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, September 25, 2008

Parshat Nitzavim

Not In Heaven

This week's parsha follows on from the Tochecha, the blessing and the curse that Moshe threatened to Israel.

The penalty that Moshe warns the people is very severe. And yet, there does not seem to be any escape as it would be impossible to ensure that the entire nation would be free of sin since there is no way that so many individuals could be controlled. Therefore, it would be impossible for Israel to remain punishment free.

Therefore, Moshe makes a few statements in order to ease those fears.

Firstly he says: "Perhaps there is among you a man, woman, family, or tribe, whose heart strays this day from the Lord … saying, "I will have peace, even if I follow my heart's desires," … The Lord will not be willing to forgive him… (Devarim 29:17-19).

Israel need not worry about any individual who sins for "The Lord will separate him for evil, out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant, written in this Torah scroll" (ibid 20). Therefore, no single individual sinner could possibly cause the curse to be brought down upon Israel. Only a betrayal by the entire nation could bring about the punishment.

Therefore, Moshe then immediately discusses the punishments of the nation. He describes how foreign nations will look at the cruel desolation of the Land of Israel and ask: "Why did the Lord do so to this land?" (ibid 23) Their answer will be "because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, God of their fathers, [the covenant] which He made with them" (ibid 24).

This emphasizes that the curse would only befall Israel where the nation as a whole to betray God, not when individuals dif. This is further emphasized when he adds: "The hidden things belong to the Lord, our God" (ibid 28). The people need not concern themselves with those who sin behind closed doors, it is not their concern and God Himself will call them to account. "But the revealed things apply to us" (ibid) meaning that the people only need concern themselves with the public betrayal of the covenant. This implies once again, that Israel still has its destiny in its own hands.

Nevertheless, one might think that it is impossible to prevent sin. The Torah is so vast and complex making it unlikely that the people could avoid betraying its principles.

Moshe therefore, adds one further point: "This commandment … is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us…" Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us… "Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it" (ibid 30:11-14).

The Torah, God's eternal covenant with Israel, is well within our grasp, if we wish it to be. Therefore, the choice that: "I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil" (ibid 15) is a real choice we have.

Shana Tova to all Israel

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Nitsavim, entitled: "Alone in a Crowd" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Nitsavim-VaYelech entiled: "The Hidden" appears at

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Parshat Ki Tavo

The Mountain of Curse

Moshe ordered the people that soon after they crossed over the river Jordan, they should perform a ceremony of blessing and curse:

"When you cross the Jordan, the following shall stand upon Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. While the following shall stand upon Mount Eval for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naftali" (Devarim 27:12-13).

Sefer Yehoshua chapter 8 describes how Israel followed Moshe's instructions.

While Mount Evil is known as the "mountain of curse", its partner Mount Gerizim was witness to a curse a couple of hundred years later.

Sefer Shoftim records how Gidon, the judge who was offered, but turned down, the monarchy, had seventy sons. One of those children was called Avimelech. His mother was a "concubine from Shechem" (Shoftim 8:31).

Shechem was city whose inhabitants were not Israelite, but were nevertheless, Israelite citizenry. At times they were loyal to Israel, but at other times they were loyal to their Canaanite origins.

Avimelech approached them pointing out the benefits to them if they helped him seize the leadership of Israel and so they enabled him to hire mercenaries who helped him execute all his brothers, save the youngest, Yotam, who managed to escape.

And so "the inhabitants of Shechem and all Bet-millo assembled, and they went and made Abimelech king" (ibid 9:6).

Some time later, Yotam ascended Mount Gerizim and cursed the people in Shechem below. He told them a story of the trees approaching first the olive tree, then the fig tree and finally the vine, to be their king. All these trees that produce luscious fruits refused. Finally they approached the bramble who agreed to be their king.

The olive, fig and vine trees represent Gidon and his sons who refused the monarchy, while the bramble refers to Avimelech, who seized it.

The bramble is appropriate for Avimelech. It, like Avimelech, is produced by a mixture of seeds. It produces no fruit and its thorns prick those who approach it. More than that, it steals the water from the surrounding tress and destroys the wealth of the earth it grows on.

However, it does have redeeming feature, it can provide shade. Shade, or security, is something positive a ruthless dictator can provide his people. The needs of the people sometime require such leadership.

Yotam told the inhabitants of Shechem that if they made Avimelech their king because they needed this type of leadership, than all well and good, but they should note that if not: "let fire come out of the thorn, and consume the cedars of Lebanon" (ibid 15).

The bramble is a very dry bush with little moisture. In hot weather it can catch fire. When it does so, it destroys all the trees that surround it.

Yotam tells Shechem that that is the fate that awaits them. Indeed, that is what occurred.

It is difficult to know whether Yotam was cursing, prophesying or merely predicting this course of events, however, like this week's parsha, is teaching a life lesson of cause and effect.

