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, March 26, 2009

Parshat VaYikra

The Pleasant Fragrance

This week's parsha is all about the korbanot, sacrifices and offerings brought by Isael for various occasions.

Thee concept seems strange to the modern person. God has a house. His house is similar to a human house with a table, lights, cupboard, wash basin, altar (aka oven) and implements.

And then it seems that God is being fed. He is given an offering. It is put on the altar and then it vanishes in smoke, with the smoke going up to heaven, as if God us dining on the animal. Sometimes, He even shares the meal with others.

The Torah then writes: "It is a burnt offering, a fire offering, a pleasing fragrance to the Lord: (VaYikra 1:17).

This phrase implies that God has literally enjoyed the offering. Even though many primitive people understood the concept in this manner, we of course, understand that all these ideas are anthropomorphic, the description of God in human terms, so that we can understand it.

This was not the first time, however, that God found a koban to be a "pleasing fragrance." After the flood, Noach also made sacrifice to God: "Noah built an altar to the Lord, and he took of all the clean animals and of all the clean fowl and brought up burnt offerings on the altar. The Lord smelled the pleasant aroma, and the Lord said to Himself" (Bereshit 8:20-21).

From this episode, we learn that the sacrifice was not to provide food for God. How?

In the parallel Gilgamesh epic, once the gods brought the flood to the world, they realized that they had made a grave mistake, for they no longer had any food or drink and were starving. Indeed, when the hero of the flood makes a sacrifice, he provides them with wine as well, and all the gods crowded around like flies into to get some food.

However, Noach does not provide any drink, for God was not thirsty, and neither does God crowd around the sacrifice, for He was not hungry. He just finds the odor pleasing. This, therefore means that He accepted the offering.

This idea can also be proved from another text in Sefer VaYikra. There God threatens Israel with numerous admonitions should they be unfaithful. The passuk writes: "I will lay your cities waste and make your holy places desolate, and I will not smell of your pleasant fragrances" (VaYikra 26:31).

There God does not seem to be worried about going hungry. He is simply that He will not smell the pleasant aroma, i.e. He will reject the offering.

Therefore, the term "smelling" the pleasant aroma, is merely a term that means, accepting the sacrifice, that the person offering the sacrifice has been accepted.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYikra, entitled: "Sacrifice and Offering" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYikra, entitled: "Korbanot, Honey and Chametz" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat VaYikra, entitled: "Moshe's Calling" appears at

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Parshat VaYakehl-Pekudei

The Mishkan Again

We spent two weeks in Teruma and Tetzaveh, learning about the Mishkan. There the Torah discussed in detail, the precise measurements of its items.

This week we read another two parshiyot VaYakhel and Pekudei. It contains a repetition of the Mishkan – the difference being that the first two parshiyot are God's instructions to Moshe, while the second two is Moshe's instructions to the people and their fulfillment of that command.

These parshiyot are so repetitive that Rashi does not repeat his comments. So why are all the details repeated in such depth? This question is strengthened when we consider another issue.

The parsha begins with the commandment to keep the Shabbat. Now even though the commandment about Shabbat appears in a number of places throughout the Torah, the Torah does not actually provide many details as to what keeping the Shabbat entails. I does tell us that we must do any melacha, normally translated as work, however it does not actually define the term. In deed, it is left up to the Oral Law to describe in detail, the many different melachot that are forbidden on the Sabbath.

So, why does the Torah spend so much time describing the details of the Mishkan, when it would only ever be built once in history and which Judaism has survived for thousands of years without, while it is vague about Shabbat, which is kept week in week in week out?

Some commentaries have explained that the Torah wanted us to understand how much the building of the Mishkan was a labor of love for the whole people. However, surely the Sabbath is also a day of love and deserves its details.

The answer lies in the question itself. Judaism is passed on through the family. Most religious Jews know the laws of Shabbat, not because they have studied them in books, but because they keep them week in week out. The laws therefore, do not need to be recorded in detail. The Torah wants us to learn His ways through our parents and for us to pass it on to our children. And the Shabbat has survived.

Yet, the Mishkan is lost to us. No one has seen it since it was dismantled in Solomon's days. We even have no idea as to how Herod's Temple appeared from the inside.

Yet, that is not the case about the Mishkan. It has survived because it was so lovingly recorded in the Torah. Without all this detail, a major piece of ancient Israel would be lost for us; and when the time comes to re-build it, we would have no idea how to even begin.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYakhel, entitled: " The People's Mishkan" appears at

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYakhel, entitled: "The Cost of the Mishkan" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Pekudei "Raising the Cash" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYakhel entitled: "The Builders of the Mishkan" appears at

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Parshat Ki Tissa

The Other Golden Calves

This week's parsha sees the ultimate betrayal. Only a few months previously, God had brought Israel out of Egypt with tremendous miracles, culminating with the splitting of the Red Sea. Seven weeks later, God revealed Himself to the entire people and gave them the Ten Commandments. They began with the words: "I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt" (Shemot 20:1).

