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Shelach lecha

"So they went up, and spied out the land" Numbers 13: 21

    This week's sidrah exposes the challenges of Israel's journey from a community of passive participants in God's miracles (exodus from Egypt) to a people who familiarise themselves with nature, with the ability to create their own social, political and spiritual wellbeing.

    In his introduction to Numbers, the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Berlin 1816-1893) suggests that Israel now shifts from being "children of light" to "children of darkness" - an odd idea given that they have escaped slavery for freedom and (eventually) move from the desert to the Land of Israel; are they not now "children of light"?

    Pinhas Naftal-Yaffe, of Bar-Ilan University, explains that the transition is from those who "lived by miracles" to those who "live by nature". The need to spy out the land for 40 days represents a maturing of the soul, a move from passive to active. He adds that a similar light/dark metaphor is used to understand Moses's experience on Mt Sinai.

    Moses was able to distinguish between the 40 days and nights by learning Written Torah by day and Oral Law by night. The Written Torah is God's: transparent, black on white, above time and space. But the Oral Law is constantly in flux, emerging from the subjective discretion of our sages within the haze of the human world.

    However, both Torahs were given together in order to bring light to a world of darkness. Measuring actions against God's miracles, the "children of the light" were blinded by God's miracles; but those who entered the land were able to recognise their own abilities and the necessity of the world of nature over the world of miracle.

    Chief Rabbi Kook describes this capacity as the success of the sacred which lies hidden in the profane, such that being involved in the nitty-gritty work of building family, community, land and state brings miracles in its wake.

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