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, December 25, 2008

Parshat Miektz

Why Yospeh did not Phone Home

One question that bothers many people about the whole Joseph narrative is the fact that he does not contact his father to let him know that he was alive.

We can understand why Yoseph dif not contact Yaakov in his earlier years, for first he was a slave, albeit, an important slave, in the household of Potiphar, and after that he was held in incarceration for two years. However once He was freed, he became a powerful leader: "Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'I am Pharaoh, and besides you, no one may lift his hand or his foot in the entire land of Egypt'" (Bereshit 41:44).

From that point onwards, Yoseph lived for nine years before he let Yaakov know that he was still alive. Why did he not contact him sooner?

Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun suggests that Yoseph believed that his father was part of the plot to be rid of him. After all, he mocked his dream: "Will we come I, your mother, and your brothers to prostrate ourselves to you to the ground?" (ibid 37:10) and he then sent him to find his brothers when he knew that deeply disliked him. Rav Bin Num takes into account that Yoseph appreciated that in each generation one of the patriarch's sons was chosen and another was rejected (Yishmael and Esav).

So too, Yoseph named his eldest son, Menashe, because "God has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father's house" (ibid 41:51) and it was only once Yehuda said that Yaakov sorely missed him, (see 44:27-29), that Yospeh realized that his father deeply mourned him and that his analysis was incorrect. It was at that point that he revealed himself.

I would, however, like to suggest an alternative explanation.

We must remember that Yoseph was betrayed by his family and that so much time had passed. He was seventeen when he was sold into slavery and thirty when he stood before Pharaoh. Was he still the same person who left his father's home thirteen years earlier?

He now had a new name, Tsafnat Paneach, his wife was the daughter of an Egyptian priest and Menashe's name testifies that he was tying to forget his bitter past.

When his brothers stood before him, "they did not recognize him" (ibid 42:8). He was simply a different person, with a new life, totally unrecognizable from the self-centered shepherd boy that he had been thirteen years previously.

And he could have carried with on with that lifestyle, but something happened when he saw his brothers: "Yoseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed" (ibid 9).

Until this point, he had forgotten his dreams, he had forgotten his previous life. Yet, upon seeing his brothers he suddenly remembered who he was and that he had a destiny. It was suddenly the time for him to contact his father again. He just needed to find the way to do it.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Miketz entitled: "The Silence of God" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Miketz entitled: "Measure for Measure" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Miketz entitled "One Dream or Two?" appears at:

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Parshat VaYehsev

The Isolation of Yehuda

Soon after Yoseph is sold into slavery, the Torah brakes off from this narrative to tell us about Yehuda's episode with Tamar.

The episode begins with the words: "Now it came about at that time that Yehuda went down from his brothers (Bereshit 38:1).

The Rabbis understand Yehuda's descent to be a direct result of the selling of Yoseph. Yehuda's position as leader of the brothers had been diminished as he had the power to lead them differently and not sell Yoseph. And so, Yehuda separated from his brothers.

History was to be repeated. In the future, when Israel was a tribal confederation, Yehuda was distant, cut off from the rest of the tribes.

The tribe of Yehuda was a strong tribe in Israel's south, distant from the rest of Israel, and so did not play a major role in the confederations history. In fact, its name is barely mentioned in Sefer Shoftim.

Furthermore, when Devora, the judge who united the tribes more than any other judge, criticizes the tribes that did not help her in her campaign against Sisera, she does not even mention Yehuda. She never even considered that Yehuda would aid her and so, they were not worthy of criticism.

Indeed, the story of the tribe of Yehuda during the era of the Judges is recorded in a book totally separate from the Sefer Shoftim: the Book of Ruth.

Therefore, when Sha'ul, Israel's first king, mobilized his first army, "he counted them in Bezek, and the children of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Yehudah thirty thousand (I Shmuel 1:8). The prophet could have just written "the children of Israel were 330,000", but he did not. Instead, Israel and Yehudah were numbered separately.

The prophet is trying to say that not only did Sha'ul manage to unify Israel, he even managed to bring the tribe of Yehuda on line.

The tribe of Yehuda then succeeds to remain with Israel, throughout Sha'ul, David and Shlomo's reign. However, in the first days of Shlomo's son, Rehavam, Israel splits from Yehuda, and once again, Yehuda is isolated from the rest of Israel

This split was never restored.

The Rabbis explain that the early seeds of this split are in this week's parsha, when Yehuda went down from his brothers.

Last Year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYeshev entitled "Yoseph and Yehuda", appears at:

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYeshev entitled "Who sold Yoseph?" appears at:

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYeshev entitled "Yoseph: The Fourth Patriarch", appears at:

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Parshat VaYishlach

Seeing the Face of God

The night before meeting Esav, Yaakov struggles with a man at Nachal Yabbok. As it turns out, the man is a divine being. He gives Yakov a new name: Yisrael. We have discussed why a divine being was fighting Yaakov in the first place and the significance of Yaakov's additional name in a previous Sedra Short (see

This week, I would like to discus Yaakov's reaction. "Yaakov named the place Peniel (lit. the face of God), for [he said,] "I saw an angel face to face, and my soul was saved" (Bereshit 32:30).

It is clear from this statement that Yaakov expected to die. Seeing divine beings is meant to be beyond the human narrative and so when he saw the angel, Yaakov should not have continued living.

Indeed, Moshe asks God "show me your glory" (Shemot 33:18), God responds that "you cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live (ibid 20)."

In fact, the first time that Moshe encountered God, he almost died. Moshe sees a burning bush in the wilderness and is surprised that the bush is not being consumed. He decides to have a better look. "The Lord saw that he had turned to see" and so quickly calls out saying "Do not come close" (Shemot 3:4-5). To be sure, as soon as Moshe realizes that God is within the bush, he "hid his face because he was afraid to look toward God (ibid 6).

