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, October 30, 2008

Parshat Noach

The Tower and Language

The nine pesukim that make up the story of the Tower of Bavel are very cryptic and brief.

"Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth" (Bereshit 11:4)

Is there anything really wrong with this? So they want to build a tall tower. Are skyscrapers forbidden?

God then confuses their languages and scatters them. Did people really start speaking whole new languages overnight? What's really going on in this story?

In last week's Sedra Short, we saw that God gave humanity a mission: to fill and conquer the earth, i.e. to develop the world and continue the Creation that God began.

The beginning of the story starts well. "They traveled from the east, and they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there" (ibid 1).

Noach's arc had rested in the Ararat mountain range. The people left that region and settled in a valley later known as Babylon and nowadays, Iraq.

This is good, humanity are again beginning to fill the earth. But now they have a problem. Previously they were in mountains, with plenty of natural shelter and large boulders with which to build. Now, however, they are in a valley. Valleys have no natural shelters. Furthermore, the soil in Babylon is clay. There are no boulders with which to build. So what do they do?

They invent bricks and building materials! "'Come, let us make bricks and fire them in a furnace'; so the bricks were to them for stones, and the clay was to them for mortar" (ibid 3). How did do they do this? They noticed that when the clay is heated it becomes hard. So they built furnaces and created artificial stones: bricks.

All this again is wonderful. Humanity has made an incredible technological leap and is now conquering the earth as well as filling it.

However, they soon make a dreadful mistake: "Let us build ourselves a city (good) and a tower (also good)… lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth (very bad)" (ibid 4).

The leaders of this society are worried that the people are growing too quickly – if they are not careful, they will lose control over them. So what do they do? They try to stunt their development. They do not want to fill the earth. The tower acts as humanity's physical and technological prison.

God cannot allow this to succeed as it breaks the basic principles of Creation, so God acts. He "scattered them upon the face of the entire earth" (ibid 9), ensuring that humanity continued to fill the earth.

He did this by confusing their language. What does this mean?

With a close reading of the Hebrew text of passuk 3, you will notice that the technological developments were accompanied by a language development.

The Hebrew word "livna" (build) grew to "leven" (brick). The word "saraf" (fire) grew to "serefa" (furnace) and the word "hemar" (clay) grew to "homer" (mortar). The new inventions led to new words being invented, in the same manner that the inventions of the internet, cellular phones, flash drives etc has also led to new words being invented.

Now, even though I am fluent in English, I find it very hard to follow and join in a conversation with a group of information technologists, in pretty much the same way that I did not understand a word my physics teachers spoke.

This is what happened to the people of Babel. With all the major technological breakthroughs, different groups found it hard to communicate with each other. As Rashi explains, it led to misunderstandings, frustration, violence and separation. The different groups could no longer live with each other and they were forced to part and establish new communities. Over time these new communities developed their own distinct languages.

(Note: Rashi does not say that the people started speaking new languages overnight – only that they no longer understood each other – even though they understood the individual words being spoken, they could not understand the concept, e.g. if someone asked for a brick, his friend could not understand his need for a brick – surely he needed mortar. When the mortar was brought, his friend was frustrated and became violent.)

The Torah describes this process in one passuk: "the Lord confused the language of the entire earth, and from there the Lord scattered them upon the face of the entire earth", but as the Ibn Ezra explains, this process took hundreds of years.

The message of this story is now clear. Humans cannot be eternally enslaved. Its development and creativity cannot be stopped. God instilled the need to fill and conquer the earth into humanity's DNA. The Tower of Bavel was built to stunt humanity's growth. It was doomed to fail.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Noach, entitled: "The Raven and the Dove" can be found at:

Another Sedra Short for Parshat Noach, entitled: "The Tower of Bavel" can be found at:

A further Sedra Short for Parshat Noach, entitled: "Why an Ark?" can be found at:

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Parshat Bereshit

The Pre-History of Bereshit

Apart from the creation of the entire universe, this week's parsha contains around 1,000 years of human history in just 5 chapters. Even though we can learn a surprisingly large amount about the pre-ancient world from these few words, there are still many gaps. So what is the purpose of this potted history?