We may benefit from the pleasure that unfaithfulness to God might bring us, but in the long term, the price we pay is not worth it. The sin can eventually consume us.

Rather then reaping the curse of Mount Gerizim, it would be more beneficial for us, to reap its blessing.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Ki Tavo entiled: "The Return to Egypt", appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Ki Tavo entiled: "The Tochecha", appears at

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Parshat Ki Tetsei

The Beautiful Captive Woman

The Torah often brings us laws that can make us cringe. Last year we looked at the stubborn and rebellious son and showed how by understanding the culture of the ancient world, the law of the stubborn and rebellious son was a law we can be very proud of (see

The same apples to the law of the beautiful captive woman.

Essentially, when Israel is victorious in war, a soldier may take a captive woman and marry her. However, beforehand "she shall shave her head and let her nails grow. She shall remove the garment of her captivity from upon herself, and stay in your house, and weep for her father and her mother for a full month" (Devarim 21:12-13).

Rashi even explains that the purpose of these laws is to make her look repulsive. What is the reasoning this law?

In order to understand it we must try and understand ancient culture.

Fighting battles was a great stimulant for ancient warriors. It was quite normal for the soldier to rape and pillage the villagers after the battle. It was well accepted and the victims were usually then taken off as slaves after their ordeal if they were lucky.

The Torah recognizes that this is human nature, yet it clearly cannot condone this behavior. So what does it do? It makes the taking of the woman a legal act. However, he cannot do with her as he desires. Instead he must bring her to his house. There he must allow her the opportunity to mourn her personal and national loss. She must observe the mourning rituals such as the removal of her regular clothing and the shaving of her head.

Once her mourning has ended, the soldier may make take her as his wife. However, by this time, the thrill of the battle has been well over and the soldier may no longer desire her. The Torah tells us that if this is the case, he may not simply reject and sell her. He may not even keep her as a slave. He must simply release her and allow her to go wherever she wishes.

Rather than being a cruel law, we once again have an example of the Torah being ahead of its time, in its concern for the captive women.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat entitled: "The Stubborn and Rebellious Son" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat entitled: "The Impaled Criminal" appears at

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Parshat Shoftim

Why Not a King Now?

This week's parsha introduces the institution of the Monarchy to Judaism.

'When you come to the land the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you possess it and live therein, and you say, "I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me," you shall appoint a king over you, whom the Lord thy God shall choose' (Devarim 17:14-15).

Depending on how we translate and emphasize key words, it is unclear from this section as to whether Israel is obligated to establish a monarchy or whether they are permitted, should the people feel the need, to appoint a king.

One could understand the word: “וְאָמַרְתָּ” as “you should (i.e. are required to) say: ‘I will set a king over myself’”, it would imply that the mitzvah is an obligation. On the other hand, one could translate it as "you are permitted to say" – making it optional. The same applies to the final clause: "שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ" can be translated as either "you must appoint king" or as: “you are free to appoint a king".

Was the Torah being deliberately ambiguous? Furhermore, if the monarchy was an ideal, why was it not instituted immediately in Sefer Devarim, or at least after the death of Moshe?

To answer these questions, we need to understand the structure of ancient of Israel's society.

Ancient Israel was a tribal society. It was divided into twelve distinct tribes, each with their own flag and substrata of clans. They were counted and camped according to their tribes (Bemidbar Ch.1 & 2) and at the conquest, the land was divided according to tribes (ibid 26:53). There were even circumstances when inter-tribal marriages were forbidden (ibid 36:6-8).

This meant that tribal loyalty was stronger than national loyalty.

Indeed the first time the Tenach calls the country: "Eretz Yisrael", is only after Sha'ul is crowned as Israel's first king (I Shmuel 13:19). Up until that point, there was no united country called Israel, only a confederation of tribes, with little national unity.

The lack of national unity was very disturbing to both King David and Shlomo, who undertook the building of a nation. They were concerned that the united kingdom would not survive if tribal loyalties remained strong.

Therefore, David built his capital (i.e Jerusalem) in a border city that was not associated with any tribe, while Shlomo divided the country up into twelve administrative units, not along tribal grounds (I Melachim 4:7), in attempt to break tribal loyalty and to create a national allegiance.

Therefore, the Torah appreciated that at Moshe's time, Israel was not ready for a Monarchy. However, it anticipated that as the nation matured, the people would see the importance of solidifying their unity and of creating a national structure that would have absolute authority of the whole nation. When that time came, the tribal elders would then be able to select a king. That occurred at the end of Shmuel's leadership.

The Torah understood that different models of leadership would be needed for different times. Therefore, the Torah was deliberately ambiguous and allowed Israel different options for different eras.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Shoftim entiled: "The King and Sha'ul" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Shoftim entiled: "The King" appears at

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