Gidon also saw an angel and thought he was going to die. At first, Gidon thought that the angel giving him the mission to save Israel was an ordinary person and so Giodn refused to accept the mission. The angel decides that Gidon needs to understand that his mission is from God and so he reveals himself by performing a supernatural act and then disappearing.

Gidon then realized that he was an angel and said: "Alas, O Lord God! Because I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face" (Shoftim 6:22). He assumed he was going to die, so "the Lord said to him, "Peace be to you, fear not, you shall not die (ibid 23)".

Manoach and his wife, Shimshon's parents, also met an angel. Manoach also did not believe that he was an angel until the angel revealed himself.

"Manoach (then) knew that he was an angel of the Lord. Manoach said to his wife, 'We shall surely die, because we have seen God" (ibid 13:22). However, his wife seemed to be more intelligent than him. "But his wife said to him, "If the Lord wanted to kill us, He would not have received from our hand a burnt-offering and a meal-offering, and He would not have shown us all these things; and at this time He would not let us hear (such things) as these (ibid 23)".

While seeing only God himself would lead to death, as happened with Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu (see Shemot 34:10-11 and VaYikra 10:1-2), seeing angels would not lead o death.

Nevertheless, as is clear from the episodes recorded here, people, including Yaakov, were frightened about seeing all divine beings.

Perhaps the Torah is trying to give us a monotheistic message. Only God is truly a Divine Being. Everything else, including angels, is just his tools. They are not worthy of worship.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYishlah entitled: "Israel and Shechem – a Varied Relationship" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYishlah entitled: Reuven and Bilha" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYishlach entitled "Struggling with the Present", appears at:

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Parshat VaYetzeh

Yaakov's Many Wives

In this week's parsha, Yaakov Avinu, marries two sisters, Rachel and Leah. He then takes their maidservants, Bilha and Zilpa, as concubines. It is possible that they, in particular Bilha, also became his wives at a later stage.

Yaakov was not the only one of our forefathers who had more than one wife. Avraham himself married not only Sarah, but also Hagar and Keturah. In fact, Yitschak was the only one of the Patriarchs to have one wife.

It is however, interesting, that polygamy does not seem to be the natural Biblical ideal. To begin with when God created Man, He said: "It is not good that man is alone" (Bereshit 2:18) and so He creates a partner for him. After having created a soul-mate for him, the Torah states: "a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (ibid 24). Adam and Eave are the archetype human beings and their relationship is totally monogamous and complete when they found each other.

Indeed, the Rabbis even suggest that the original human being was a hermaphrodite, that God split them and therefore, when they found each other, they were actually finding themselves.

Furthermore, if we examine the Biblical examples when a man had more than one wife, we will find cases of suffering and strife.

The first person to have more than one wife was Lemech: "Lemech took himself two wives; one was named Adah, and the other was named Zillah…'incline your ears to my words, for I have slain a man by wounding (him) and a child by bruising (him)'" (ibid 3:23). While we cannot attribute Lemech's murderous actions directly to the fact that he had one wife, the Torah does imply that in Lemech's time, humanity took a turn for the worse.

The next person who had more than one wife was Avraham: "Sarai said to Avram, 'Behold now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing; please come to my handmaid'" ibid 16:2). Sarah makes an ultimate sacrifice. She knew her husband was promised an heir, however, she did not know that she was to be the mother. So after years of childlessness, she gave Avram the opportunity of having that child. However, it turned out that it was a challenge she found impossible to cope with: "Sarai said to Avram, 'May my injustice be upon you! I gave my handmaid into your bosom…and I became unimportant in her eyes. May the Lord judge between me and you'" (ibid 5).

Indeed, Avram is eventually forced to send his son Yishmael away as Sarah was concerned about him impeaching Yitschak's inheritance. Avraham is even forced to send away his other sons from Keturah, in order to protect Yitschak: "To the sons of Abraham's concubines, Abraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from his son Isaac while he [Abraham] was still alive" (ibid 25.

Rachel and Leah, both of Yaakov's wives, also did not get on, even though they were sisters. Indeed "The Lord saw that Leah was hated" (ibid 29:31). Leah felt hated and second best. Rachel herself is so jealous of her sister's childbearing that she's prepared to give Bilha to Yaakov. Leah promptly follows suit and gives him Zilpa. The episode with the dudaim, the mandrakes that Reuven had gathered for Leah, also shows the tenseness and deep jealousy of their relationship.

It is therefore, no surprise that this mutual jealousy was transferred to their sons with Yoseph, eventually being sold into slavery by his half-brothers.

The relationship between Hannah and Penina, the wives of Elkana, was also hostile: "Her rival (Penina) would frequently anger her (Hanna), in order to make her complain" (I Shmuel 1:6).

Certainly Adoniah and Shlomo, two sons of David from different wives, did not get on and were rivals for the throne. Adoniah plots against Shlomo who has him executed (see I Kings 3:13-25).

Shlomo himself had many wives: "He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned away his heart. It was at the time of Solomon's old age, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not whole with the Lord" (ibid 11:3-4).

Every single case that the Torah reports of a man having more than one wife led to problems.

It is therefore, clear, especially if we consider Adam and Eve's harmony in the Garden of Eden, that while the Torah tolerated the concept of polygamy, it seems to consider monogamy to be the ideal.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat VaYetseh, entitled: "Yaakov and Lavan's Working Relationship” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat VaYetseh, entitled: " Yaakov's Guilt” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat VaYetseh, entitled: " The Dust of The Earth" can be found at

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