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, January 29, 2009

Parshat Bo

The New Calendar

This week's parsha contains one of my favorite comments in Chief Rabbi Hertz's classical Torah commentary. He argues that the plague of darkness was a total solar eclipse and therefore, using a calculation of when ancient Egypt experienced a total solar eclipse, he says that the plague of darkness occurred on March 13, 1335 BCE. He goes on to say that since Jewish tradition states that the darkness was on Nissan 1, he concludes that the Exodus from Egypt took place on March 27, 1335 BCE!!!

Nevertheless, it is interesting that the Torah does not give us any dates whatsoever, when it comes to plotting the course of the exodus. We have no idea when the plagues began and how long the whole process took. Was it a few months or even a year, o perhapd more? We have no idea.

There are some hints. For example, when Moshe tells Pharaoh about the havoc the hailstones caused he says: "though the flax and the barley have been broken, for the barley is in the ear, and the flax is in the stalk. The wheat and the spelt, however, have not been broken because they ripen late" (Shemot 9:31-32). From here we can see that the hailstones must have occurred in sometime in Jany/February, after the ripening of the flax, but before the ripening of the wheat.

Nevertheless, it is still hard to chart a timeline for the whole process. Yet, on the verge of the Exodus, God states: "This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year" (ibid 12:2). From this point onwards, Israel has calendar and the Torah begins to chart events, for example, "In the third month of the children of Israel's departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai" (ibid 19:1) and "The Lord spoke to Moses…on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt" (Bemidbar 1:1).

We must therefore ask the question, why events prior to the Exodus are not dated, or better, what message is the Torah teaching us by only instituting the calendar at this juncture?

In order to answer to this question, we must understand that in this week's parsha, Israel is about to undergo a fundamental change. Israel is going from slavery to freedom.

Slaves do not have any free time. Their time is not their own, they must be constantly available for their master at all times. Time is not a concept they have. It is not a concept that Israel had. How long did the whole process take? It's possible that Israel did not know!

Yet, this would change at the tenth plague. Israel would then be free. One of the symbols that God gave them, to help them internalize this factor, is the institution of a calendar. Israel is now given human dignity, they are now in control of their time.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Bo, entitled: " The Exodus" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Bo, entitled: "They will Go Forth with Great Possessions" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Bo, entitled: "The Humiliation of Ra" appears at

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Parsht VaEra

Moshe's Reluctance to Lead

In this week's parsha, Moshe tries to get out of the mission that God gave him.

E already saw that at the Burning Bush, Moshe gave God a number of reasons why he could not go to Egypt to deliver His Message. His excuses included:

  • Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh...?" (Shemot 3:11)
  • "They say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" (ibid 13)
  • "Behold they will not believe me" (4:1)
  • "I beseech You, O Lord. I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday" (ibid 10)

God did not get angry with Moshe over these questions, but instead, answered each and every point. However, when Moshe again tried to get out of the mission, God finally got angry with him:

"He (Moshe) said, "I beseech You, O Lord, send now [Your message] with whom You would send." And the Lord's wrath was kindled against Moshe, and He said, "Is there not Aharon your brother…And he will speak for you to the people, and it will be that he will be your speaker, and you will be his leader" (ibid 13-16).

God had no problem with Moshe questioning Him. On the contrary, he expects us to question Him and to not accept His orders blindly. Therefore, He does not get angry with Moshe in the beginning.

However, when Moshe stopped the questions and simply said that he did not want to do it, God got angry. We have the right to question, but we do not have the right to shirk our responsibilities.

Moshe is therefore, punished. By trying to do get out of the mission, God reduced Moshe's role and promoted Aharaon in his place. Aharon would now speak to the people on His behalf.

Last week's parsha ends with Pharaoh worsening Israel's conditions of slavery. Moshe felt that it was God's fault and said so to him, again questioning his role.

"O Lord! Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me? Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people" (5:22-23).

Again, God does not get angry, for Moshe's claim is legitimate. He simply tells him, at the beginning of this week's parsha, that He will soon redeem Israel. He then tells Moshe to go again to Pharaoh and ask him to free Israel. Moshe responds:

"Behold, the children of Israel did not hearken to me. How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of closed lips? (ibid 6:12)."

It's unclear if Moshe is making excuses again. We had just been told that Israel would not listen to Moshe "because of [their] shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor (ibid 6:9).

Moshe might be saying that he thinks that the reason they did not listen to him is simply because he's not a good speaker and therefore, God should send someone else.

