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, November 27, 2009

Parshat VaYetzeh

There are four Sedra Shorts on Parshat VaYetseh. Scroll down for each Dvar Torah:

Yaakov's Many Wives

Yaakov and Lavan's Working Relationship

Yaakov's Guilt

The Dust of the Earth

Yaakov's Many Wives

In this week's parsha, Yaakov Avinu, marries two sisters, Rachel and Leah. He then takes their maidservants, Bilha and Zilpa, as concubines. It is possible that they, in particular Bilha, also became his wives at a later stage.

Yaakov was not the only one of our forefathers who had more than one wife. Avraham himself married not only Sarah, but also Hagar and Keturah. In fact, Yitschak was the only one of the Patriarchs to have one wife.

It is however, interesting, that polygamy does not seem to be the natural Biblical ideal. To begin with when God created Man, He said: "It is not good that man is alone" (Bereshit 2:18) and so He creates a partner for him. After having created a soul-mate for him, the Torah states: "a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (ibid 24). Adam and Eave are the archetype human beings and their relationship is totally monogamous and complete when they found each other.

Indeed, the Rabbis even suggest that the original human being was a hermaphrodite, that God split them and therefore, when they found each other, they were actually finding themselves.

Furthermore, if we examine the Biblical examples when a man had more than one wife, we will find cases of suffering and strife.

The first person to have more than one wife was Lemech: "Lemech took himself two wives; one was named Adah, and the other was named Zillah…'incline your ears to my words, for I have slain a man by wounding (him) and a child by bruising (him)'" (ibid 3:23). While we cannot attribute Lemech's murderous actions directly to the fact that he had one wife, the Torah does imply that in Lemech's time, humanity took a turn for the worse.

The next person who had more than one wife was Avraham: "Sarai said to Avram, 'Behold now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing; please come to my handmaid'" ibid 16:2). Sarah makes an ultimate sacrifice. She knew her husband was promised an heir, however, she did not know that she was to be the mother. So after years of childlessness, she gave Avram the opportunity of having that child. However, it turned out that it was a challenge she found impossible to cope with: "Sarai said to Avram, 'May my injustice be upon you! I gave my handmaid into your bosom…and I became unimportant in her eyes. May the Lord judge between me and you'" (ibid 5).

Indeed, Avram is eventually forced to send his son Yishmael away as Sarah was concerned about him impeaching Yitschak's inheritance. Avraham is even forced to send away his other sons from Keturah, in order to protect Yitschak: "To the sons of Abraham's concubines, Abraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from his son Isaac while he [Abraham] was still alive" (ibid 25.

Rachel and Leah, both of Yaakov's wives, also did not get on, even though they were sisters. Indeed "The Lord saw that Leah was hated" (ibid 29:31). Leah felt hated and second best. Rachel herself is so jealous of her sister's childbearing that she's prepared to give Bilha to Yaakov. Leah promptly follows suit and gives him Zilpa. The episode with the dudaim, the mandrakes that Reuven had gathered for Leah, also shows the tenseness and deep jealousy of their relationship.

It is therefore, no surprise that this mutual jealousy was transferred to their sons with Yoseph, eventually being sold into slavery by his half-brothers.

The relationship between Hannah and Penina, the wives of Elkana, was also hostile: "Her rival (Penina) would frequently anger her (Hanna), in order to make her complain" (I Shmuel 1:6).

Certainly Adoniah and Shlomo, two sons of David from different wives, did not get on and were rivals for the throne. Adoniah plots against Shlomo who has him executed (see I Kings 3:13-25).

Shlomo himself had many wives: "He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned away his heart.It was at the time of Solomon's old age, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not whole with the Lord" (ibid 11:3-4).

Every single case that the Torah reports of a man having more than one wife led to problems.

It is therefore, clear, especially if we consider Adam and Eve's harmony in the Garden of Eden, that while the Torah tolerated the concept of polygamy, it seems to consider monogamy to be the ideal.

Yaakov and Lavan's Working Relationship

When Lavan first met Yaakov, he embraced him, welcomed him into his house and declared: "Indeed, you are my bone and my flesh" (Bereshit 29:14), signifying a warm relationship.

However, it's very clear that Lavan often chose his words carefully, allowing them to be understood in a number of ways, so that he could take advantage of the situation. A prime example occurs after Yaakov has been with Lavan for a month. Lavan says:

הֲכִי אָחִי אַתָּה וַעֲבַדְתַּנִי חִנָּם הַגִּידָה לִּי מַה מַּשְׂכֻּרְתֶּךָ

There are two ways to translate and understand this passuk (ibid 15):

"Because you are my kinsman, should you work for me for free? Tell me what your wages shall be."

This translation implies that up until now Yaakov had been working for Lavan without pay. This put him on the level of a slave who does not get paid, but lives on the meals provided for him in return for his labor. Lavan seems to be saying to Yaakov that as he is family, he should be paid. Sounds good.

However, there is another way to understand the passuk:

"Are you my kinsman that you should work for me for free? Tell me what your wages shall be."

Slaves are not the only people that do not get paid a wage; the family members also do not get regular pay. They share a portion of the profits. Note that previously Yaakov had "stayed with him a full month" (ibid 14). Lavan, it appears, is therefore angry with Yaakov and is saying to him that he is not a clansman who does not have to pull his weight and yet share the profits. Lavan tells Yaakov that from now on he is a mere hired hand who must work hard to earn his keep.

