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, November 27, 2008

Parshat Toldot

More Peace with Avimelech – Whatever Happened to It?

In Parshat VaYera, Avimelech had made a non-aggression pact with Avraham. In this week's parsha, Avimelech or possibly his son, as the name is generic for "ruler", renews the pact, this time with Yitzchak: "If you do [not] harm us, as we have not touched you, and as we have done with you only good, and we sent you away in peace, [so do] you now, blessed of the Lord (Bereshit 26:29).

Whatever, happened to this treaty? Was it ever used?

We recall that when Avimelech made the original agreement, he said that it would be between "me or to my son or to my grandson" (ibid 21:23).

One could argue, therefore, that the pact was intended to only last three generations. This would explain how Avraham could agree to relinquish part of the Land of Israel, as God had promised him that "the fourth generation will return here" (ibid 15:16). Therefore, the treaty merely passed by its "use by" date and then became null and void.

However, one could also argue that the term that Avimelech was used was generic to refer to forever. If so, our question remains, what happened to the treaty?

In order to answer this question, we must look at two episodes in Sefer Shmuel. There we see David, the future king of Israel, living in Gat, a Philistine city.

This is very strange. We must remember that David slew the Philistine champion, Goliath. More than that, he has freed Israel from Philistine control. Indeed, the Israelite maidens would sing about him that "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands" (I Shmuel 18:7). He has won many battles against the Philistines.

Yet when Sha'ul, the king considers David a traitor and tries to kill him, David flees to Achish, the Philistine ruler of Gat, for refuge. You would think that he would be the last person to help David. Not only that, David even took the sword of Goliath with him to Gat! Yet Achish still gave him sanctuary.

David soon had a problem: "The bondsmen of Achish said to him, "Is this not David, the king of the land? Was it not of this one that they would sing out with musical instruments, saying, 'Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?'" (ibid 21:12).

In order to feign internment, David feigned madness: "He changed his speech before their eyes, and he feigned insanity before them. He scribbled on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva run down upon his beard" (ibid 14).

Unbelievably, Achish fell for it! "Achish said to his bondsmen, "Behold, you see a man who is mad. Why do you bring him to me? Do I lack lunatics, that you have brought this one to rave in my presence?" (ibid 15-16).

Well, maybe Achish was fooled and really believed David to be a madman. If that is the case, how do we explain the episode a few chapters later?

David is still on the run from Sha'ul and he is not safe in Israel, so he returns to Gat. "David arose. He and the six hundred men who were with him, crossed over to Achish the son of Maoch, the king of Gath (ibid 27:2).

Is it possible that Achish had no idea that he was there? No, not really: "David said to Achish, "If now I have found favor in your eyes, let them give me a place in one of the country towns, and I shall dwell there, for why should your servant dwell in the royal city with you?" So Achish gave him Ziklag on that day; therefore, Ziklag has belonged to the kings of Judah until this day" (ibid 5-6).

Achish gave David a city!! More than that, when Sha'ul fought his last battle, David was Achish's personal bodyguard (see ibid 28:1-2). How was it possible that David, the slayer of Goliath, the tormentor of the Philistines and someone who had feigned madness to Achish previously, become such a trusted aide of his?

Rabbi Benyamin Lau suggests that Achish was a descendant of Avimelech and that he still cherished the treaty that Avraham and Yitschak made with his ancestor. Rabbi Lau even suggests that Gerar is Gat, pointing out that the numerical value of the names of the cities are the same.

Therefore, Achish, as a descendant of the philistine king from this week's parsha, had a duty to uphold the treaty, and therefore, protect David.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Toldot, entitled: "Yitschak's Vision” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat Toldot, entitled: "Yitchack Avinu – Action Man” appears at

A further Sedra Short for Parshat Toldot, entitled: "Twins in Her Womb" can be found at

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Parshat Chayei Sarah

The Missing God

This week's parsha is unique in the Torah – it is the only one in which God does not talk to humanity. He remains silent.

