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, May 21, 2009


Bemidbar and the missing Thirty-Eight years

This week we begin reading Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers. All the Hebrew names of the books of the Torah come from an original word that appears in the first or second passuk of the book and do not necessarily have anything to do with the theme of the book. Eg. The name Shemot, the second Book of the Torah (i.e. Exodus), has nothing to do with theme of the book.

While we are not sure when the books of the Pentateuch received the names we use today, it is clear that the Rabbis had different names for them. The Rabbis call Bereshit, Sefer HaYetsira (Genesis), Shemot is Sefer HaGeula (Exodus), VaYikra is Torat Kohanim (Leviticus), Bemidbar is Sefer HePekudim (Numbers or Musterings), while Devarim is Mishneh Torah (Deuteronomy).

As is demonstrated, the Greek names are for more loyal to the ancient rabbinical names than the present names we use for them.

Nevertheless, Bemidbar is good name for the book, as it describes Israel's forty year sojourn in the wilderness; or at first glance it does. However if we examine the events of Bemidbar we will see that it only covers a small portion of those years. Indeed, chapters 1-18 discuss events that occurred in the first two years after the Exodus, while Chapters 20-36 discuss events that occurred in the fortieth year (Chapter 19 is about the Red Heifer – it is timeless - we discussed once why it belongs here - see

Therefore, Sefer Bemidbar discusses very little about Israel's wandering in the wilderness. What happened during the missing thirty-eight years? Why are not told anything about them

Bemidbar is disappointing book in that it describes Israel's repeated rebellions and failures. The impression we get is that the wilderness period was a negative period. However, the Prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) informs us that that impression could not be further from the truth: "So said the Lord: I remember to you the loving kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, your following Me in the desert, in a land not sown" (Yirmyahu 2:3). The wilderness years were generally joyful and loyal.

So again, why is all this missing?

In order to answer this question we must first ask ourselves what is the purpose of Sefer Bemidbar. What message is it trying to teach?

Sefer Bemidbar is not a history book, the episodes we are told were carefully selected in order to teach us a message. It does not teach us how we spent the forty years in the wilderness, but why we spent forty years in the wilderness.

Therefore, the episodes it recounts are all based around that message. It begins by teaching us about the recruiting of an army, the military encampments and the preparations for conquest. The final stage of preparation, the sending of the spies, ends in failure and Israel is forced to start again and spend forty years in the wilderness. The Torah then describes Israel's immediate reaction to the forty year decree, before skipping to the fortieth to describe how Israel was finally ready and reached the borders of the Promised Land.

Therefore, the forty years were mostly a positive period for Israel. Sefer Bemidbar does not describe those events, because it does not fit in with its overall message.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Bemidbar, entitled: "Counting the Levi'im" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Bemidbar, entitled: "The Levites" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Bemidbar entitled: "Re’uel or De’uel?" appears at

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

Valuing the Individual

Sefer VaYikra ends on a very strange note. The whole book deals with attaining levels of holiness and what to do in cases of impurity.

The penultimate chapter then discusses the tochecha: The rewards Israel would receive should it be worthy and attain those levels of holiness, as well as the detailed terrible consequences Israel would be subjected to, should it fail.

Then suddenly in the final chapter we are told: "When a man expresses a vow, [pledging the] value of lives to the Lord, the [fixed] value of a male shall be as follows: From twenty years old until sixty years old, the value is fifty silver shekels, according to the holy shekel…" (VaYikra 27:2-3).

Essentially, if a person pledges a person to God, he must sacrifice the value of that person. The Torah goes on price humans, dependent upon their sex and age group.

What a strange way to end Sefer VaYikra!! What is going on?

Rabbi Menachem Liebtag suggests that the since Sefer VaYikra, and especially the tochecha, focuses on the holiness of Israel, the Torah then wanted to stress the value of the individual, that one must never forget that while the group is important, each individual is in themselves a whole world.

I would like to offer an alternative suggestion.