Indeed, it is clear that Yaakov is considered to be a slave, for when his second set of seven years is over, Yaakov asks Lavan: "Send me away, and I will go to my place and to my land" (ibid 30:25).

Yaakov asks to be sent away – this an expression of being released from servitude. Furthermore, Yaakov also says: "Give [me] my wives and my children for whom I worked for you, and I will go, for you know my work, which I have worked for you" (ibid 26). A master has the right to keep the wives and children of a slave when he sets the salve free. Yaakov is therefore saying that he is not a slave for he worked for his wives – but the underlying theme is that he is treated as a slave.

Indeed, once Yaakov flees, in a further sign that he was not a free man, he explains to Lavan: "Because I was afraid, because I said, 'Lest you steal your daughters from me" (ibid 31:31). Yaakov is afraid that Lavan will insist on keeping his wives and children.

Lavan even says this implicitly claiming that by secretly fleeing Yakkov had: "led away my daughters like prisoners of war" (ibid 26). Lavan even claims that he has: "the power to inflict harm upon you" (ibid 29), i.e. the legal right to punish Yaakov for fleeing.
However, by this time Yaakov has had enough: "What is my transgression? What is my sin, that you have pursued me?" (ibid 36). Yaakov is saying that he is an independent unit and has no need to seek permission to leave.

Furthermore, Yaakov calls for an independent tribunal to judge between them and to clarify this. "Put it here, in the presence of my kinsmen and your kinsmen, and let them decide between the two of us" (ibid 37).

Lavan is rocked by this tribunal and feebly responds: "The daughters are my daughters, and the sons are my sons, and the animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine. Now, what would I do to these daughters of mine today, or to their children, whom they have borne?" (ibid 43). I.e. all he really, meant was that he would never harm his daughters, not that he would actually take them away.

Lavan clearly loses this tribunal as he is forced to make a pact with Yaakov as equals acknowledging that Yaakov is his own separate clan over which he has no rights.

Yaakov's Guilt

Yaakov is constantly cheated by Lavan. First he works for him for a month without being paid (Bereshit 29:14-15). He is then given Leah instead of Rachel and is forced to work another seven years for Rachel.

After the fourteen years were over Yaakov then made a deal with Lavan that: "every speckled and spotted kid, and every brown lamb among the sheep, and [every] spotted and speckled [one from] among the goats" (ibid 30:32), would be his wages.

Rather then being satisfied with this good deal, Lavan "removed on that day the ringed and the spotted male goats and all the speckled and spotted female goats, whichever had white on it, and all the brown [from] among the sheep, and he gave [them] into the hands of his sons" (ibid 35).

He wanted to ensure that Yaakov would not have any of those types of sheep and goats in his flock to breed. It would therefore be unlikely that Yaakov would be able to earn any wages. Lavan even "set three days' journey between himself and Yaakov" (ibid 35) so that there could not even be accidental contact with those sheep and goats.

When Lavan saw that Yaakov had nevertheless succeeded, Yakkov claims that he: "mocked me and changed my wages ten times...If he would say thus, 'Speckled ones shall be your wages,' all the animals would bear speckled ones, and if he would say thus, 'Ringed ones shall be your wages,' all the animals would bear ringed ones" (Bereshit 31:7-8).

Slowly but surely, Lavan enslaved Yaakov to such an extent that when Yaakov asked for his freedom, he used the language of a slave being released from his master: "Send me away, and I will go to my place and to my land" (ibid 25 and compare to Shemot 5:1).

Why did Yaakov allow this to happen?

On one occasion Yaakov did confront Lavan, when he switched Rachel with Leah. However, even then his response was minimal and when Lavan said: "It is not done so in our place to give the younger one before the firstborn" (Bereshit 29:26), which appears to be a poor response to a major fraud, Yaakov remains silent. Why?

The answer lies in the events of Parshat VaYetsh and Parshat VaYishlach.

Yaakov was not a willing partner to the snatching of the berachot from Esav. Rivka insisted he do it. She waived away his protests saying that she would be responsible for the repercussions; she cooked the food, put it into Yaakov's hands and even dressed him in Esav's clothes (see ibid 27:13-17). Yaakov was a reluctant partner in this treachery, barely succeeding in disguising his voice.

Nevertheless he is duly punished. He is exiled from his home and comes into darkness. The man that dwelt in tents found himself sleeping in the open air, all alone. He is actually shocked that God hadn't forgotten him (ibid 28:16). Perhaps he thinks that he is getting all he deserved.

Lavan did not give a feeble excuse to Yaakov; he chose his words well: "…in our place to give the younger one before the firstborn" (ibid 29:26). Lavan is playing on Yaakov's conscience for he, the younger son, had pushed himself ahead of Esav, his older brother. Yaakov is stunned into silence. He cannot respond to Lavan's simple defense and proceeds to accept all of Lavan's further frauds, asking nothing of substance for himself.

Yaakov's deeds linger so much on his conscience that when he finally returns to Canaan, he humbles himself before Esav, describing himself as a slave to Esav, his master. He is trying to say that the blessing that he would be his master was nonsense. Yakov says that he was promised: "dew of the heavens and the fatness of the earth and an abundance of corn and wine" (ibid 27:28) but in reality all he got was exile with Lavan.

Yaakov finds the guilt of his actions all consuming and eventually begs Esav: "to take my blessing" (ibid 33:7), which Esav reluctantly does.

