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, August 27, 2009

Parshat Ki Tetzeh

Defending the Indefensible

This week's parsha has many actions that are forbidden on moral grounds. We have discussed two of them in previous Sedra Shorts (see The Beautiful captive Woman and The Stubborn and Rebellious Son, below).

This week I would like to discuss the following three cases:

  • If a man has two sons from two different wives, he may not give the younger one the first-born rights, even though he may be the first-born of the favorite wife.
  • Girls may not be used in religious prostitution ceremonies (kedesha).
  • A person should marry wife of a deceased brother if she had no children (yibum).

I bring these three cases because we see Biblical heroes of the Jewish people actually doing these things.

Firstly, Yaakov had two main wives: Rachel and Leah. He loved Rachel while Leah was hated (See Bereshit 29:31). Leah was the first to give birth (Reuven). Rachel eventually had Yoseph. So while Yoseph was the first-born for Rachel, Reuven was Yaakov's first born.

Yet, Reuven did not receive the double portion of tribes that he should have inherited. Shortly before his death, Yaakov took Yoseph's two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, and said: "they are my sons" (ibid 48:8). Essentially, Yoseph became two tribes. He was given the rights of the first born and Reuven was disinherited.

A number of years earlier, we see Yehuda, the father of the tribe that brought Israel its kings, violating the rules of yibum. Two of his sons, Er and Onan died childless. According to the laws of yibum, Tamar, their wife, should have married his third son, Shela. However, Yehuda refused this relationship (See ibid 38:11)

This led to a violation of the third law. In order to induce a child, Tamar dressed herself up as holy prostitute and tempted Yehuda to be intimate with her (ibid 21).

How do we handle these violations of basic moral laws by our heroes? The same way the Bible does.

The Torah does not shy away from difficult decisions our ancestors took – whether it was the ones we just mentioned or Avraham calling Sarah his sister to protect himself, or whether it is King David's adultery and his committing of murder.

We accept that our heroes were human with human failings who sometimes made major mistakes. They were not angels or demi-gods who were flawless. Indeed they achieved greatness despite their flaws – that is what makes them great.

This message is a comforting message for us. We all are human. We all have weaknesses. We all make mistakes. Despite this, we can overcome this and we can achieve greatness.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Ki Tetseh entitled: "The Beautiful Captive Woman" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Ki Tetseh entitled: "The Stubborn and Rebellious Son" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Ki Tetseh entitled: "The Impaled Criminal" appears at

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Parshat Shoftim

The King: A Biblical Argument

We have discussed in previous Sedra Shorts whether having a king, as brought in this week’s parsha, is an ideal (see below). This week we will see that this discussion was an ancient one, going as far back as the prophets.

Sefer Shoftm (Judges) teaches about the biblical era before Israel was governed by kings. While a quick survey of that period seems to suggest that it was dark and difficult, a more close reading will show that that the long periods of peace and quiet far outnumbered those of despair. The author of Sefer Shoftim does not dwell on the peaceful periods as it does not fit in with his aims. Yet, Israel’s tranquil lifestyle during the rule of the Judges, as recounted in the Book of Ruth, highlights the quiet of the period.

What is interesting is that throughout the book, Sefer Shoftim follows a cycle. Israel sins. This leads to a nation conquering them. This leads to Israel repenting which in turn leads to a judge (another name for a leader) saving them (See Shoftim 2:11-19). The cycle then begins again.

The prophet suggests that Israel’s difficulties and success has nothing to do with the lack of a strong leader, i.e., a king. It is all down to their loyalty to God. If Israel was loyal to God, the people flourished, however, if they were unfaithful, they suffered. Indeed, that is the main message of Sefer Shoftim.

However, Sefer Shoftim contains five chapters at the end of the book which give a different picture. There the statement: “It came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel, each man did what was right in his own eyes”, appears a number of times. The author is stressing that these terrible events occurred simply because Israel had no king and the people were therefore, lawless. The suggestion is clear: Israel needs a king.

How do we reconcile this contradiction within one book?

The final chapters of Sefer Shoftim do not fit in with the general style of the book. The first 16 chapters all focus on the different judges who ruled Israel in the pre-monarchial era. The last five chapters do not fit in with this style. They are simply two terrible stories that occurred in that time period.

Many modern scholars suggest that these two sections were written by different authors, but that since they dealt with the same era they were put together into one book, the final chapters acting as an appendix to the main part.

On the same line, we can suggest that the Rabbis combined these books to act as a debate into the benefits and the drawbacks of the monarchy. The first section arguing that Israel does not need a king; all it needs is to be loyal to God. While the second part argues that Israel needs a king for without a strong leader, everyone will do what is fitting in their eyes, leading to unfaithfulness to God.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Shoftim entiled: "Why Not a King Now?" appears at

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Shoftim entiled: "The King and Sha'ul" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Shoftim entiled: "The King" appears at

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Parshat Re'ay

The Power of the Curse

Moshe begins this week's parsha by telling Israel that they have choice: "a blessing or a curse". "You shall place those blessing upon Mount Gerizim, and those cursing upon Mount Eval" (Devarim 11:29).

This ceremony is not performed until Israel crosses over the Jordan, as described in Yehoshua chapter 8.

The concept of a curse is strange concept for the modern world. However, the ancient world believed that the spoken word took on a power of its own, and curses therefore, could wreak havoc.

