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, June 25, 2009

Parshat Chukat

Elazar's New Clothes

In this week's parsha God tells both Moshe and Aharon that they "will not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them" (Bemidbar 20:12).

Soon afterwards, Aharon dies on Mount Hor. However, immediately beforehand, God tells Moshe to "Strip Aaron of his garments and dress Elazar his son with them" (ibid 26).

There are other similar examples in the Bible of someone dressing another in his clothes.

When David volunteered to fight Goliath he was not a soldier and had no armor. Therefore King "Saul dressed David with his garments, and he placed a copper helmet on his head, and he dressed him with a coat of mail (I Shmuel 17:38). David however, was unaccustomed to the heaviness of the armor and so removed it as he thought it would hinder him in battle.

Another example is that Eliyahu (Elijah) the prophet. God had told him that his service was over and that he was to appoint Elisha to replace him. "He found Elisha, the son of Shafat, as he was plowing…and Elijah went over to him and threw his mantle over him" (I Melachim 19:19).

In all these cases, a second person is wearing the clothes of another. The meaning is clear. The person wearing the new clothes is inheriting the previous owner's role. In the case of David and Saul, we see that David was not yet ready to take over, but nevertheless, by Saul giving David his clothes was perhaps an unconscious symbolic act that David would eventually succeed him.

This issue was highly important in the ancient world. In today's world we all know what our leaders look like. With photographs, newspapers television and the electronic media, we can recognize them even when they are not in their officiating robes. Indeed, perhaps for this reason officiating robes are becoming less important.

However, in the ancient world, most people did not now what their leader or officials looked like. Therefore, the leaders and their representatives needed symbols that would affirm their authority in the eyes of the people

On the whole, the symbol that gave the person the authority was their robes. When an Israelite saw David in Saul's armor, he would have recognized him as the king as he would have recognized the official robes not the person wearing them.

Therefore, clothes in the ancient world were an important symbol of authority. Hence, when Moshe dresses Elazar in Aharon's clothes, all Israel would now recognize him as the High Priest and the inheritor of Aharon.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Chukat, entitled: "The Deadly Serpents" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Chukat, entitled: "How Red was the Red Heifer?" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Chukat, entitled: "The Red Heifer and Sefer Bemidbar" appears at

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Parshat Korach

Gouging Out the Eyes

In this week's parsha, Moshe faces a number of rebellions: From Korach and his fellow Levites; from 250 community leaders that want to be priests (some commentators suggest that they were first-borns who had lost the priesthood); from Datan and Aviram: and finally, from the people after the first three groups had been killed.

I want to focus on one part of Datan and Aviram's rebellion. Their cause is not the same as Korachs. They do not seek the priesthood, they simply want a new leader. They claim that Moshe's leadership has failed: "Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, that you should also exercise authority over us?" (Bemidbar 16:13).

Moshe was charged with taking Israel to the Promised Land. As a result of the Spies, that was to going to happen and so, in their eyes, Moshe had lost his right to lead. Therefore, unlike Korach and his followers who rebel against both Moshe and Aharon, Datan and Aviram rebel only against Moshe. This is also why there are two separate punishments. The seekers of priesthood are burnt by God's fire, while the seekers of new leadership are swallowed up by the ground.

Moshe tries to negotiate with datan and Aviram, but they respond: "Even if you gouge out the eyes of those men, we will not go up" (ibid 14).

At first glance, they are simply saying if Moshe tortures them they still won't lisen to him. However, if we examine other uses of this expression, we can see that there was a little more to what they were saying.

The first example is that of Shimshon (Samson). Sefer Shoftim describes how he had caused havoc amongst the Philistines. He was able to walk and sleep in their midst but they were powerless over him. However, after he is betrayed by Delilah, his Philistine lover, he becomes powerless. "The Philistines seized him, and gouged out his eyes" (Shoftim 16:21). They then out him to work and "and he did grind in the prison house" (ibid).

The second case is with the inhabitants of Yavesh Gilad, as described in Sefer Shmuel. Yvesh Gilad was an Israelite outpost on the east bank of the Jordan River, far from the main Israelite populace. They were under siege by Nachash, king of Ammon. They tried to negotiate a surrender. Nachash gave them his surrender terms: "On this (condition) will I make a treaty with you, by gouging out the right eye of every one of you" (I Shmuel 11:2).

In both these cases we see that in the ancient Near East, rebellious slaves had their eyes gouged out. By doing so, they show their complete and utter servitude to their new master.

Therefore Datan and Aviram show their total contempt to Moshe, saying that whatever he does, even if he gouges out their eyes forcing them to be subservient, they still will never be obedient to him and will never accept his authority.