That does not mean that He is ignored. On the contrary He is mentioned throughout. To begin with, Avraham makes his servant swear an oath in the name of God: "I will adjure you by the Lord, the God of the heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites" (Bereshit 24:3).

Furthermore, the servant makes a prayer to God, saying: "O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, please cause to happen to me today" (ibid 12). He also refers to God in his speech with Lavan and Betuel a number of times.

Additionally, when Rivka met Yitschak for the first time, he "went out to meditate in the field", the Rabbis explain that he was praying.

God's actions are also very visible in the parsha. Avraham had promised his servant that God "will send His angel before you" (ibid 7), meaning that he would succeed in his mission. The way in which the servant succeeded was even more impressive. He asked God for a sign. The servant received that sign instantaneously and the first girl that he met was Avraham's cousin's daughter, Rivka. The test that he set her was also passed with success. Everything went exactly to plan.

Yet the lack of prophetic communication from God is still conspicuous by its absence. Why is He silent?

The parsha can be divided up into two parts: Firstly, Avraham's attempts to bury Sarah. Secondly, Avraham's search for a wife for Yitschak. We could put these episodes into one category: The Avot without the Imahaot, The Patriarchs without the Matriarchs.

Sarah is dead and Avraham is alone. Yitchak has no partner and he is alone. Furthermore, after three years, Yitschak is still morning his mother as he was only: "comforted for [the loss of] his mother" after he married Rivka (ibid 67).

Under these conditions, the word of God cannot be heard. The fathers without the mothers are incomplete; it is only when they are together and that there is joy and that word of God can be spoken.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Chayei Sarah, entitled: "The Other Sons of Avraham” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat Chayei Sarah, entitled: "The Legacy of Terach” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat Chayei Sarah, entitled: "A Stranger and a Sojourner" can be found at

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Parshat VaYera

Avimelch's Pact with Avraham

We have another strange episode in this week's parsha.

Avraham is an old man of one hundred years old. He is landless and wandering all over Canaan. Suddenly, out of the blue, Avimelech, king of Pelishtim comes to him with his general Phichol, and says: "God is with you in all that you do. Now, swear to me here by God, that you will not lie to me or to my son or to my grandson; according to the kindness that I have done with you, you shall do with me, and with the land wherein you have sojourned" (Bereshit 21:22-23).

Avimelech then proceeds to make a non-aggression pact with Avraham.

Why does Avimelech, a king with an army, want a non-aggression pact with Avraham, a nomad? What is he afraid of?

We could answer by saying that Avimlech recognizes Avraham's greatness especially the fact that God is with him in all that he does, and therefore, its logical for him to want to be in his good books.

However, if that is the case, then we must ask, why now? Avimelech already knew this. In fact, Avimelech and Avraham had already met some time earlier when Avimelech had taken Sarah his wife. Then God appeared to Avimelech in a dream saying that Avraham: "is a prophet" (ibid 20:7) and warning him not to hurt him.

Surely that would have been a more opportune moment for Avimelech to seek a pact with Avraham.

The answer lies in the timing. The episode begins with the words: "Now it came to pass at that time" (ibid 21:22). Something important had just happened. Avraham had just had son; he now had an heir. So what?

For many years, this old man Avraham had been travelling the length and breadth of Canaan preaching monotheism and that one day he would inherit this land.

Most people would not have taken him seriously; for he had no son. However, now he had that son. Suddenly Avraham is a threat to Avimelech. Avimelech knows first hand that God is with Avraham, but now that Avraham has finally had a son, he fears that Avraham's prophecy will come true. This means that his kingdom is not safe. Avraham's descendants will take it away from his. Therefore, Avimelech, comes with his top general and seeks a multi generational non-aggression pact.

With this pact Avraham now has now outside confirmation that his whole life's mission will succeed, and he uses it to his advantage.

First "he planted an eishel tree", signifying his ownership of the land, as well as planting something for his future descendants to enjoy. Then he "dwelt in the land of the Philistines for many days" and "called there in the name of the Lord, the everlasting God", (ibid 21:33-34) i.e. he spends the rest of his life travelling the land of the Pelishtim and preaching about God. But now he is able to use the pact with Avimelech, the Philistine king, as proof that even he now believes in God – shouldn't they?