Sefer VaYikra discusses how individuals can move closer to God through sacrifice. The ancient world believed that the more valuable the sacrifice, the greater is the offering to God. Therefore, the ultimate sacrifice one could make to God, to show that you truly value Him above all else, was the sacrifice of another person, especially one's children.

Certainly, Avraham had no hesitation offering his son, Yitschak, up to God, and Yiftach (Jephte) also "did to her (his daughter) his vow which he had vowed" (Shoftim 11:39). Solomon also built an altar for Molech, the god of child sacrifice (See I Melachim 11:7). Indeed, one of the reasons that God destroyed the Kingdom of Israel was because they: "they passed their sons and daughters through fire" (II Melachim 17:17). Furthermore, the Prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) berates Yehuda (the Kingdom of Judah) for: "they have built the high places of Topheth which are in the valley of Ben- Hinnom, to burn their sons and daughters with fire, which I did not ordain, neither did it enter My mind (Yirmiahu 7:31).

While we have discussed before whether Molech worship was actually sacrificing the children, or just passing them through fire (see, nevertheless, the fact that the Yirmiyahu, who uses the actual word "burn" says: "which I did not ordain, neither did it enter My mind", implies that many in Israel actually thought that child-sacrifice was what God actually wanted and was the greatest expression of devotion to Him.

The end of this week's parsha, as does the binding of Yitschak, teaches us that in no account does God want any form of human sacrifice. If someone pledges a person, they can only sacrifice the value of that person. Human beings are not, on any account, to be sacrificed to God.

This is a message that the civilized world has now accepted.

Nevertheless, today there are still people willing to sacrifice themselves for their god and the lure of paradise. Therefore, it is totally fitting that VaYikra, the Biblical book that is solely devoted to human holiness, to end on the note that humans are precious and must never be sacrificed to God.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Bechukotai entiled: "Taming the Wild" appears at

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Behar entiled: " Jubilee and Freedom" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Behar-Bechukotai entiled: "The Blessing and the Curse" appears at

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Behar-Bechukotai entiled: "Shemitta and VaYikra" appears at

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Parshat Emor

The Festivals

Sefer VaYikra deals with aspects of Jewish law from the vantage point of holy or unholy and clean or unclean. And so, when the festivals are taught in this week's parsha, it begins by calling them "mikraei kodesh" – "holy occasions".

The instructions begin with the introduction: "Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: The Lord's appointed [holy days] that you shall designate as holy occasions. These are My appointed [holy days]:…" (VaYikra 23:2).

The Torah then lists all the holy occasions, beginning with Shabbat, then Pesach, followed by the Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and finally Sukkot.

Then the Torah summarizes: "These are God's appointed [holy days] that you shall designate them as holy occasions, [on which] to offer up a fire offering to the Lord… (ibid 37).

One would expect the Torah to then move onto the next subject. But it doesn't. It starts again to teach us about Sukkot, again! "But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of the Lord for a seven day period; the first day shall be a rest day, and the eighth day shall be a rest day…" (ibid 39).

Once, the Torah completes its second account of Sukkot, it then describes Moshe's execution of the task: "Moses told the children of Israel [these laws] of the Lord's appointed [holy days]" (ibid 44).

What's going on? Did the Torah forget something about Sukkot that it needed to add, or is something else going on?

There are two types of Biblical festivals: the Pilgrimage Festivals (Shalosh Regalim or Hag) and the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim).

Sukkot belongs to both. Sukkot closes the series of pilgrimage festivals: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, and it also closes the Days of Awe series: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

Sukkot, therefore has a dual identity. It has the complete joy of the pilgrimage festivals, and yet has the fear of judgment. Indeed, in modern day Jewish practice, Sukkot fulfils both these requirements: We have the commandment of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and yet we do the "hoshana" ceremony and prayer and prayers for rain, as if it were a day of judgment.

For that reason Sukkot appears twice. Indeed the commandments associated with pilgrimage appear in the first account of Sukkot, while the commandments associated with judgment appar in the second account.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Emor, entitled: "Priestly Defects" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Emor, entitled: "Say it with love" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Emor, entitled: "The Tale of the Blasphemer" appears at

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