Perhaps Yaakov's taking of the Yitzchak's blessing was not such a good thing.

The Dust of the Earth

God promised Avraham, Yitschak and Yaakov individually that they would have countless descendants. However, He used a different expression with each forefather:


"I will make your seed like the dust of the earth, so that if a man will be able to count the dust of the earth, so will your seed be counted" (Bereshit 13:16).

"Look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So will be your seed" (ibid 15:5).

"I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand that is on the seashore" (ibid 22:17).


"I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens" (ibid 26:4).


"Your seed shall be as the dust of the earth" (ibid 28:14).

All three expressions imply that their descendants would be countless. But are these expressions merely expressions or do they have extra meaning?

Stars in the sky – each star is bright and untouchable. Even as individuals the star is special.

Sand on the shore – sand is forged through the waves crashing against the shore. It takes many millennia for the sand to form and comes through hardship.

Dust on the earth – one treads on dust; being a piece of dirt is nothing to be proud of.

Perhaps these expressions represent different phases in the Patriarchs' and the Jewish people's lives.

Abraham made the move to the Holy Land, but he also experienced exile and much hardship in his life. All three expressions are appropriate for him.

Yitschak remained in Canaan his whole life. He was prosperous and had stability. The expression of stars is appropriate for him.

Yaakov begins this Parsha with the sun setting. He is left in darkness and insecurity as he begins his life in exile. There he will find himself repeatedly cheated with no rights. Even though he flourishes and becomes a large family, he must still resort to subterfuge to escape from Lavan. He may have become numerous, but he is no star, nor is he as sand: He is "as the dust of the earth" - trodden on, frightened and homeless.

Yaakov represents the Jew in exile: worried, defenseless, yet still flourishing. However, Yaakov does not remain in exile, he returns, as will all his progeny.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Parshat Toldot

There are four Sedra Shorts on Parshat Toldot . Scroll down for each Dvar Torah:

  • Twins in Her Womb
  • Yitchack Avinu – Action Man
  • Yitschak's Vision
  • More Peace with Avimelech – Whatever Happened to It?

Twins in Her Womb

Rivka is privy to much information that logically she should not have known:

  • Whilst pregnant, God tells her the destiny of her prodigy (Bereshit 25:23)
  • She overhears Yitschok's intention to bless Esav (ibid 27:5)
  • She is told of Esav's intention to kill Yaakov (ibid 41)

However, there's also much she didn't know:

  • She knew she had two nations in her womb, but is surprised that she had twins – "her days to give birth were completed, and behold, there were twins in her womb" (ibid 25:24)
  • She was concerned about Yaakov being cursed by Yitschak, but did not anticipate Esav's reaction to Yaakov taking the berachot (ibid 27:12-13)
  • In sending Yaakov to Lavan, she thought he would only be gone: "for a few days" (ibid 44). She did not know that he would be there for 21 years and that she would never see him again

In acting on her foreknowledge, Rivka alters her family's dynamics:

  • She favors her younger son (ibid 25:28)S
  • She decieves her older son (ibid 27:6-13)
  • She misleads her husband (ibid 46)

The result is that her family is split apart with Yaakov forced to flee (ibid 43).

Should Rivka had intervened? Maybe she should have allowed God to worry about His masterplan? The conflict btween Yaakov and Esav and history might have been very differen

Yitchack Avinu – Action Man

Yitzchak appears to be a passive, weak and even pitiful character. We so how he needed protection from Yishmael’s influence, how Avraham almost offered him up as a sacrifice (Bereshit 21:9-10), how Avraham needed to find a wife for him (the only time someone did not find their own wife in the Tanach) (ibid Ch.22), his son Yaakov tricked him into giving him the Berachot (ibid 27:19-28) and even his wife Rivka twice manipulates the situation to circumvent him from making what in her opinion, was a mistake (ibid 5-12 & 46). Indeed, Yitschak is blind, not just literally, but also to reality in that he does not recognize Esav’s true character and he does not see the hostility between his two sons in the way Rivka does.

Furthermore, Yitzchak’s life seems to be a carbon copy of Avraham’s: His wife was sterile, just like Avraham’s; he said that Rivka was his sister when he entered hostile territory, just like Avraham; he made a peace treaty with Avimelech and Phichol, just like Avraham; and he even named a place Be’er Sheva, just like Avraham.

Indeed, in the only episode with which we see Yitzchak on his own, i.e. without Avraham or his sons, he is simply re-opening wells that Avraham had previously dug. They had become blocked. He struggles to unblock and eventually succeeds. He then gives them the same names that Avraham had given them.

Who was Yitzchak? Was he merely the link between Avraham and Yaakov or is there something unique about him in his own right that entitles to the title of Patriarch of the Jewish people, or was he just a poor copy of Avraham.

The answer to this question lies in the episode of the wells. Avraham took the Middle East by storm. He acquired a following in Charan, (see Rashi on ibid 12:5), the Canaanite locals recognized him as a holy man (ibid 14:20) and a “prince of God” (ibid 23:6). He defeated kings in battle (ibid Ch14) and kings came to him to make treaties (ibid 14: 22 & 21:22-34).

Avraham dug new wells and found fresh water, however, by the end of his life the wells became blocked, his ideas were no longer new and exciting. What happened to all “the souls he had acquired in Charan”, to the altars he had built and the treaties he had made?

