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.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sefer Yonah

The Quest for Mercy over Justice

On Yom Kippur, we read the Book of Jonah. This short book is a gripping struggle between the prophet and God over the extent of God's nature.

To begin with God gives Yonah a mission: "Go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim against it, for their evil has come before Me" (Yonah 1:2).

Basically, Yonah has to persuade the people of Nineveh to repent or they will be doomed, Yonah refuses to carry out his orders. He is against the mission. He wants Nineveh to be doomed; and so, he flees to Tarshsih, the opposite direction of Nineveh.

But God has not given up on Yonah. He sends him a message by casting a "mighty wind into the sea" (ibid 4) so that the ship cannot get to Tarshish.

Yonah sees this storm but continues his fight with God by going "down to the ship's hold, lay down, and fell fast asleep" (ibid 5). He believes that the storm will not affect him if he is in a deep sleep.

So God sends the captain to wake him (note how Yonah was in "yarketei hasefina" – the edge of the boat – a place he did not expect to be found). The captain tells Yonah to pray to his god, but he refuses. He will not surrender in his fight with God.

The sailors cast many lots to discover who is responsible for the storm. Each lot falls on Yonah – another clear message to him. Yet, Yonah still does not surrender. "Pick me up and cast me into the sea" (ibid 12). Yonah would rather die than follow God's instructions. It is the ultimate rebellion.

Even once Yonah is released from the fish, he still does not obey his command. God has to command him again. At that point, Yonah surrenders begrudgingly. He does the minimum he needs to do: "In another forty days Nineveh shall be overturned!" (ibid 3:4). He doesn't even tell them to repent!!

As soon as he has finished, he goes out of the city and "made himself a hut and sat under it in the shade until he would see what would happen in the city" (ibid 4:5). He does not know that God has forgiven Nineveh. He wants to see if Nineveh will yet be destroyed. In fact, he is hoping it will be.

Why? What is Yonah's problem?

Yonah himself answers this question, but in order to help us understand his answer, we need to look at another mission he once had.

In Sefer Melachim, we see that Yonah is ministering to King Yeravam II of Israel. Yeravam was an evil king who was successful. "He restored the boundary of Israel from the approach to Hamath until the sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel which He spoke through his servant Jonah the son of Amittai the prophet...For the Lord saw the affliction of Israel becoming increasingly severe, with neither stored property nor free property, and no one to help Israel. And the Lord did not speak to eradicate the name of Israel from under the heavens, and He saved them through Jeroboam the son of Joash. (II Melachim 25-27)

Essentially, even though Israel was evil, God still had mercy on them. The result: they continued to be evil.

Yonah had already seen evil rewarded. He wasn't prepared to see it again. "This is the reason I had hastened to flee to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, with much kindness, and relenting of evil (Yonahh 4:20).

Yonah knew that God was merciful and would therefore, forgive Nineveh. He did not want that to happen, because the people needed to learn their lesson. In Yonah's eyes, God is a sucker who always ends up forgiving. Yonah wants God to be just, to give Nineveh what they really deserve, and then people would be faithful to Him.

Notice that when Yonah lists God's traits, he misses out one: Emmet – truth or justice. In Yonah's eyes, God is not just. He is merciful. If God was just, He would give Nineveh what they deserve. Indeed, Yonah is "ben Amittai", a person of justice.

In the end, Yonah gives up on God: "take now my soul from me, for my death is better than my life" (ibid 3). Yonah would rather die than live in this unjust world.

But God still had not given up on Yonah. He tries to teach Yonah him by sending him the kikayon, the fast growing plant that gave shade and relief from the heat. God then sends the worm that attacks the kikayon's roots, causing it to wither. God explains to Yonah that just as Yonah cared for the kikayon, that he did not work for and existed for just one day, how much more so does God care for Nineveh a city of more than one hundred and twenty thousand people.

In the fight between Justice and Mercy, God always wants mercy to succeed. We just have to show Him that we are worthy of that mercy.

That's Sefer Yonah's message for Yom Kippur.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech

The Truth That is Israel

After all the trials and tribulations of last week's parsha, this week's parsha promises the Jewish people redemption:

"The Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you" (Devarim 30:3)

As someone who was brought up as and remains an orthodox Jew, I was taught from a very young age that the Torah, the five Books of Moses, were the direct word of God, dictated by God to Moshe during the forty years that Israel through the wilderness.