Yet, when Israel created the Golden Calf they proclaimed: "This is your god O Israel, who has brought you up from the land of Egypt" (ibid 32:4).

What is interesting is that Israel makes this very same proclamation just over 400 years later.

The northern tribes had just broken away from the rule of Rechavam, the Davidic king. Yeravam, the Northern Kingdom's newly crowned king, is worried that his secession would be short lived as his people's spiritual center continued to be Jerusalem. Therefore, he created his own spiritual centers: "The king took counsel and made two golden calves, and he said to them, saying, 'It is far for you to go up to Jerusalem; here are your gods, O Israel, that have brought you up from the land of Egypt'" (I Melachim 12:28).

Once cannot help but notice this parallel. For the second time in history, Israel has created golden calves and they make the same declaration about them being the gods who brought Israel out of Egypt. The Soncono commentary on Melachim asks whether it is possible that this formula was peculiar to calf-worship. However, surely these words would remind Israel of their previous apostasy and would teach them that these gods that Yeravam created were false and calamitous?

Perhaps however, these words were not actually said by Yeravam. What does this mean?

When the Tanach records conversations, it does not normally quote the exact words. Conversations were likely to be much longer, but the Torah just brings the summary, or the main points it wants us to learn. Indeed, the Daat Mikra commentary writes that only when the Torah uses the Hebrew word "לאמר" - "saying", is it giving an exact quote. Otherwise the, Torah just brings the main ideas.

Therefore, rather than asking why Yeravam said what he said, we should be asking why the author of Sefer Melachim quotes Yeravam as saying: "Here are your gods, O Israel, that have brought you up from the land of Egypt."

It is possible that Yeravam did not say those words. Indeed, he would have been very foolish to say so. However, the prophet wants us to realize that Yeravam understood that he was not merely making a political decision to stabilize his own rule. The prophet wants us to know that Yeravam and the people fully appreciated that he was turning Israel into apostates on the same degree as the Golden calf apostasy.

If the Prophet would have quoted Yeravam's actual words, we, the reader would not have understood that Yeravam and the people were making a huge apostasy. We would have thought that he was just making a political decision. However, by bringing the quote from our parsha, we, the reader, now understand that Yeravam was fully aware of the great evil that he was doing.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Ki Tissa, entitled: "The Golden Calf" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Ki Tissa, entitled: "Counting the People" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Tissa entitled: "Blood Money" appears at

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Parshat TeTsaveh

Moshe's Absence

This parsha is famed for being the only parsha from Parshat Shemot onwards, that does not contain Moshe's name.

Nevertheless, Moshe remains the central character. At the beginning of the parsha God says to him: "And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil…" (Shemot 27:20). The parsha then continues in this light with God commanding Moshe the different things he needs to do in order to prepare Aharon for the priesthood.

If this is the case, that Moshe is an important character in the parsha, the absence of his name is even more conspicuous.

There are three ways that the commentaries deal with this question. The most "popular" explanation is the one espoused by Rashi. Moshe was punished. This opinion is based on the idea that the command to build the Mishkan was given after Israel had sinned with the Golden Calf. In the aftermath of the sin, God tells Moshe that He intends to destroy Israel and rebuild it through Moshe.

Moshe responds that this is unacceptable. He says: "If You forgive their sin. But if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written" (ibid 32:32). God listens to Moshe and does not destroy Israel, and despite the fact that Moshe does the right thing, it was still inappropriate for Moshe to speak to God in this manner. Therefore, God does remove Moshe's name, not from the whole Torah, but from one parsha – our parsha.

While this explanation has a beautiful idea, i.e. Moshe's preparedness to sacrifice everything for Israel, it does not explain why this week's pasha was chosen. Therefore, we will attempt a second explanation.

This parsha is all about Aharon, Moshe's brother. Up until now, Aharon has always played second fiddle to Moshe. Indeed, earlier we saw "I have made you a lord over Pharaoh, and Aaron, your brother, will be your speaker" (ibid 7:1) – that Aharon was subservient to Moshe.

Suddenly, Aharon is being promoted ahead of Moshe. God does not want Moshe to feel jealous of Aharon, so He continuously stresses that "you must command him". God is pointing out that Aharon's priesthood is not coming from the people but from Moshe's authority. The people will accept Aharon's election, because Moshe is the one who is ordering it. This implies that Aharon remains subservient to Moshe.

This is an interesting explanation, however, we are later told "Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth" (Bemidbar 12:3). This explanation implies a lack of humility within Moshe.

Therefore, we can offer another similar explanation.

Rather than being jealous of Aharon, Moshe was proud of him. He did not want to take away from Aharon's special day. The Torah describes Moshe's humility and caution, by removing his name from this parsha, allowing Aharon to take center stage.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Tetsaveh, entitled: "The Ephod " appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Tetsaveh, entitled: "The Mizbeach HaKetoret – Part 2" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Tetsaveh entitled: "The Mizbeach HaKetoret " appears at

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