New fads and fashions often become popular very quickly but they soon lose their staying power. Keeping them going is a difficult. That is where Yitschak comes in. He is totally different to both Avraham and Yaakov.

Unlike Avraham and Yaakov, he never leaves Canaan, he never had his name changed, he was named by God and he only had one wife. Yitzchak is the epitome of stability.

Yitzchak does not try and copy Avraham. He does not start anything new, he keeps what was already existed going and, despite the opposition to him telling him that Avraham’s ideas were old, that his wells had dried up, Yitzchak actually succeeds.

Without Yitzchak, everything that Avraham had built would have been lost and there would have been no Jewish people.

Yitzchak’s decisive actions and his attempts to gain stability gave new life to Avraham’s work and gives us good reason to stand in awe at our glorious progenitor.

Yitschak's Vision

"It came to pass when Yitschak was old, and his eyes were too dim to see" (Bereshit 27:1).

Yitschak was blind. Therefore, Yaakov was able to deceive him by announcing that he was Esav, thereby gaining the blessing that Yitschak had intended to give Esav.

Many seem to think Yitschak blindness was not just limited to his vision, he was also blind to Esav's true personality. Had he been aware of who Esav really was, he would never have intended to give him the blessing.

However, upon closer examination we will see that Yitschak was indeed aware of his son's abilities and personality. He was aware that Yaakov was to be the inheritor of the blessings God had given Avraham and had passed down to him. However, he also wanted to ensure that Esav had a future; that he wouldn't be left out.

This is clear from Esav's moving plea to Yitschak immediately after Yaakov's deception was revealed.

"When Esav heard his father's words, he cried out a great and bitter cry, and he said to his father, 'Bless me too, O my father!...Have you not reserved a blessing for me?'… Yitschak answered and said to Esau, 'Behold, I made him a master over you,' …Esav said to his father, 'Have you [but] one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father.' Esav raised his voice and wept" (ibid 34-35).

Three times Esav asks his father for a blessing and each time Yitschak responds that he does not have one. However, this is not true.

When Yitschak sends Yaakov to Padan Aram to find a wife, immediately after this incident, the Yitschak again blesses Yaakov saying: "May the Almighty God bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and you shall become an assembly of peoples. May He give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your seed with you, that you may inherit the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Avraham" (ibid 28:3-4).

Yitschak blesses Yaakov that he will be Avraham's inheritor, that he will receive the Land of Canaan and that God'ds blessings to Avraham would continue through him.

This is not the blessing that Yitschak intended to give Esav. That (ibid 27:28-29). That was a blessing about material wealth and power, it was not about Avraham's destiny.

Yitschak always intended to pass that onto Yaakov, he was aware that only Yaakov and not Esav, was worthy of it. However, he loved Esav, and just like Avraham with Yishmael, he did not want to leave him empty handed; he wanted to secure his future knowing fully well that Esav was not his inheritor.

However, this was not to be because of Rivka's interference.

The real question therefore, remains, whether Rivka knew that her husband did understand his children. Did she know which blessing Yitschak had intended to give Esav? Would she have reacted differently had she known that Yitschak did not intend to give Esav the inheritance of Avraham?

More Peace with Avimelech – Whatever Happened to It?

In Parshat VaYera, Avimelech had made a non-aggression pact with Avraham. In this week's parsha, Avimelech or possibly his son, as the name is generic for "ruler", renews the pact, this time with Yitzchak: "If you do [not] harm us, as we have not touched you, and as we have done with you only good, and we sent you away in peace, [so do] you now, blessed of the Lord (Bereshit 26:29).

Whatever, happened to this treaty? Was it ever used?

We recall that when Avimelech made the original agreement, he said that it would be between "me or to my son or to my grandson" (ibid 21:23).

One could argue, therefore, that the pact was intended to only last three generations. This would explain how Avraham could agree to relinquish part of the Land of Israel, as God had promised him that "the fourth generation will return here" (ibid 15:16). Therefore, the treaty merely passed by its "use by" date and then became null and void.

However, one could also argue that the term that Avimelech was used was generic to refer to forever. If so, our question remains, what happened to the treaty?

In order to answer this question, we must look at two episodes in Sefer Shmuel. There we see David, the future king of Israel, living in Gat, a Philistine city.

This is very strange. We must remember that David slew the Philistine champion, Goliath. More than that, he has freed Israel from Philistine control. Indeed, the Israelite maidens would sing about him that "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands" (I Shmuel 18:7). He has won many battles against the Philistines.

Yet when Sha'ul, the king considers David a traitor and tries to kill him, David flees to Achish, the Philistine ruler of Gat, for refuge. You would think that he would be the last person to help David. Not only that, David even took the sword of Goliath with him to Gat! Yet Achish still gave him sanctuary.

David soon had a problem: "The bondsmen of Achish said to him, "Is this not David, the king of the land? Was it not of this one that they would sing out with musical instruments, saying, 'Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?'" (ibid 21:12).

In order to feign internment, David feigned madness: "He changed his speech before their eyes, and he feigned insanity before them. He scribbled on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva run down upon his beard" (ibid 14).

Unbelievably, Achish fell for it! "Achish said to his bondsmen, "Behold, you see a man who is mad. Why do you bring him to me? Do I lack lunatics, that you have brought this one to rave in my presence?" (ibid 15-16).

Well, maybe Achish was fooled and really believed David to be a madman. If that is the case, how do we explain the episode a few chapters later?