As a student of Bible, I can see many textual problems with this theology, some of which we have discussed in previous Sedra Shorts. These issues can be very challenging for the believing Jew.

Nevertheless, all those issues are resolved by the pesukim we have just quoted. The impossible has happened. After 2,000 years of forced exile, the Jewish people have returned to their land. Indeed, after only 61 years since the birth of the Jewish state, more Jews now live there than in any other country.

Together with this unparalleled event, Hebrew, a language that had remained dormant for an even longer period than the exile, has been reborn as a modern spoken language.

I cannot resolve all the textual analysis that casts doubt on the concept of Torat Moshe MiSinai, but I can say that those words show that even though God sometimes "hides His face" (ibid 31:17), the Torah made an incredible and highly improbable prediction that has come true.

Nonetheless, many don't see God's hand in the return of the Jewish people to their land. Indeed, much of this return is due to the hard work of many individuals.

This issue can be resolved by another passuk in this week's parsha.

God tells Moshe that he will not cross over the Jordan into Canaan. Yehoshua will take over from him and lead the people into the Promised Land:

"The Lord, your God He will cross before you; He will destroy these nations from before you so that you will possess them. Joshua he will cross before you" (31:3).

The passuk begins by saying that God will cross over into the land before Israel yet ends with the fact that Yehoshua will actually be doing that..

There is no contradiction here. Yehoshua was God's agent on earth. The people did not see a presence of God fighting for them. They saw Yehoshua. Yet, God was there. It was for the people to see that Yehoshua's success came because God was with him. In the Bible, God doing something and people doing something are almost always he same thing; because people are God's agents on earth.

So too, the individuals who made (and still make) a superhuman effort to help bring home Jews from the four corners of the earth can be seen as being the agents of God. That does not mean that they do not deserve the credit for their efforts, but it does mean, that if we look carefully at the workings of the world, we can see God's hand in action.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Nitzavim entitled "Not In Heaven" appears at

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYelech entitled "The Lantern Shines On" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Nitsavim-VaYelech, entitled: "Alone in a Crowd" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Nitsavim-VaYelech entiled: "The Hidden" appears at

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

Parshat Ki Tavo

Feeding the Dead

The beginning of this week's parsha deals with the bringing of the Bikkurim, the first fruits, to the Temple.

The Bikkurim were holy products and like all sacrifices, they would be illegible if they became defiled. Therefore, the Israelite farmer who brought the Bikkurim, had to make a declaration that the fruits were acceptable.

Part of the statement that he had to make included: "I did not eat any of it [second tithe] while in my mourning, nor did I consume any of it while unclean; neither did I not give of it to the dead. I obeyed the Lord, my God" (Devarim 26:14).

Most of the statement makes sense, but it is hard to understand the concept of not giving of it to the dead.

Modern scholars argue that this practice was a throwback from Israel's sojourn in Egypt. Egypt's religion was obsessed with death. Kings and important officials spent their entire lives preparing for their death. They built splendid tombs that contained all that they would need in their after-life, including their slaves and wealth. They also provided with food.

The ancient world believed that the living could assist the spirits of the dead on their journey if they provided them with food. Therefore, it is claimed that the Israelites would make holes in tombs and would regularly lower food down into them. They would then re-use the food later.

This food is defiled and even though it amy be consumed, it is illegible for holy use.

Some modern scholars even claim that these foods were used as sacrifices to the dead.

However, Judaism vehemently opposes the cult of the dead. Indeed, the dead are considered to be defiled and as we saw in the declaration, even a mourner's food is ineligible for God.

Therefore, the classical Jewish commentators, such as Rashi and Sephorno, argue that this produce was used in the burial of the dead, perhaps to provide clothing for the dead or as wreath on a coffin.

Judaism is a religion of life – and sees no glory in death. Death is the height of defilement. Whilst there are times that we must sacrifice ourselves for a greater cause, these occasions are few and far between. We do not train our children to martyr themselves nor do we promise them glorious rewards for giving up their lives. On the contrary, we do our outmost to protect them and ensure that they survive.

We believe in life. This is our strength and this is why the Jewish people still live.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Ki Tavo entiled: "The Mountain of Curse", appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Ki Tavo entiled: "The Return to Egypt", appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Ki Tavo entiled: "The Tochecha", appears at

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