The passuk does not say whether God was angry or not with him, but what is clear is that God demotes him again. God tells him: "See! I have made you a lord over Pharaoh, and Aaron, your brother, will be your speaker. You shall speak all that I command you, and Aaron, your brother, shall speak to Pharaoh" (ibid 7:1-2).

Aharon will now be the one to speak to Pharaoh.

The Torah is trying to teach us that we do have a right to question as long as our questions are a search for the truth, rather than an excuse to refuse God's law.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaEra, entitled: "Hashem and the Avot" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaEra, entitled: ""Discovering God" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat VaEra, entitled: "Knowing God" appears at

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Parshat Shemot

Moshe – Natural Born Leader

The birth of Moshe is surrounded by a strange case of anonymity. "A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi" (Shemot 2:1). We later discover that these two people were called Amram and Yocheved. So too Moshe, the child they have, is not named until he "grew up" (ibid 10). Miriam, "his sister" (ibid 4) is not named and neither is Pharoah's daughter.

So too, when the characters re-appear in this chapter, they remain anonymous even though their descriptions change: Miriam becomes the "maiden" (ibid 8) and Yocheved is described as the "child's mother" (ibid 8) and later again as "the woman" (9).

We can understand the change in description for both Miriam and Yocheved. They are given these descriptions when facing Pharaoh's daughter. She does not suspect that they are related and that this occurrence was well planned by both mother and daughter. Indeed, had she suspected this, she would have called for a different woman to nurse the child. This is why she offers to pay Yocheved for nursing the child. As Pharoh's daughter she could have taken a Hebew slave at no cost, however, she did not want there to be any doubt that the child is now hers'.

Nevertheless, why are all the characters shrouded in anonymity? What message is the Torah trying to teach?

We know that this child grew up to be Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses, our teacher), the lawgiver whose close encounters with God would never be reproduced by anyone.

Yet, in his birth and early childhood, his basic survival was at stake. He did not have special powers that he could survive Pharaoh's decree: "Every son who is born you shall cast into the Nile" (ibid 1:22). Had Moshe been caught he would have been killed. Furthermore, once in the Nile, he was helpless and needed a human being, Pharaoh's daughter, to save him. Additionally, he then needed a woman to nurse him.

One of the basic messages that Moshe came to teach was that: "God created man in His image" (Bereshit 1:27), not just Pharaoh's. Every single person was special and equal: There are no supernatural people. Moshe, the greatest human ever, was conceived naturally, by regular people; he grew and was nurtured naturally. His parents were not gods, had Pharaoh's daughter not discovered him he would have died and had there been no one to nurse him, again he would have died from malnutrition.

The Torah deliberately describes the episode in anonymity to show that they were all regular people, all regular humans. Anyone can rise to be great. You do not need a privileged and even a supernatural birth.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Shemot, entitled: "The Abandonment of Moshe" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Shemot, entitled: "The Ark and the Princess" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Shemot, entitled: "Moshe - Assimilated Jew" appears at

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Parshat VaYechi

The Grave Yaakov had Dug

When Yaakov realized that he was dying, he called for Yoseph and asked him to: "place your hand beneath my thigh…do not bury me now in Egypt" (Bereshit 47:29).

Yoseph said: "I will do as you say" (ibid 30), but that was not good enough for Yaakov. He made him swear to him, so Yoseph "swore to him" (ibid 31) that he would bury him in Canaan.

Once "the days of his weeping had passed" (ibid 50:4), Yoseph was able to send a message to Pharaoh and speak to him about the oath he had sworn to his father.

Yoseph tells Pharaoh of Yaakov's dying wish, saying: "'In my grave, which I dug for myself in the land of Canaan, there you shall bury me'". So now, please let me go up and bury my father and return (ibid 5)".

It is obvious why Yoseph did not quote his father accurately when he overlooked the words: "Do not bury me in Egypt" as that would have been extremely insulting to the host king. However, why does he speak of the grave that Yaakov had dug? Yaakov never mentioned that he had dug his own grave before. On the contrary, he was going to be buried in the Cave of Machpela, the family tomb.

Most commentators say that the Hebrew word used for "dug", actually means "prepared in advance". Some modern commentators want to suggest that this text refers to a variant tradition that Israel had about the location of Yakov's final resting place.

The concept of the variant tradition for graves already appears at another place in this week's parsha; with Rachel. Yaakov recalls her death, saying: "I buried her there on the way to Ephrat, which is Bet Lechem" (ibid 48:7).