David is still on the run from Sha'ul and he is not safe in Israel, so he returns to Gat. "David arose. He and the six hundred men who were with him, crossed over to Achish the son of Maoch, the king of Gath (ibid 27:2).

Is it possible that Achish had no idea that he was there? No, not really: "David said to Achish, "If now I have found favor in your eyes, let them give me a place in one of the country towns, and I shall dwell there, for why should your servant dwell in the royal city with you?"So Achish gave him Ziklag on that day; therefore, Ziklag has belonged to the kings of Judah until this day" (ibid 5-6).

Achish gave David a city!! More than that, when Sha'ul fought his last battle, David was Achish's personal bodyguard (see ibid 28:1-2). How was it possible that David, the slayer of Goliath, the tormentor of the Philistines and someone who had feigned madness to Achish previously, become such a trusted aide of his?

Rabbi Benyamin Lau suggests that Achish was a descendant of Avimelech and that he still cherished the treaty that Avraham and Yitschak made with his ancestor. Rabbi Lau even suggests that Gerar is Gat, pointing out that the numerical value of the names of the cities are the same.

Therefore, Achish, as a descendant of the philistine king from this week's parsha, had a duty to uphold the treaty, and therefore, protect David.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Parshat Chayei Sarah

There are for Sedra Shorts on Parshat Chayei Sarah . Scroll down for each Dvar Torah:

  • Listen to Us!!
  • The Other Sons of Avraham
  • The Missing God
  • The Legacy of Terach

Listen to US!!

Despite being promised by God: “all the land that you see I will give to you…” (Bereshit 13:15), Avraham is a “stranger and a sojourner “ (ibid 23:4) and has no place to bury his wife. Therefore, he begins negotiations with the Hittites in order to secure a burial plot.

The first two negotiations end with Avraham bowing low (ibid 7 & 12), the modern equivalent of a handshake and partial success. The third rounds ends with complete success. We will examine these negotiations:

The root Shema (“listen” or “understand”) appears 6 times in this short narrative. The Hittites were not listening to Avraham or at least they misunderstood him

The First Negotiation (ibid 3-7)

Avraham asks to buy a burial plot. The Hittites respect Avraham and consider him to be “Prince of God” (ibid 6), a spiritual leader of the highest pedigree. Is he really interested in owning land or does he merely need a place to bury his wife? They think the latter.

Therefore, rather than requiring him to purchase land they tell him “in the most desired of our tombs you can bury your dead. None of us will withhold his tomb from you” (ibid). The Hittites misunderstood Avraham’s need to own the plot. Instead, they offer him a space wherever he so desires. Avraham thanks them; he has been partially successful.

The Second Negotiation (ibid 8-12)

Avraham requests a meeting with Ephron ben Zochar, so that he can purchase a specific plot: The Meorat HaMachpela. Ephron, tells Avraham: “Listen to me. I have given you the field, and the cave that is in it… bury your dead" (ibid 11). He too, does not seem to understand Avraham’s need to own the land. Avraham thanks him He has now secured the actual plot, but is still not satisfied: he wants unreserved ownership.

The Third Negotiation (ibid 13-16)

Avraham is well aware that a gift of land would have a questionable legal status and so he continues negotiating, insisting on a purchase: “Listen to me, I am giving money for the field” (ibid 13). Ephron then names his price: “four hundred shekels of silver, what is it between me and you?” (ibid 15) and Avraham makes the remuneration.

Avraham ensures that all was done “before the eyes (or ears) of the Hittites” (ibid 10, 11, 16 & 18) and at the gates of the city, the commercial and legal center. The deed of sale is then recorded and witnessed (ibid 17-18). The ownership of the plot could never be contested.

Religions are often considered to be the realm of the spirit. Material assets such as land should not be of concern to the truly spiritual person. Judaism however, is different; it is not an ascetic religion. It believes in nourishing the body. So too, the Land of Israel is an integral part of its identity. They cannot be separated.

The Other Sons of Avraham

Most of the stories of Avraham revolve around his yearning and God's promise that he will bear a son. That finally occurs when he was 100 years old.

It is therefore, most surprising, to learn at the end of the parsha that Avraham not only did Avraham have another son, Yishamael, but that he had a further six sons!!

"Abraham took another wife and her name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Jishbak and Shuah" (Bereshit 25:1-2).

Nevertheless, God had previously promised Avraham that only "Yitschak will be called your seed" (ibid 21:12).

However, it is very common for brothers to fight among themselves for the leadership and inheritance. David's sons had a number of conflicts be fore David formally and publicly declared that Shlomo, not Adoniyahu, would be his successor (I Melachim 1:34). Even after this declaration, it was clear that Adoniyahu harboured dreams of claiming the monarchy (ibid 2:22).

The fact that the seven other sons were "sons of Avraham's concubines" (Bereshit 25:6), is irrelevant to their claims of inheritance. The four sons of Bilha and Zilpa equally inherited Yaakov with their brother, as did Avimelech, one of Gidon's seventy sons (see Shoftim Ch.8-9). Yiftach was also supposed to inherit with his brothers, but they drove him away (ibid 11:2).

Indeed, ancient law states that sons of concubines and slaves have an equal right of inheritance with legitimate heirs. However, there is one proviso. The father can disinherit "illegitimate" children by publicly proclaiming who his heirs are and by releasing them from slavery.