Under these conditions we can that Moshe was extremely distressed and could not understand their response as he had never even "taken a donkey from a single one of them, and I have not harmed a single one of them" (Bemidbar 16:15).

He had never been an autocratic ruler, when hey showed their complete contempt he could not continue attempt any more negotiation but asked God for them to fail.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Korach, entitled: "One Mutiny or Two or Even Three?" appears

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Korach, entitled: "The Innocent and the Guilty" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Korach, entitled: "Aharon’s Blossoming Rod" appears at

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Parshat Shelach

Biblical Conversation

In the haftara of this week's parsha, Yehoshua sends spies to Jericho. We have discussed previously why Moshe's spies failed in their mission while Yehoshua's spies were successful (see link at the end of this blog).

Yehoshua's spies knew they would be successful when Rahav, the Canaanite woman who protected them declared: "Your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away because of you" (Yehoshua 2:9).

This English translation unfortunately does not capture the brevity and the beauty of the words she used: "וְכִי נָפְלָה אֵימַתְכֶם עָלֵינוּ וְכִי נָמֹגוּ כָּל יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ מִפְּנֵיכֶם".

What is amazing about these words is that they are poetry, not words used in prose, certainly not by a harlot and certainly not by a non-Hebrew speaker.

Furthermore, these words are actually a minor reworking of the "Song at Sea" that Israel sang when they left Egypt (see Shemot 15:16). Could Rahav really have known the song and then repeated it to them?

Maybe, but it is very unlikely. Their conversation probably took place in a Canaanite dialect and not Hebrew (see Bereshit 42:23, where Yospeh and his brothers are speaking to each other via an interpreter, with Yoseph speaking in ancient Egyptian).

Therefore, was the Bible being honest when it quoted Rahav?

It is obvious that the Torah does not bring the characters' conversations in their entirety. Dialogue must have included greetings, protocol statements and possibly even small talk. The Torah is not interested in all this. It has a message it wants to teach and so it brings a summary of the conversation.

Indeed, the Daat Mikra explains that only when the Torah uses the word: "לאמר" – "the following" is an actual quote being recorded.

Nevertheless, the Bible is still being honest when it quoted Rahav. She probably said something about how scared the whole country was. However, when the spies heard her, they were reminded of the Song at Sea. The author of Sefer Yehoshua wants us, the reader, to understand the impact that Rahav's words had the spies.

We would have missed this point had a plain translation of Rahav's words been recorded. Therefore, the author replaced those words with replicated poetry from the Song at Sea, so that we should understand the impact that Rahav's words had on the spies.

Therefore, even though the quote might not be accurate, it is truthful.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Shelach, entitled: "The Giants and the Nephilim – Who were They and Where are They Now?" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Shelach, entitled: "The Spies" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Shelach, entitled: "The Spies, Challa and Tzitzit" appears at

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Parshat Behalotecha

The Prophecy of Moshe

Towards the end of this week's parsha, Miriam and Aharon seem to be jealous of Moshe's special status. Miriam complains: "Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn't He spoken to us too?" (Bemidbar 12:2)

God explains to them that Moshe's prophecy was unique amongst prophets: "If there be prophets among you, the Lord will make Myself known to him in a vision; I will speak to him in a dream not so is My servant Moshe …With him I speak mouth to mouth; in a vision and not in riddles (ibid 6-8).

These pesukim give us an interesting insight into prophecy. God did not speak to the prophets directly. He appeared in visions, dreams and riddles.

We see this very clearly with Yaakov, when he dreamt about the ladder going up to the heavens with the angels descending an ascending. This was also the case with Yoseph and his dreams. It seems that even Avraham saw many of his prophecies in dreams. For example, immediately after being told to offer up his son, the passuk writes: "Avraham arose early in the morning" (Bereshit 22:3). This implies that Avraham received the message in a dream. This was also certainly the case with Bilam.

Isaiah speaks of his vision, Ezekiel describes a strange tempest, a creature with four heads and tries to decipher it, while Jeremiah speaks of how the word came to him.

All this implies that the prophets needed to interpret their dreams. Indeed, we know that Yoseph interpreted his own dreams incorrectly. Gideon was so uncertain as to his messages that he kept on giving God tests to see if they were for real.

Different prophets had different levels of clarity and different skills of interpretation.

This was not the case with Moshe. God spoke to him face to face. His message was clear and unambiguous. Indeed, he is the only prophet (with specific exceptions) that the Torah uses the word "daber" – "speak", when God spoke with them. The best other prophets got was the word "emor" – "say.

Therefore not only was Miriam criticism out of place, it was totally wrong.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Beha'alotecha, entitled: "Moshe's Response to the Complaints" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Beha'alotecha, entitled: "Moshe's Leadership" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Beha'alotecha, entitled: "The Incident at Tav'era" appears at

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