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat VaYera, entitled: "The Fate of Mrs. Lot" can be found at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat VaYera, entitled: " Yishmael the Impersonator" can be found at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat VaYera, entitled: "She's my Sister – Again!!" can be found at

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Parshat Lech Lecha

The Repeated Promise

At the age of 70, Avraham Avinu begins a new chapter in his life.

God speaks to him for the first time and tells him to go to the land of Canaan and that He will make him a great nation there.

All this is fine, apart from the fact that this promise is repeated a further four times.

The first time: "Go forth from your land … to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation…" (Bereshit 12:1-2)

The second time: Avram passed through the land…and the Canaanites were then in the land. The Lord appeared to Avram, and He said, "To your seed I will give this land" (ibid 6-7).

The third time: "The Lord said to Avram after Lot had parted from him, "Raise your eyes and see... For all the land that you see I will give to you and to your seed to eternity" (13:14-15).

The fourth time: "On that day, the Lord formed a covenant with Avram, saying, "To your seed I have given this land" (ibid 15:18).

The fifth time: "I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojournings, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a God" (ibid 17:8).

When the word of God was so precious, when God only spoke with Avraham five times over these 29 years, why did He give Avraham exactly the same message each time? Why was it necessary for God to repeat His message four times?

The answer can be found in a close reading of the text.

God had promised Avraham Canaan and that he would become a great nation there. However, when Avraham got there, he had a great shock: "The Canaanites were then in the land". This land was not an empty land waiting for a master. It was already fully inhabited by a strong and mighty nation.

This must have come to Avraham as a great surprise and must have given him doubts. Therefore, God immediately reassured him saying: "To your seed I will give this land". He adds that His promise was not going to be fulfilled immediately, but only in the future. Avraham "built an altar to the Lord" (ibid 12:8), showing that He trusted God.

That reaffirmation satisfied Avraham until he had another major crisis. Avraham had no children. His heir was Lot, his nephew, the man he brought up as his own son. He must have been satisfied that God would maintain his promise through Lot. However, Lot left him. His successor was gone. Therefore, God again reassured Avraham: "All the land that you see I will give to you and to your seed to eternity". God then tells Avraham to: "walk in the land, to its length and to its breadth" signifying his ownership of it. Avraham again shows his faith as "he built an altar to the Lord" (ibid 13:17-18).

Yet some years later, Avraham experienced another crisis. He had defeated a military super-power and was now worried about revenge. God tells Avraham "Fear not, Avram; I am your Shield" (ibid 15:1). At this point Avraham asks what was the point of all this protection when "I am going childless" and "You have given me no seed, and behold, one of my household (Eliezer) will inherit me" (ibid 2-3).

God therefore tells him that Eliezer, the head of his household " will not inherit you, but the one who will spring from your innards-he will inherit you" (ibid 4). But He also goes when one step further than just making a promise; He makes a covenant with Avraham – the "Covenant Between the Pieces", committing Himself to this pact. Avraham once again "believed in the Lord" (ibid 6).

The final time that God makes the promise to Avraham is not the result of any fears that Avraham had expressed. Simply, the time had come for the promise to begin to be fulfilled. Sarah, Avraham's wife was about to conceive. However, before that could happen, Avraham had to have his name changed from Avram to Avraham, signifying his acceptance of his new role, and he had to enter the covenant of circumcision - the Brit Milla.

Just like Avraham had to wait for the promise to be fulfilled, so too his descendants, the Jewish people, had to wait. Just like Avraham had to have blood spilt before he could take possession of the land, so too the Jewish people have experienced blood shed. Nevertheless, God has been faithful and the land of Israel is now our "everlasting possession" (ibid 8).

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Lech Lecha, entitled: "The Cannanites Were Then in the Land” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat Lech Lecha, entitled: "Sarah, Wife of Avraham” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat Lech Lecha, entitled: "The Double edge of Circumcision" can be found at

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