This is exactly what Avraham does. First of all he publicly states that Yitschak is his sole heir: "Avraham gave all that he possessed to Yitschak" (Bereshit 25:5). This is confirmed by his servant who tells Lavan and Betuel: "Sarah, my master's wife, bore a son to my master after she had become old, and he gave him all that he possesses" (ibid 24:36).

However, Avraham performs a further two acts to ensure that Yitschak will be protected from any uprising by his more numerous brothers.

Firstly, "to the sons of Avraham's concubines, Avraham gave gifts" (ibid 25:6). Avraham ensured that his other sons were well provided for materially and that they would have no material claims against Yitschak.

Furthermore: "and he sent them away from his son Isaac while he [Abraham] was still alive, eastward to the land of the East" (ibid). The words "to send away" is the same word used for "divorce", i.e. Avraham releases them from his servitude. We had previously seen how Avraham had done this to one son, Yishmael (ibid 21:14). The Torah now states that Avraham did the same treatment to his other sons. Note, that Avraham was not leaving them destitute, he was merely securing Yitschak's claim over the Land of Canaan.

Moreover, when Avraham died, note how the Torah states: "Yitschak and Yishmael his sons buried him" (ibid 25:9), with Yitschak's name being written first. Furthermore, we see that "after Avraham's death… Isaac settled near Be'er Lachai Ro'i" (ibid 11). This is where Hagar had fled to after she was freed from Avraham's household (ibid 16:14). Yitschak is clearly asserting his claim over this area.

Notice finally, at the list of Yishmael's toldot, he is described as: "these are the toldot of Yishmael the son of Abraham, whom Hagar the Egyptian, the maidservant of Sarah, bore to Abraham" (ibid 25:12), i.e. Yishmael was the son of Hagar who just happened to have been born to Avraham. Just a few pesukim later, while stating Yitschak's toldot, the passuk writes: "these are the generations of Yitschak the son of Avraham; Avraham begot Yitschak" (ibid 19).

Avraham may have had eight sons, but he only had one heir.

The Missing God

This week's parsha is unique in the Torah – it is the only one in which God does not talk to humanity. He remains silent.

That does not mean that He is ignored. On the contrary He is mentioned throughout. To begin with, Avraham makes his servant swear an oath in the name of God: "I will adjure you by the Lord, the God of the heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites" (Bereshit 24:3).

Furthermore, the servant makes a prayer to God, saying: "O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, please cause to happen to me today" (ibid 12). He also refers to God in his speech with Lavan and Betuel a number of times.

Additionally, when Rivka met Yitschak for the first time, he "went out to meditate in the field", the Rabbis explain that he was praying.

God's actions are also very visible in the parsha. Avraham had promised his servant that God "will send His angel before you" (ibid 7), meaning that he would succeed in his mission. The way in which the servant succeeded was even more impressive. He asked God for a sign. The servant received that sign instantaneously and the first girl that he met was Avraham's cousin's daughter, Rivka. The test that he set her was also passed with success. Everything went exactly to plan.

Yet the lack of prophetic communication from God is still conspicuous by its absence. Why is He silent?

The parsha can be divided up into two parts: Firstly, Avraham's attempts to bury Sarah. Secondly, Avraham's search for a wife for Yitschak. We could put these episodes into one category: The Avot without the Imahaot, The Patriarchs without the Matriarchs.

Sarah is dead and Avraham is alone. Yitchak has no partner and he is alone. Furthermore, after three years, Yitschak is still morning his mother as he was only: "comforted for [the loss of] his mother" after he married Rivka (ibid 67).

Under these conditions, the word of God cannot be heard. The fathers without the mothers are incomplete; it is only when they are together and that there is joy and that word of God can be spoken.

The Legacy of Terach

After Sarah's death, Avraham sent his servant to "go to my father's house and to my family, and take a wife for my son" (Bereshit 24:38). The servant found Rivka and she followed him to Canaan to marry Yitschak.

Yitschak was not the only one to marry within Terach's, Avraham's father, family. Yitschak also told Yaakov to marry within the family: "Go to Padan Aram, to the house of Betuel, your mother's father, and take yourself from there a wife of the daughters of Laban, your mother's brother" (ibid 28:2).

So did Avraham. Sarah was Terach's daughter, as Avraham explained to Avimelech: "Also, indeed, she is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife" (ibid 28:12).

Indeed, the Torah seems to have genuine concern for all of Terach's descendents. Twice the Torah departs from its story line to tell us how Lot was saved from danger (see ibid Ch 14 & Ch.19). It also lists all twelve of Nahor's descendants (ibid 22:20-24), all twelve of Yishmael's descendents (ibid 25:12-18), all twelve of Esav's descendents (ibid Ch.36) as well as all twelve of Yaakov's descendents.

Furthermore, while the Torah records all the toldot (legacies) of all the above mentioned patriarchs as well as the toldot of Yitschak, there is no toldot of Avraham. Yet, there is a toldot of Terach: "These are the toldot of Terach: Terach begot Avram, Nachor, and Caran, and Charan begot Lot" (ibid 11:27).

Finally, in Yehoshua's final address to the Jewish people before his death, he begins with origins of the Jewish people. However he does not begin with Avraham. He begins with Terach: "Your fathers dwelt of old time beyond the River, even Terach, the father of Avraham, and the father of Nachor; and they served other gods" (Yehoshua 24:2).