We can see this concept from a strange story that appears towards the end of Sefer Shoftim. A young man from the Ephraim hill country, called Michayahu, stole eleven hundred silver pieces from his mother. His mother, not knowing that her son was the thief, put a curse on him. This shocks him into confession: "Behold the silver is with me, I took it (Shoftim 17:2)."

His mother immediately responds: "Blessed be my son to the Lord." Learning this as a child, I wasn't sure what to make of this response. However, if we put ourselves into her mindset, we can understand that the power of her curse frightened her now that she realized that it would be utilized against her son. She could not cancel the curse as it already existed. Her only option was to counteract it, by immediately blessing him.

This mindset can also help us understand the son. He had no problem stealing, not even from his own mother, but it was the fear of the curse that made him retract.

The story continues. Michayahu' s mother decides to dedicate the money to God and to build a shrine to him: "I have dedicated the silver before the Lord from my hand for my son to make a graven image and a molten one" (ibid 3).

Once again, they were still frightened of the curse and so they dedicate it to God in order to counteract it.

He then employs a wandering Levite to act as his priest, and his house becomes a place of worship to the local populace. "Micah said, 'Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, because I had a Levite as my priest (ibid 13).'"

Micha's success makes him think that the curse had been lifted. However, note that the author has changed his name from Michayahu to Micha. The removal of God's name is a stunning criticism by the author…and the story ends with Micha being betrayed.

While we must be careful with our words, God's law is not a system of superstition and incantation, it is our actions that count, and no amount of prayer can counteract our lot if we are morally repugnant. Moshe teaches us that we have to chosse blessing, not a prayer, but a way of life.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Re'ay entiled: " The Empty-Handed Slave" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Re'ay entiled: " Doing the What Seems Right " appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Ekev entiled: " The Place " appears at

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Parshat Ekev

My Strength and the Might of My Hand

In this week's parsha, Moshe continues his penultimate address to Israel before his death. He encourages Israel not to be daunted by the difficult task of conquest. The God that brought them out of Egypt "The Lord, your God, will deliver them to you, and He will confound them with great confusion, until they are destroyed" (Devarim 7:23).

Moshe then warns Israel not to think that all their success is due to their strength and bravery.

We often consider that the ancient world was a time of miracles – that our ancestors had undeniable evidence to God's existence. Moshe's words, however, show that the ancient world was not that much different to the world we live in today.

We will examine this issue by examining an example of when God "confused" the enemy, the same verb that that Moshe used to encourage Israel not be frightened of its enemies.

Shamgar an early Israelite leader, fought his enemy with ox-goads, an agricultural tool (Shoftim 3:31). In that era, Israel did not have a proper army or weaponry and had to rely on the people, generally farmers, to volunteer for the cause. When they came they had to bing their own weapons, i.e. their work tools. Nevertheless, he succeeded. However, one generation later, when Sisera persecuted Israel with the 900 war-chariots he had at his disposal, Israel folded. "Caravans ceased, and travelers walked on crooked paths" (ibid 5:6). The country could not defend itself against mighty onslaught.

So Devorah, the new judge, developed a cunning plan. She tells Barak to "Go and draw towards Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men" (ibid 4:6). She aimed to neutralize Sisera's weapons advantage by fighting in the mountains. Sisera's chariots would be useless in the mountainous region, making the fight more even. She also moved other troops further south to stop Canaanite reinforcements from reaching Sisera (see ibid 5:19).

Everything was set for an even fight. But when the moment of battle came: "The Lord confused Sisera and all the chariots and all of the camp with the edge of the sword before Barak; and Sisera alighted from his chariot, and fled on foot" (ibid 4:15). Chapter 4 of Shoftim says nothing else about the actual battle.

So what was the point of all the preparations that Devorah made? If God was simply going to "confuse" the enemy with the edge of sword why did they have to bother?

If we examine the story with a more careful eye, particularly the victory song (Chapter 5) that Devorah and Barak saing, we can find out what God "confusing" the actual enemy.

Devorah deliberately chose Mount Tavor as the only way for Sisera to get to her was through Nachal (wadi) Kishon. Once Sisrea got there, it rained. "Lord… when You marched out … the earth trembled, the heavens also dripped; also the clouds dripped water. The mountains meltedFrom heaven they fought; the stars from their courses fought against Sisera. The wadi Kishon swept them away" (ibid 5:4-20).

Wadi Kishon became a flash flood sweeping many enemy soldiers away. Those that survived found their war-chariots immobilized by the wet soil. Indeed Sisera was forced to flee on foot – his horse and chariot were useless.

This was God "confusing" the enemy.

Those warriors had a choice in deciphering their victory. They could have said that Devorah had a great tactical plan, that she chose the right season to strike and that Sisera fell into her trap – perhaps she also had a bit of luck. "My power and my strength has brought us this valor" (Devarim 11:18).

Alternatively, they could have said that Devorah's planning and their struggle went hand in hand with God's help. They saw God's role in the victory in the way things panned out. They had to choose to see the miracle.

Interestingly, there was no third group who believed that God does everything – that we can rely on Him and that we do not have to do anything.

The ancient world was only a world of miracles and Godliness to those who chose to see it that way. Our world is like that too.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Ekev entiled: "The Mountainous Country" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Ekev entiled: "The Two Arks" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Ekev entiled: "Shema 1 and Shema 2" appears at

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