The first idea that people jump to is the first words that Rashi wrote over a thousand years ago. He wrote that the purpose of this information is for the future generations to know that if ever the world claims that Israel are thieves, for they stole the land of Israel from another people (they would never do that, would they?!!), than Israel could respond that it is not true as God created the world and He gave Israel that land.

There is no doubt that the Torah is rushing through pre-ancient history in order to get to Israel and to show how they emerged, but it is also saying a lot more. It is saying why Israel emerged.

When God created the universe, He gave humanity a three-fold mission:

  • "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth
  • and conquer it,
  • and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth " (Bereshit 1:28).

Essentially, humanity was created in the image of God (ibid 27) and its purpose was to continue God's work. Just as God created life, so too humanity were to create life ("be fruitful and multiply), just as God created the earth, humanity are to continue developing it ("conquer" the earth, i.e. use its resources to further creation) and just as God mastered the animal kingdom, so too were humanity ("rule over…").

The next four chapters show just how humanity attempted to, but yet ultimately failed, to fulfill this mission.

To begin with: "Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, and she said, "I have acquired a man with the Lord." She bore again his brother Abel, and Abel was a shepherd of flocks, and Cain was a tiller of the soil" (ibid 4:1-2).

Essentially, these pesukim show how Adam and Eve procreated, i.e. they were fruitful and multiplied and began filling the earth. So far, so good. And things get better! Abel was a shepherd, ruling over the animal kingdom, and Cain was a farmer, conquering the earth.

Man is beginning to fulfill its destiny and its only fitting that "Cain brought of the fruit of the soil an offering to the Lord" and that Abel "brought of the firstborn of his flocks" (ibid 3-4). They are now showing thanks to God.

However, things suddenly go rotten. Cain kills Abel, over a difference of religion (nothing new there either!!).

However, the world continued to develop. "Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch, and he was building a city" (ibid 17). Humanity is growing so fast that it now needs cities.

"Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle" (ibid 20). A Bedouin way of life and the breeding of cattle has now developed.

"His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all who grasp a lyre and a flute" (ibid 21). We now have the development of music.

"She too bore Tubal Cain, who sharpened all tools that cut copper and iron" (ibid 22). We now have the mining of metals and the invention of tools, as well as a lot more filling the earth.

Things seem to be going well, but then Lemech takes the invention of metal and rather than using it for the benefit of Creation, he creates a weapon and kills: "I have slain a man by wounding (him) and a child by bruising (him) (ibid 23). Lemech is also the first person to have two wives – another break with the order of creation.

There are still some positives along the way, however, humanity begins a descent that makes this parsha end on a depressing note: "The Lord said, "I will blot out man, whom I created, from upon the face of the earth, from man to cattle to creeping thing, to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I made them" (ibid 6:7).

Nevertheless, there was still some hope as: "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (ibid 8).

As we will see next week, God starts again with Noach, but eventually decides that humanity needs some teachers, that eventually leads to the emergence of Israel. We will discuss this at a future date.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Bereshit, entitled: "Humanity's Objectives" can be found at:

A further Sedra Short for Parshat Bereshit, entitled "The Good the Bad and the Woman" can be found at: A further Sedra Short for Parshat Bereshit, entitled: "Shattering Ancient Creation Myths" can be found at:

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Parshat Haazinu

A Short Lesson in Biblical Poetry

The Bible is a holy book for Jews believe it to be the word of God. Therefore, the rabbis from ancient times up until today, have taken great care in interpreting every word, often asking about the appearance of superfluous words.

For example at the giving of the Torah, God tells Moshe to tell Israel: "So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel" (Shemot 19:3). The Rabbis ask about the need for the repetition, as "saying to the house of Jacob" is exactly the same the same as "telling the sons of Israel".

