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, February 26, 2009

Parshat Teruma

The Ark of the Covenant

"They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height. You shall overlay it with pure gold; from inside and from outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make upon it a golden crown all around" (Shemot 25:10-11).

The Ark of the Covenant was the first item in the Mishkn that God commanded Isael to make. That is because it was the most important and holiest part of the Mishkan.

It was only piece of furniture that was in the Holy of the Holies, the Mishkan's inner sanctum, and it was the place from which: "I will arrange My meetings with you there, and I will speak with you from atop the ark" (ibid 22).

Amazingly enough, this holiest of items had on it two images, two golden cherubs "wings spread upwards, shielding the ark cover with their wings, with their faces toward one another" (ibid 20), in total violation of the Ten Commandments: "You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them" (ibid 20:4-5).

How was it possible that Israel's holiest object contained two images?

Interestingly enough, the Ark and the cherubs on it, were never meant to be seen. As we noted earlier, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies. No one was ever allowed in there, save the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, on Yom Kippur. Yet even then, he never actually saw the Ark because before he went it "he shall place the incense upon the fire, before the Lord, so that the cloud of the incense shall envelope the ark cover that is over the [tablets of] Testimony, so that he shall not die" (VaYikra 16:13). The smoke from the incense was to envelop the Ark before, the Kohen Gadol went in, so he never actually aw it.

Even when the people traveled it was never seen, because: "Aaron and his sons shall come and take down the dividing screen; with it, they shall cover the Ark of the Testimony" (Bemidbar 4:5). Therefore, the Ark was always covered with the parochet when it was not in the Holy of Holies.

Furthermore, while the Ark may have been used to lead in Israel in battle in Israel's infancy, it is clear from the Sefer Shmuel, when Israel decided to bring the Ark to battle, and the Philistines shouted in woe: "was nothing like this yesterday and before yesterday" (1 Shmuel 4:7) that this practice soon stopped.

Even more interesting is the fact that despite the Ark being the most important item, it did not feature at all during the Second Temple yet the Temple functioned well without it. Indeed, it is now The Lost Ark, and it is unlikely that it will ever be re-discovered.

Therefore, it is possible to understand the Ark and its cherubs as a concession to ancient Israel's evolution from idolatry to monotheism. The young nation, brought up on Egypt's plethora of gods, found the concept of an imageless God an impossible concept to comprehend. In the circumstances, they were given an image, but they could never see it. Overtime, the Ark itself became lost; as Israel developed an no longer even needed a hidden image.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Teruma, entitled: "The Keruvim" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Teruma, entitled: "Living With God" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Teruma, entitled: "A Home for God" appears at

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Parshat Mishpatim

Slavery and the Law

In last week's parsha God gave the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. This week's parsha then lists a more detailed description of God's law. It begins with:

"If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom without charge " (Shemot 21:2).

This is incredible. The very first law is about slavery. However, if we look carefully, it's not about actually the laws of slavery, but about freeing slaves. In fact, ver little is stated about the actual treatment and buying and selling of slaves. The very first law is about freeing slaves. It then goes on: "But if the slave says, "I love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go free" (ibid 5) – the slave does not want to go free!!

The next law is about the female slave: "If a man sells his daughter as a maidservant, she shall not go free as the slaves go free" (ibid 7). The female slave does not go free. Why? The master or his son must marry her and provide her with "sustenance, her clothing, and her marital relations" (ibid 10). If he refuses to provide her this, then: she shall go free" (ibid 11).

The next law then talks about murder.

So as we can see, the Torah is not really talking to us about the laws of slavery. In fact, it is not really talking to us about laws at all. It is talking to us about a principle. People should not be enslaved, they should be free. The natural state of a person is to be free and not beholden to others.

Interestingly, this exactly how the Ten Commandments begin: "I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (ibid 20:2). God's first act for Israel was to free them from slavery. Their first act, therefore, should be to free slaves.

The Torah, therefore, while permitting slavery, clearly wants it abolished, for the sanctity of humanity is primary to all laws, as is implied by the fact that the serious punishment for murder and manslaughter immediately follow.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Mishptim, entitled: "The Kid and the Mother's Milk" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Mishptim, entitled: "The New Covenant" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Mishpatim, entitled: "The Law" appears at

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Parshat Yitro

The Shabbat

In this week's parsha, God presents the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people, the fourth commandment being "Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it" (Shemot 20:8).

