginning of this week's parsha, Moshe describes how god denied him his request to cross over the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. However, god does grant Moshe one concession. He may see the land from the peek of Mount Nevo.

"Go up to the top of peek and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan" (Devarim 3:27).

The question we must ask is why Moshe would want to look towards the east. Canaan is ahead of towards the west and the north and south west. However east is away from Canaan. Moshe would be looking towards present day Iraq and Saudi Arabia – they my have a lot of oil, but they are not part of the holy land.

Rabbi Menachem Leibtag suggests that in order to answer this question we need to look at the two other occasions the Torah talks about these four directions.

The first time is with Avraham:

"The Lord said to Avram…., "Raise your eyes and see, from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward" (Bereshit 13:14)

The place Avraham was standing was Bet El (see ibid 3).

The next occasion this expression appears is with Yaakov. It was also at Bet El:

"Your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your seed" (ibid 28:14).

The Rabbis understand Bet El to mean Jerusalem, literally, the House of God.

The purpose of the Jewish people conquering Canaan and establishing a unique relationship with God, is not because God has given up on the rest of humanity. On the contrary, it is because He wants Israel to be light unto the nations, to help spread the word of God to humanity (see my blog on Parshat Yitro,

The word of God therefore, is not meant to be tied down to Israel; it is to spread to all humanity, in all four corners of the earth. Therefore, God tells Moshe not just to look at Israel's home, but at the influence Israel will have over the whole world.

Perhaps this is why the opening pesukim appear in Parshat VaEtachanan, even though they are thematically linked to Pashat Devarim In VaEtchanan Moshe reminds Israel of the time they accepted the Torah, i.e. the time when Israel accepted its mission to be a treasured nation. Therefore, when the Rabbis divided the Torah into weekly portions, they understood that God telling Moshe to look eastward, away from the Holy land, as linked to Moshe's repetition of the Ten Commandmentswanted the giving of the Torah (Devarim Chapters 4 and 5).

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Va'etchanan entiled: "The Two Tablets" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Va'etchanan entiled: "Despair and Hope" appears at

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Friday, August 08, 2008

Parshat Devarim

A 38 Year Perspective

In this week's parsha, Moshe begins the first of three speeches to Israel, in the last month of his life.

In it, he recalls much of the history of the past 38 years. He begins by bringing up the story of the spies, the reason why Israel wandered for forty years in the wilderness.

What is interesting is that he tells the story differently than the way that appears in Sefer Bemidbar. The story differs in three ways:

Whose idea it was to send the spies – here Moshe says: "all of you approached me and said, 'Let us send men ahead of us…'" (Devarim 1:22), i.e. the idea to send spies came from the people. However, in Sefer Bemidbar, the initiative comes from God: "The Lord spoke to Moses saying: 'Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan'" (Bemidbar 13:1-2)

In Devarim, Moshe blames the people for rejecting the conquest, not the spies: "They…brought us back word, and said, 'The land the Lord, our God, is giving us is good.' But you did not want to go up, and you rebelled against the commandment of the Lord, your God" (Devarim 1:25-26). However, Sefer Bemidbar puts the emphasis of the blame on the people.

In Devarim, Moshe describes himself as the one who argues with people and begs them not to be frightened, while in Sefer Bemidbar Calev ben Yephuneh, and to a certain extent, Yehoshua, take on that role.

How doe we come to tems with the fact that the Torah describes the same event totally differently in different books?

Modern scholars do not have a problem with this issue. They say that that Torah records different traditions of what happens, and so Sefer Devarim recalls one tradition of how the events ensued, while Sefer Bemidbar recalls an alternative tradition.

I would like to suggest a different response.

First we must understand the purpose of these two books. Sefer Bemidbar describes why Israel did not conquer Canaan immediately after leaving Sinai. However, Sefer Devarim is Moshe's farewell to the people and his message to them for the future. He is less interested in the past, but interested that Israel learns from the past's mistakes.

He therefore, tells the story from a different perspective and emphasizes the issues more relevant to the new generation.

Whose idea was it to send the spies? Within the account of Sefer Bemidbar, it is clear that the spies had two missions. One: to spy for military intelligence; two: to see the quality of the land (see my blog on Parshat Shelach The mission for military intelligence came from God, while the mission to see the land came from the people. It was that part of the mission that failed. Therefore, in Devarim, Moshe emphasizes the people's error, rather than God's command.

Concerning the blame for the failure, the spies themselves are long dead. There is no point discussing their personal failure. It is far more important that the people learn from their own error.

Finally, while calve might have the prime defender of the mission, he was clearly an agent of Moshe's. It was right Moshe to use him to defend the mission, as he was one of the actual spies and therefore, his perspective was far more important. However, 38 years later, Moshe is more interested in stressing God's role in conquering the land. For that he does not need a spy. For that, it needs his leadership to tell the people not to fear but to trust God.

Therefore, there is o contradiction between the accounts of Devarim and Bemidbar. They are simply told from a different perspective.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Devarim, entitled: " Fighting in the Mountains" appears at l.

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Devarim, entitled: "Devarim, Chazon and Tisha Be'Av" appears at

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Parshat Massei

Zelofchad's Daughters Part 2

This week's parsha and Sefer Bemidbar ends with the second part of the story of Zelofchad's daughters.

We had already seen that God said that these girls could become landownes as their father, who was dead, did not have sons.

Now their tribal elders from Machir, a clan of Menasheh, complain that should any of these girls marry outside of the tribe, Menasheh's portion would become decreased.

So therefore, a new piece of legislation is legislated. From now on, all women who are land owners can only marry within their tribe (see Bemidbar Chapter 36).

Why was this story split into two, so that the second part occurs out of place some nine chapters later?

The answer lies at the end of Sefer Bereshit. There we see that: "Yoseph saw children of a third generation [born] to Ephraim; also the sons of Machir the son of Manasseh were born on Yoseph's knees" (Bereshit 50:23).

Yoseph brought up Machir. The very next passuk states: Yoseph said to his brothers, "I am going to die; God will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Avraham, to Yitschak, and to Yaakov" (ibid 24).

While the rest of Israel were being very successful in Egypt, Yoseph was already looking forward to the return to Eretz Yisrael. This was a message that he seemed to teach Machir, the son of Menasheh.

Therefore, rather than ending Sefer Bereshit with the laws of the accidental killer and the setting up of cities of refuge (Bemidbar Chapter 35), the Torah wanted to end on a more optimistic note of the enthusiastic settlement of Menasheh of Eretz Yisrael. Therefore it left this part of the story for the end of the book.

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

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