What was Terach's legacy? What was it about him that caused Avraham to follow a special path that made Avraham ensure that his children only marry from within his own family?

This is a hard question to answer as the Torah tells us very little, in fact only one sentence, about him: "Terach took Avram his son and Lot the son of Charan, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter in law, the wife of Abram his son, and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees to go to the land of Canaan, and they came as far as Charan and settled there" (Bereshit 11:31).

Avraham's mission to move to Canaan actually began with Terach. Terach may have been Avraham's inspiration and the one who set him on the path of his glorious journey.

For some reason, Terach was not able to follow through. Rabbi Menachem Liebtag suggest that like many Jewish parents, Terach taught his children the importance of Eretz Yisrael without himself being willing to make the final leap of moving there. Nevertheless, Avraham learned enough in order to complete the mission. It is reasonable to assume that Nachor, Avraham's only surviving brother, may also have had sympathies with living in Eretz Yisrael and possibly even taught Rivka about it.

Indeed, Avraham gives Rivka exactly the same test that God gave him. Could she leave her homeland, her birthplace, her father's house and go to a land she had never seen? Rivka did not hesitate. When Lavan and his mother asked her "Will you go with this man?" Rivka did not waver. She responded: "I will go" (ibid 24:54).

How was it that Rivka could be so decisive that she could move to Canaan without any hesitation, at a moments notice in the same manner that Avraham did? Perhaps she had inspiration from the same man that Avraham had. Perhaps the union of Yitschak and Rivka was part of Terach's legacy.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Parshat VaYera

There are for Sedra Shorts on Parshat Vayera. Scroll down for each Dvar Torah

  • The Fate of Mrs. Lot
  • She's my Sister – Again!!
  • Yishmael the Impersonator
  • Avimelch's Pact with Avraham

The Fate of Mrs. Lot

You can't say she wasn't warned: "Flee for your life, do not look behind you, and do not stand in the entire plain. Flee to the mountain, lest you perish" (Bereshit 19:17). Essentially, Sedom was going to be destroyed. "Brimstone and fire" was going to rain down onto it turning into "soil devastated by sulfur and salt" (Devarim 29:22). The local bitumen pits would ignite and everything nearby would be destroyed. Therefore, the angel advised them to flee to the mountains, the high lands. There they would be safe.

Lot's wife fled but "she looked behind him, and she became a pillar of salt" (Bereshit 19:26). The angel warned her not turn around, she did and so faced instantaneous retribution. Or did she?

The Hizkuni would give low marks for this translation. He offers an alternative interpretation. The words" "
ותהי ניצב מלח" do not refer to Mrs. Lot, but to the site that she saw. "It (i.e. the city) was being turning into a block of salt."

This explanation is strange because:

  • The angel warned her not turn round and she did – surely she deserves punishment.
  • It implies that she survived the destruction, but she does not appear again in the story.

Indeed, it would be hard to argue that she survived, for Lot's daughters end up seducing their father. It is unlikely that they would have been able to do that had she been alive..

Nevertheless, is the legend that she was instantaneously turned into a pillar of salt correct? Well, it appears that none of the medieval exegetes actually say that.

The Rashbam explains that the reason the angel told them not to look back was because it would slow them down. You recall that Lot kept on delaying: "He tarried, so the men took hold of his hand and his wife's hand, and the hand of his two daughters, out of the Lord's pity for him, and they took him out and placed him outside the city" (ibid 16).

The angels had to physically remove Lot from the city as he wasn't leaving. Even after that, he kept on delaying despite the fact that the angels were urging him to leave.

Lot wasted so much time, that by the time he fled, he no longer had a second despair. Any further delay, if they slowed down even an instant, they would be swept up and covered by the fire and brimstone and then by salt, just like everyone else.

Therefore, when
Lot's wife, who was already some distance behindLot, turned around, she gazed and witnessed the destruction that was taking place. After a few minutes of gazing, she decided to continue her climb, but by then it was too late. The exploding bitumen pits and the rising sulfur eventually caught up with her. Perhaps earth tremors even he caused her to stumble and fall.

Her final fate therefore, was to become a pile of salt, just like everyone else in Sedom. However, it wasn't instantaneous – God rarely works like that.

She's my Sister – Again!!

For the second time, Avraham describes Sarah as his sister and for the second time, a foreign ruler, this time Avimelech, King of Gerar, takes Sarah to his harem (Bereshit 20:2).

Avraham seems to be compromising Sarah in order protect himself. First time round this action was an uncomfortable read for us, the fact that it occured again is additionally puzzling. There's obviously more going on than meets the eye.

To help us get better insight into the events, we should note that Avraham deliberately chose to describe the relationship between himself and Sarah as that of brother and sister. This description is not coincidental.

In the ancient world, when a girl's father was absent, the brother becomes responsible for finding a suitor for her (NB: it is striking how Lavan takes over Rivka's matrimonial negotiations from his father, Betuel – ibid 24:50-55).

By describing her as his sister, rather than compromising her, Avraham automatically protects Sarah from anyone who desired her. Had Avraham admitted that he was her husband, he might have been killed and Sarah would have been taken. However, as her brother, there was another course of action for potential mates to take. They could legally approach Avraham and negotiate over her. Avraham could then have entered into endless and protacted negotiations, giving them time to plan their escape. At the same time, Avraham has a valid excuse for keeping Sarah out of sight.

Seen in this light, this was a good tactic designed in order to equally protect Sarah and Avraham.