This was not the first time Israel was commanded about the Shabbat, indeed, when collecting the Manna they were told: "Tomorrow is a rest day, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. Bake whatever you wish to bake, and cook whatever you wish to cook, and all the rest leave over to keep until morning…Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day [which is the] Sabbath on it there will be none" (ibid 16:23-26).

Of course, Shabbat also appears as part of the Creation episode (Bereshit 2:1-3). Nevertheless, at this point Israel are told the purpose of the Shabbat: "For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it" (Shemot 20:11).

Nevertheless, when the Torah repeats the Ten Commandments in Sefer Devarim, it gives a different reason: "You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord, your God, commanded you to observe the Sabbath day" (Devarim 5:15).

In the first account, the reason why God commands us to keep Shabbat is because God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh – so too we work for six days but must rest on the seventh.

In the second account, we keep the Shabbat because we were slaves in Egypt and God freed us.

What is the Torah trying to teach us by giving these two reasons? The Rabbis explain the difference between them in the opening sentence of each account. Shemot's account begins with the words "Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it" (Shemot 20:8) while the Devarim account begins with words "Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it" (Devarim 5:12).

"Remember" refers to the positive commandments we must do to sanctify the day, while "Keep" refers to the negative commandments we must not do to sanctify the day.

We must sanctify the seventh day because God made the day holy when He created the earth, so too we must do activities to sanctify the day. However there are also things we cannot do, because doing them would break the sanctity of the day. This is because we were slaves in Egypt. Slaves have no rest. They must always do their work and cannot take time off. It breaks their human dignity. Therefore, God says that Israel must stop working as they are no longer slaves.

By sanctifying the day we are sanctifying God and by stopping work, we are sanctifying humanity, restoring their dignity. These are the two sides of Shabbat.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Yitro, entitled: " Revelation and Distance" appears at
Another Sedra Short on Parshat Yitro, entitled: "The Chosen People" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Yitro, entitled: "Midyan, Amalek and Matan Torah" appears at

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Parshat Beshalach

The Angel and the Cloud

When Israel left Egypt "the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to cause it to lead them on the way and at night in a pillar of fire to give them light, [they thus could] travel day and night" (Shemot 13:21).

Nevertheless, within a few days, the Egyptian army had caught up with them and was ready to strike when they were trapped at the sea.

Before the sea split, giving Israel an escape route, God created some distance between the advancing Egyptians and the escaping Israelites. He did this by moving the pillar of cloud that was leading the people and moved it behind the people.

"Then the angel of God, who had been going in front of the Israelite camp, moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved away from in front of them and stood behind them. It came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel, and there were the cloud and the darkness, and it illuminated the night, and one did not draw near the other all night long" (ibid 14:19-20).

This first passuk seems to be describing two movements, that of the pillar of cloud and that of an angel. Yet then the second passuk is in the singular, describing the result of the movement.

This means that there was only one movement and that the pillar of cloud was the angel. What does this mean?

When we think of angels, we generally imagine humanoid beings. Indeed, these types of beings were encountered by Avraham and Lot (Bereshit 18-19), Yaakov (ibid 32: 24-30), Bilam (Bemidbar 22:31) and many others.

Nevertheless, the term angel in Hebrew is "malakh" – it actually means messengers (see Bereshit 32:30, Bemidba 20:24, 21:21, Shoftim 11:12 and many others).

A messenger of God gives a message from God. That messenger, therefore, does not have to be humanlike, it could take any form, from humans to animals and even inanimate objects.

When Devorah said to Barak (this week's haftarah on Mount Tabor: "Does not the Lord go out before you?" (Shoftim 4:14), she was not seeing God Himself coming out towards them. She most likely saw rain clouds beginning to come out or even the rain, that would flood the Kishon wadi and sweep away Sisera's army (see ibid 5:4,21).

She interpreted the clouds as a messenger of God, giving Israel victorious tidings.

So too in our case, the angel was not a physical manifestation of human, but a cloud.

The Torah is teaching us an important message. In an age where we lack prophecy, we still do not lack the message of God. He is constantly giving us messages. Like Devorah, we have to be prepared to see Him in them.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Beshalach, entitled: "The Miracle at the Sea" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Beshalach, entitled: "The Shorter Way" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Beshalach, entitled: "The 3 Day Game" appears at

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