They give a beautiful answer explaining that education begins at home, and therefore, if the Torah was to be passed faithfully to the sons of Israel, it first needs to be practiced faithfully in the house.

Nevertheless, if we were to study Biblical poetry, we would see that it is full of parallelisms. In fact, this week's parsha, is one long poem, with many examples of parallelism.

The first passuk states: "Listen, O heavens, and I will speak!" and then continues "Let the earth hear the words of my mouth" (Devarim 32:1). "Listen O heavens" parallels "Let the earth hear", while "I will speak" parallels "the words of my mouth".

The next passuk continues: "My lesson will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew" (ibid 2). "My lesson" parallels "My word" and "drip like rain" parallels "flow like dew".

The whole parsha continues in this manner.

While it is absolutely right to examine all these metaphors and to seek the message of each expression, we must never take the pesukim out of their context to understand that this is merely the way poetry was spoken in Biblical times. Therefore, as with the giving of the Torah, The Torah used this parallel device, for dramatic effect.

Perhaps we can re-interpret the question the Rabbis asked. Rather than them asking why the particular parallelism exists, perhaps they are really asking about the order of the parallelism and the choice of words. For example concerning: "So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel", maybe they are asking why "house of Jacob" preceded "sons of Israel", and not why two expressions were used.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Ha'azinu entiled: "Remembering the Days of Old" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Ha'azinu entiled: "The Witnesses" appears at

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Parshat VaYelech

The Lantern Shines On

Moshe knows that his days on earth are coming to end. He says: "I can no longer go or come" (Devarim 31:2).

He therefore, reaffirms that Yehoshua will be replacing him telling him in front of all Israel: "Be strong and courageous! For you shall come with this people to the land which the Lord swore to their forefathers to give them." (ibid 7).

This theme and writing style spills over into Sefer Yehoshua, causing many modern commentators to say that Sefer Devarim and Yehoshua were written by the same author, the Deuteronomic author or the Deuteronomist. We will bring an alternative theory, that Yehoshua and Devarim had separate authors,

It is clear from Sefer Yehoshua that Yehoshua himself had difficulty filling Moshe's shoes. He is constantly reminded "not to fear the enemy", to be "brave and strong" and that God will not abandon him (see Yehoshua 1:5-9).

It is for this reason that God performs for Yehoshua similar miracles to that what he id performed for Moshe.

Moshe's greatest miracle was the splitting of the Red Sea. In order for the people to know that Yehoshua really was Moshe's legitimate successor "that they may know that as I was with Moshe, so will I be with you" (Yehoshua 3:7), God splits the Jordan for him so that He will "make you great in the sight of all Israel" (ibid).

Of course, splitting a whole sea is a far greater miracle than the splitting of a river, however, no one is suggesting that Yehoshau was just a s great as Moshe, only that he was the rightful heir. Indeed the Rabbis state that Moshe was the sun while Joshua was the moon. The moon is an impressive celestial object, but the sun is far more impressive. So too, Yehoshua was a great leader, but Moshe was far greater. Indeed, Moshe shone on his own while Yehoshua gained his light from Moshe.

The point is for the people and Yehoshua himself, to appreciate that Yehoshua was indeed Moshe's legitimate successor.

Sefer Yehoshua brings numerous other examples to prove this point: "The Lord spoke to Yehoshua, saying" (ibid 20:1) is a deliberate and precise copy of the standard biblical verse attributed to Moshe. Furthermore, at the beginning of Yehoshua, Moshe is described is the "servant of the Lord", while Yehoshua is described as "Moshe's apprentice" (ibid 1:1). However, upon his death, Yehoshua is described as "the servant of the Lord" (ibid 24:29), the same epitaph given to Moshe.

Therefore, it is possible tha rather than Devarim and Yehoshua having the same author, that the author of Yehoshua deliberately wrote his book in the style of Sefer Devarim, because he wants to give not just his book Biblical authority, but because he wants to subtly show in a more latent way, that Yehoshua was the true successor to the path that Moshe could no longer walk.

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

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