Unfortunately, Avraham's plan became unstuck, when the totally unexpected happened. Pharaoh and Avimelech, monarchs who Avraham had no reason to suspect he would ever meet, wanted Sarah. With them there could be no drawn out negotiations. They lay down their price leaving Avraham with no choice but to accept it without delay.

Note, however, that this tactic actually succeeded for Yitzchak. He also claimed that Rivka was his sister. While Avimelech claims that someone might have taken her, no one actually did and Rivka remained under Yitzchak's protection (ibid 26:10).

Therefore, rather than putting Sarah into a compromising position, Avraham's was actually trying to protect her from unwanted advances. Unfortunately, his plan failed.

Yishmael the Impersonator

We have seen previously how Hagar attempted to usurp Sarah and become Avraham’s wife, in an attempt for God to fulfill His promise to Avraham through her and her progeny. The attempt failed when Avraham told Sarah: “Here is your handmaid in your hand; do to her that which is proper in your eyes” (Bereshit 16:6). Hagar tried to stake her freedom by fleeing, but an angel told her to return to he mistress, to accept that she was only a servant.

Hagar accepted her fate and returned to Sarah, but nevertheless, Yishmael’s fate was not yet determined. Indeed, Avraham begs God: “If only Ishmael will live before You” (ibid 17:18). God accedes to this reques: “regarding Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I have blessed him” (ibid 20). Nevertheless, Avraham’s special destiny was only with the progeny of Sarah: “My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year” (ibid 20).

It seems that Yishmael did not accept his fate. In this week’s parsha we see that Sarah saw a threat: “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, metsachek” (ibid 21:9).

Rashi brings three alternative explanations to Yishmel’s behavior, all based on other appearances of the word: “metsachek”. Yishmael committed either murder, adultery and murder or all three (See Rashi on ibid).

This explanation is difficult to understand. Could Yishmael be really doing any of theses activities in front of Yitschak and it only bother Sarah?

A friend of mine, Yisrael Sapperstein, showed me that the Torah deliberately chooses the root: “Tshk” in explaining Yishmael’s offensive behavior. This root makes up Yitschak’s name. Yishmael was “metschek”, i.e. he was attempting to be Yitschak. He was claiming the inheritance for himself appointing himself the true Yitschak.

Under these circumstances we can understand Sarah’s fear that her son might be usurped. While Avraham, and possibly us as well, might find it hard to understand Sarah’s instruction to: “Drive out this handmaid and her son”, we can now understand her fear: “for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac” (ibid 10).

We can also now understand God’s agreement with Sarah: “whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice, for in Isaac will be called your seed” (ibid 12).

Yishmael was not only claiming the inheritance for himself, he saying that he was the true Yitschak. He had to be shown that his impersonation was unsuccessful that he remained outside of Avraham destiny.

While Yishmael got the message, his descendants are yet to get it.
It was Yitschak not Yshmael who was bound up on Mount Moriah and it is only Yitschak who has inherited the blessings of Avraham.

Avimelch's Pact with Avraham

We have another strange episode in this week's parsha.

Avraham is an old man of one hundred years old. He is landless and wandering all over Canaan. Suddenly, out of the blue, Avimelech, king of Pelishtim comes to him with his general Phichol, and says: "God is with you in all that you do. Now, swear to me here by God, that you will not lie to me or to my son or to my grandson; according to the kindness that I have done with you, you shall do with me, and with the land wherein you have sojourned" (Bereshit 21:22-23).

Avimelech then proceeds to make a non-aggression pact with Avraham.

Why does Avimelech, a king with an army, want a non-aggression pact with Avraham, a nomad? What is he afraid of?

We could answer by saying that Avimlech recognizes Avraham's greatness especially the fact that God is with him in all that he does, and therefore, its logical for him to want to be in his good books.

However, if that is the case, then we must ask, why now? Avimelech already knew this. In fact, Avimelech and Avraham had already met some time earlier when Avimelech had taken Sarah his wife. Then God appeared to Avimelech in a dream saying that Avraham: "is a prophet" (ibid 20:7) and warning him not to hurt him.

Surely that would have been a more opportune moment for Avimelech to seek a pact with Avraham.

The answer lies in the timing. The episode begins with the words: "Now it came to pass at that time" (ibid 21:22). Something important had just happened. Avraham had just had son; he now had an heir. So what?

For many years, this old man Avraham had been travelling the length and breadth of Canaan preaching monotheism and that one day he would inherit this land.

Most people would not have taken him seriously; for he had no son. However, now he had that son. Suddenly Avraham is a threat to Avimelech. Avimelech knows first hand that God is with Avraham, but now that Avraham has finally had a son, he fears that Avraham's prophecy will come true. This means that his kingdom is not safe. Avraham's descendants will take it away from his. Therefore, Avimelech, comes with his top general and seeks a multi generational non-aggression pact.

With this pact Avraham now has now outside confirmation that his whole life's mission will succeed, and he uses it to his advantage.

First "he planted an eishel tree", signifying his ownership of the land, as well as planting something for his future descendants to enjoy. Then he "dwelt in the land of the Philistines for many days" and "called there in the name of the Lord, the everlasting God", (ibid 21:33-34) i.e. he spends the rest of his life travelling the land of the Pelishtim and preaching about God. But now he is able to use the pact with Avimelech, the Philistine king, as proof that even he now believes in God – shouldn't they?