Everyone knows that Bet Lechem (Bethlehem) is a city just south of Jerusalem. We have a shrine there that many believe to be Rachel's Tomb. However, this location contradicts a text we have in Sefer Yirmiyahu.

There, the prophet imagines Rachel crying, as her sons, i.e. the Jewish people, pass by her tomb, on their journey into exile, to Babylon (see Yirmiyah 31:14-16). In order for this to occur, Rachel's tomb must have been in northern Israel, as it makes no sense for the Babylonians to have taken Jerusalem's exile to Babylon, via Bet Lechem, for it is totally the wrong way.

However, rather than saying that there are two traditions for Rachel's burial place, we could simply say that we are mistaken for thinking that the Torah was referring to the Bet Lechem that is south of Jerusalem. It is very possible that it was referring to the Bet Lechem, another city with exactly the same name, in northern Israel. Indeed, it is strange for us to consider that Rachel, the mother of the northern tribes, would have been buried in the territory of Judah, the leading son of Leah.

So too Yospeh's misquote need not bring us to there being variant tradition as to the whereabouts of his grave.

We now know that Ancient Egypt had a death obsessed religion. Wealthy Egyptians would invest all their energies and wealth in preparing for the after-life. This included the building of lavish tombs.

The Daat Mikra suggests that Yospeh spoke in a language that Pharaoh would understand well. He emphasized that Yaakov wanted to be buried in Canaan because he already prepared his tomb in Canaan. Pharaoh would therefore, find Yospeh's request more than reasonable.

Therefore, rather than there being an alternative burial place for Yaakov, Yoseph merely quoted Yaakov freely in way that would make his request to bury him in Canaan, more palatable to Pharaoh.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat VaYechi, entitled: "The Adoption of Ephraim and Menashe" appears at
Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYechi, entitled: "The Mummification of Yaakov" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat VaYechi, entitled: "Yoseph's inheritance" appears at

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Parshat VaYigash

Yaakov's Fear

Yaakov had been depressed and living a life a turmoil for 22 years, believing that Yoseph had been killed by a wild animal.

Suddenly, he discovers that "Yoseph is still alive. I will go and see him before I die" (Bereshit 45:28) and "the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived" (ibid 27).

He immediately sets off towards Egypt, but first makes a stop in Be'er Shev, where "he slaughtered sacrifices to the God of his father Yitschak" (ibid 46:1). There God said to him: "Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation" (ibid 2).

From these words it was clear that Yaakov was afraid to go to Egypt. Why was Yaakov afraid?

In order to answer this question, we must first ask another two questions. Fistly, why did Yaakov go to Be'er Sheva? Secondly, why did he make sacrifices to the God of his father, Yitschak and not the God of Avraham? Obviously the God of Yitschak is the same as the God of Yaakov, and therefore practically speaking, Yaakov was also worshipping the God of Avraham. However, why does the Torah limit God's title to simply that of Yitschak?

We must remember that this was not the first time that there was a famine in Canaan and that the Patriarchs wanted to go to Egypt.

Firstly with Avraham: "There was a famine in the land, and Avram descended to Egypt to sojourn there because the famine was severe in the land" (ibid 12:10).

Then with Yitschak: "There was a famine in the land, aside from the first famine that had been in the days of Avraham…The Lord appeared to him (Yitschak), and said, 'Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land that I will tell you'" (ibid 26:1-2).

Avraham went to Egypt because of famine. Yitschak wanted to go to Egypt, because of famine, but God told him not to.

Yaakov is troubled. He is suffering from famine, Yoseph his beloved son, is offering him salvation in Egypt. Should he be like Avraham and go, or should he be like Yitschak and stay?

Moreover, he knows what it means to leave home. Yaakov left Canaan for Padan Aram for what he thought would have been a short period, ("you shall dwell with him for a few days until your brother's wrath has subsided – ibid 27:44), but ended up being there for over twenty years. He is now an old man and knows that if he goes down to Egypt, he and possibly his whole family may never return. Can he really go to Egypt?

To answer that question he cannot ask the God of Avraham, as He permitted Avraham to go to Egypt. He must ask the God of Yitschak, the one who forbade him to go.

More than that, he goes to Beer Sheva, the place where God had appeared to Yitschak and said: "Do not go down to Egypt."

There, at that same place, that same God, answers Yaakov's fear and promises him: "there I will make you into a great nation. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up" (ibid 46:3-4).

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYigash entitled: "The Descent to Egypt" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYigash entitled: "The Saving of Egypt " appears at

A further Sedra Short entitled "Confrontation and Reconciliation" appears at

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