Wednesday, January 30, 2008



This week our portion is Mishpatim.

Mishpatim follows up the revelation at Mount Sinai with relatively prosaic laws about human relationships. This indicates the great emphasis we place on treating others well – right after we learn "I am the Lord Your Gd," "Do not take My Name in vain," we also learn about our responsibility to protect the property and person of others, and about giving charity and free loans.

Among the sub-topics discussed is the institution of slavery. Note that this is not the cruel slavery of the American hemisphere; it’s a long-term, binding business contract. Slavery was entered into willingly, with a transaction; the slave was not kidnapped from his land and brought elsewhere. The slave could not be abused, either physically or psychologically. The slave could not be given painfully difficult work.

Non-Jewish slaves had a special way out of slavery - before a year of slavery was up, they were given a choice of beginning a conversion process (to be completed after their slavery ended), or leaving their servitude. If they opted not to convert, the master had no choice but to let them go or to sell them to a non-Jew.

The slave received the best of the household – if there was one bed, the slave took the bed and the master slept on the floor. The only advantage for the master was that he received a guaranteed employee. Other employees could bolt or demand more money at any time, but a slave contracted away those rights for the given period of slavery.

We also learn in this portion about responsibility for damage caused by one’s property, and responsibility for the safety of property left in one’s charge.

We are admonished to give charity, to give loans without interest, and to refrain from collateral and bill-collection practices which would make life difficult for a borrower.

The portion concludes with Gd's promise to bring the Jews to Israel safely and with blessings. The Torah recounts the offering the Jews brought at Sinai, and their acceptance of the Torah. Moshe then ascended the mountain to study the Torah for 40 days.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, January 23, 2008



This week's portion is Yitro.

The Torah portion of Yitro begins as the Jews travel through in the desert, after Amalek’s surprise attack on them. Yitro (aka Jethro), Moshe’s father-in-law, comes to see them; he is inspired by Gd’s miracles. We are taught that Yitro was particularly inspired by Gd’s interest in human actions, as seen in the way His reward and punishment matched the Egyptians' actions.

Moshe went out to greet Yitro himself, modeling the way we should greet guests. Yitro stayed and observed the operation of the Jewish camp, and he advised Moshe to arrange a heirarchy of assistant judges to help him. Moshe followed Yitro’s instructions.

The Jews arrived at Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) in the beginning of the month of Sivan, and they prepared to accept Judaism and receive the Torah. The men and women immersed in water, partly as a function of conversion and partly for the purpose of ritual purification. Spouses stayed apart for three days, leading up to the presentation of the Torah.

On the 7th day of Sivan (or, according to some, the 6th), the nation awakened to thunder and lightning and the sound of the Shofar. The earth itself shook, and Mount Sinai produced smoke. The Jews came out to Sinai, and heard the "Aseret haDibrot," the Ten Commandments.

Following this spectacle, Gd told Moshe to warn the Jews not to create idols. Gd pointed out that the whole sound and light show at Har Sinai didn’t involve any image of Gd, and so they should not create images of Gd. Gd then instructed the Jews in the way they should build an altar for Him, noting such laws as the prohibition against cutting the stones in situ with iron, and against using steps for the altar.

Have a great day,

Thursday, January 17, 2008



This week's portion is B'Shalach.

The Jews flee Egypt. They are too timid to face military opposition, and so Gd doesn’t take them directly to Israel through Philistine territory; instead, He decides to take them around the Philistine area.

Pharaoh decides to pursue the Jews, and he follows them to the Red Sea. When the Jews arrive at the sea, Moshe turns to Gd for help. Gd tells Moshe it’s up to the people to create a miracle, by marching into the sea. The Jews, led by Nachshon ben Aminadav according to the midrash, walk into the sea, and the sea splits. The Egyptians pursue the Jews into the sea. After the Jews pass through on dry land, the sea returns to its former bed and drowns the Egyptian soldiers. The Jewish people sing songs of thanks to Gd after being saved.

The Jews travel for three days, and in that time the only water they find is a pool of bitter water. They complain of a lack of fresh, potable water. Gd instructs Moshe to put a piece of wood into the bitter water, miraculously sweetening it. The Jews camp there, and they learn some of Judaism’s laws.

A month after the Jews leave Egypt, they run out of bread. They turn to Gd, and He responds by sending Mun from the heavens. The Mun was ready to eat, but could also be baked and processed. The Jews receive a daily portion each morning, carefully preserved with upper and lower layers of dew. They receive a double portion on Friday, and they are told not to go out to collect the Mun on Shabbat. Some of the people disobey and try to collect on Shabbat.

Moving along, the Jews arrive at a place called Rephidim and complain again of a lack of water. Gd tells Moshe to strike a rock, to cause water to emerge. Moshe does this, and the nation drinks.

