What's P'shat?

Recent Posts

The End (Shemini Atzeret)

Twice each day, Jews across the world recite a series of Biblical passages referred to collectively as the shema. In the second of these passages, colloquially known as ve-hayah im shamoa (Deut. 11:13-21), Hashem pledges to send bnei Yisrael abundant rain in return for their faithfully upholding His commandments, and warns that He will withhold rain should they forsake those commandments.  (more…)

Collective Wisdom (Sukkot)

During Temple times, the holiday of Sukkot was highlighted, once every seven years, by a momentous religious ceremony known as hakhel. Instituted by Moshe himself in the last days of his life, hakhel functioned as a national reenactment of the Sinai revelation. With the Jewish people in their entirety congregated in Jerusalem, the king would read aloud from the Torah scroll bearing the terms of Israel’s covenant with Hashem, thereby renewing that covenant before those assembled: (more…)

Tying it All Together (Ki Teitzei)

Within this week’s parshah lies a section of laws aimed apparently at preserving the integrity of biological species.  Its first half contains prohibitions upon crossdressing (Deut. 22:5), seizing a mother bird along with her chick (ibid. 6-7), crossbreeding (ibid. 9), plowing with an ox and donkey together (ibid. 10), and wearing mixtures of wool and linen (ibid. 11). From there we proceed to a series of matters that concern various forms of forbidden union between men and women (ibid. 13-23:19).

In the middle of this section, however, we discover a law that does not seem thematically related to the subject at hand: “גדלים תעשה לך על ארבע כנפות כסותך אשר תכסה בה”—“You shall make yourself twisted threads, on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself” (Deut. 22:12). Why is this mitzvah—the mitzvah of tzitzis, i.e., of affixing knotted strings to four-cornered garments—included here? (more…)

Urban Planning (Shoftim)

In biblical times, the arei miklat—“cities of refuge,” or “sanctuary cities”—protected unintentional murderers from their victims’ would-be avengers. The Torah previously discussed arei miklat on a number of occasions (Exod. 21:13; Num. 35:9-29; Deut. 4:41-43); in this week’s parshah, Shoftim, it pays particular attention to the geographic spacing of these cities: (more…)

On the Heels (Ekev)

And it will be, because [עקב] you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil, your grain, your wine, and your oil, the offspring of your cattle and the choice of your flocks, in the land which He swore to your forefathers to give you. You shall be blessed above all peoples: There will be no sterile male or barren female among you or among your livestock. And the Lord will remove from you all illness, and all of the evil diseases of Egypt which you knew, He will not set upon you, but He will lay them upon all your enemies (Deut. 7:12-15).

The pledge Moshe makes to bnei Yisrael at the start of this week’s parshah strikes us, at first glance, as largely indistinguishable from dozens of similar exhortations Moshe delivers to bnei Yisrael in the final month of his life. Throughout sefer Devarim, Moshe stresses repeatedly the importance of observing Hashem’s commands and of guarding Hashem’s covenant, while highlighting the reward awaiting those that do so.

foot-310736_960_720.pngTurn your attention, however, to the word “ekev,” which appears in the parshah’s first verse, and which doubles up as the title of our parshah as well. “Ekev” (עקב, in Hebrew) literally means “heel.” By extension, “ekev” can also mean “on the heels of”—or, less semantically, “as a result of;” “since;” “because”—and it is this connotation that the term takes in our parshah’s opening verse: “And it will be, because [עקב] you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers (Deut. 7:12).” (more…)

Taking a Stand (Chukkat)

water-flowing-over-rocksNear the center of this week’s parshah, bnei Yisrael famously complain over a lack of available drinking water (Num. 20:1-13). Many commentators have discussed the remarkable similarities between this water crisis and an earlier water crisis recorded in sefer Shemot (Exod. 17:1-7). In both incidents, the nation lacks water; in both, they protest that man and beast alike will shortly die of thirst; in both, they question Moshe’s leadership and they regret their decision to leave Egypt; in both, Hashem commands Moshe to draw forth water from a rock, and to take his staff along with him. Moreover, the first crisis occurs when the people arrive at “the wilderness of Sin” [מדבר סין], which is later renamed “Testing and Strife” [מסה ומריבה, i.e. Massa U-Merivah], while the second occurs when the people depart from “the wilderness of Zin” [מדבר צין], which is later renamed “The Waters of Strife” [מי מריבה, i.e. Mei Merivah]. The parallels continue, and they are well documented.

What has not been noted, however, is the similarly compelling set of connections tying together the aftermaths of these two water crises. To that end, consider the following episodes:   (more…)

The Hair Affair (Korach)

The day that bnei Yisrael (“the Children of Israel”) inaugurated the mishkan (“sanctuary”) which they had built in the wilderness ought to have been a day of national celebration. It was, until Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two eldest sons, decided to enter the mishkan on their own, and offer a “strange fire, which had not been commanded” (Lev. 10:1). Upon doing so, the two kohanim (“priests”) were immediately consumed by a divine fire, leaving the entire nation shocked and grieving. It was one of the most jarring, most calumnious events recorded in the entire Torah. We can only imagine how it must have impacted those who witnessed it; surely, the trauma of this tragedy lingered with bnei Yisrael throughout their forty years in the desert. (more…)