The Jews are then attacked by the nation of Amalek. Amalek himself was a grandson of Esav, Yaakov’s twin brother. Amalek attacks the weak stragglers, unprovoked, from behind. The Jews, with Moshe praying to Gd and with Moshe's student Yehoshua as general, defeat Amalek. Gd instructs the Jews to remember this battle, and the evil of Amalek, eternally. He also instructs the Jews to fight to destroy the evil of Amalek, across the generations.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, January 9, 2008



This week's portion is Bo.

The portion begins where the previous portion left off – the Egyptian Pharaoh refuses to let the Jewish slaves leave Egypt, and Gd brings plagues upon Egypt.

Through Moshe, Gd warns the Pharaoh that the next plague, the eighth, will be a plague of locusts. Pharaoh’s own people see where Egypt is headed and argue to let the Jews go, but the Pharaoh is not willing to give in to Moshe’s demands, and he has Moshe and Aharon chased out of his palace.

Locusts arrive and destroy the Egyptian produce which had survived the previous plague of hail. Pharaoh calls to Moshe and Aharon and admits his error, but as soon as the locusts are gone, Pharaoh resumes his refusal to let the Jews go.

For the ninth plague, Pharoah does not receive a warning; Gd tells Moshe to raise his arm heavenward, and when he does so Gd brings a thick, tangible darkness upon Egupt. No one so much as leaves their homes for the first three days of darkness; only the Jews have light in their homes. Pharaoh calls for Moshe and tells him to take the Jews to worship Gd in the desert, but he insists that the Jews leave behind their animals. Moshe responds that they will take everything, so as to have everything available for their worship. Pharaoh refuses to let them go under those terms, and he warns, "On the day you see my face again, you will die!"

Moshe affirms that he will not come back to see Pharaoh’s face, and he then warns Pharaoh of the next, and final, plague – the death of the Egyptian first-born.

Gd then instructs the Jews to bring the Pesach offering on the night of the plague of the first-born. This would be a sort of "final exam" for the Jews, as they would slaughter the lamb which the Egyptians had worshipped. Further, the lamb would be on display for four days before the offering, so that everyone would see what they were going to do. Refusal to carry out this offering would indicate assimilation into Egyptian ideas and theology.

On the night of the 14th of Nisan, Gd brought a plague striking down all of the Egyptian first-born, as a punishment for their having enslaved and murdered the Jewish people, who Gd had described to Pharaoh as "My first-born."

The Torah portion concludes with Gd’s instruction for the Jews to dedicate their own first-born to Gd, in recognition of the way Gd protected them in Egypt.
The human first-born were to go serve in the Temple. This changed later, when the Kohanim (members of a subfamily within the tribe of Levi) began to work in the Temple, and so now we pay a sum of money to a Kohen as a substitute for having our first-born go off to work in the Temple. Among cattle, our first-born are to be brought as an offering. Among certain non-Kosher animals, which are ineligible as offerings, are instead redeemed with an animal which is brought as an offering.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, January 2, 2008



This week's portion is Va'era (colloquially pronounced vah-AY-rah).

The portion begins where last week’s portion left off: Moshe has just turned to Gd and asked why his mission hasn’t succeeded in making things easier for the Jews in Egypt. Gd reminds him yet again that He is the Gd of the ancestors of the Jews, and He will set things straight soon enough.

The portion then begins to list the genealogy of the Jews, but it only reaches Moshe and Aharon, within the tribe of Levi, and then it returns to the mission of Moshe and Aharon to the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Moshe and Aharon return to the Pharaoh, and have a showdown with magicians who seem to use sorcery to mimic Gd's miracles. Pharaoh and the magicians deny that Gd can force the Egyptians to free the Jews.

In response, Gd sends Moshe to the Pharaoh to warn him that He will send plagues upon the Pharaoh and upon Egypt. This begins a cycle of plagues in which Gd twice sends Moshe to warn Pharaoh of plagues, then Gd strikes without warning, then He sends Moshe twice more, then strikes without warning, then sends Moshe twice more, then strikes without warning, and then brings the 10th plague, the Death of the Firstborn. With the onset of almost every plague, the Pharaoh promised he would let the Jews go if Gd would only rescind the plague, but then the Pharaoh changed his mind after the plague was removed.

This week's portion contains seven of the plagues:
1. Blood – Gd strikes at one of the Egyptian gods, the Nile, turning it to blood.

2. Frogs – Gd rattles the people, overrunning them with frogs, but the plague is not life-threatening.

3. Lice – Rattling and somewhat painful, but still not life-threatening.

4. "Arov" – There are two views as to what this was. Some say it was a plague of bugs, others say it was an attack by wild animals.

5. Cattle Plague - Much of the cattle died in this plague.

6. Boils – Painful and destructive without being fatal.

7. Hail – A mixture of fire and ice. Fatal to anyone outside. Some of the Egyptians believed Moshe's warning and brought their livestock indoors before the plague.

The Torah portion ends with a statement about the after-effects of the Hail, and this statement is also a general lesson: Those who could not bend were struck down by the Hail, while those who were flexible survived.

Have a great day,