Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shelach

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Shelah 5759/1999

"The Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness"

Dr. Pinhas Hayman

Naftal-Yaffe Department of Talmud

In his introduction to the book of Numbers the Natziv (Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Judah Berlin of Volozhin, 19th century) cites a midrashic comment from Genesis Rabbah, ch. 3: "'And G-d separated the light from the darkness' (Gen. 1:4) -- this is associated with the book of Numbers, which separates between the generation of the exodus from Egypt and the generation that entered the land." The homilist notes that the word or, light, appears five times in the beginning of Genesis, and considers that the five occurrences of this word can be associated with the five books of the Pentateuch. Numbers relates to the verse about separating light from darkness, because in this book one can distinguish between the last stories of the generation of the exodus, who are as it were the "sons of light," and the first stories about those who would enter the land, who are as it were the "sons of darkness." This midrash is quite perplexing, since it was the generation of the exodus which perished in the wilderness due to their sinfulness, and it was their children who had the good fortune to enter the land of Israel. How could those who died in the wilderness be called "sons of light" and those who entered the land, "sons of darkness"?[1]

If we look at the book of Numbers we see that the first five weekly readings deal with the first two years in the wilderness, in which the generation of the exodus from Egypt took part. Be-Midbar, Naso, and Be-Ha'alotkha describe the full organization of the camp, "each man with his division and each under his standard" (Num. 1:52),[2] while the parashot of Shelah and Korah describe the people's failings regarding the spies and the uprising of Korah and his followers.

At this point the Torah skips over the next thirty-eight years in the desert, and from the beginning of Hukkat until the end of the book it describes the last year of wandering which befell the generation that was enter the land, for the previous generation had already died out.[3] According to the Natziv the exact turning point between the generation of the exodus and the generation that was to enter the land can be found near the end of Be-Ha'alotkha, in the short passage which begins "When the Ark was to set out..." (Num. 10:35-36).[4]

The Natziv reasons that the transition between these two generations is a change from one basic outlook on life to another: during the period in the wilderness the Israelites passed from "living by miracles," characteristic of the exodus from Egypt, to "living by nature," characteristic of entering the land of Israel. Numbers tells of the maturing of the Israelite people and of the transition from a passive to an active life. The people of the exodus "saw a great light"--the Lord's battle against Pharaoh and Egypt, the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, the manna, and the Lord's revelation on Mount Sinai. Their role was to experience the miraculous as spectators: "The Lord will battle for you, you hold your peace!" (Ex. 14:13-14). This generation of those who left Egypt were the "sons of light" in the sense of seeing the divine light and experiencing the world of miracles which is beyond the world of nature. They experienced the most dramatically manifest miracles since the creation of the world.

However entering the land of Israel is quite different from leaving Egypt; the people were called upon to play a more active role, to take greater initiative and to show more control, so that they would enter the land with the self-confidence that "one does not rely on miracles."[5] The "sons of light" now had to become "sons of darkness," in the sense of accepting a way of life based on the natural order of the world. G-d retreated from open leadership by way of miracle in order to enable them to take control of their own lives, without the great divine light.

What were the consequences of this transition? The first attempts of the people to live by nature, as told at the end of Parashat Be-Ha'alotkha after verses 35-36, "When the Ark was to set out...," resulted in their complaining about the manna--the food from heaven--in their clamoring for meat, and in public unrest as reflected in the harsh criticism of Moses' leadership, ultimately leading to the rise of a much broader leadership group (Num. 11). Parashat Shelah, which gives us the story of the spies, continues the account of the people's first unsuccessful attempts at adjusting to living by nature and coping with the difficult challenges of entering the land and conquering it.

Why does "living by nature" begin, according to the Natziv, immediately after the verses of ""When the Ark was to set out...," and why were the people's attempts to cope with living by nature so unsuccessful? As we know, "The Torah is sparse in one place and rich in another."[6] Our Parasha begins with G-d's command to Moses, "Send men to scout the land of Canaan" (Num. 13:2). The background to this command from G-d to send scouts is absent in Numbers, but is given in Deuteronomy, in Moses' speech on the plains of Moab: "Then all of you came to me and said, 'Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to'" (Deut. 1:22).

The people were the initiators of the scouts' mission, and G-d's command which we read here was only affirmation of their request. The sons of light, those who participated in the exodus from Egypt, were now trying to cope with independence and initiative. If they had to undertake the mission of entering the land on their own, in diametrical opposition to the way they left Egypt, they had to prepare for this by taking the fullest responsibility and precaution. However their attempt does not turn out well: they receive bad advice from the scouts and raise objections about conquering the land. Their refusal to carry out the mission leads to G-d's decree that they die in the wilderness, and the conquest of the land is passed to the next generation.

And so, thirty-eight years later, under Joshua, the Israelites send scouts again (Joshua ch. 2, the haftarah for Parashat Shelah), and the conquest of the land takes place as planned. The old "sons of light", who witnessed proof of the Creator's control of His universe and of the manifest superiority of the Israelites' destiny despite the hardships they encountered along the way, are not capable of believing in the people's ability to conquer and settle the land of Israel. It is precisely the new "sons of darkness," who had not experienced the great miracles of the exodus from Egypt, who had not seen the victory of G-d over the other peoples in the region-- it is they who succeeded in coping with the task of conquering the land and all that follows.

Nevertheless, one must understand that there was darkness among the sons of light, for the divine light blinded the generation of the exodus; and there was light among the sons of darkness, making it possible for them to act with assurance and success. What was the darkness amidst the light and the light amidst the darkness?

In the midrashic literature on revelation at Mount Sinai, light and darkness are used symbolically to signify the divine world and the human world. The midrash asks a question about the verse in Exodus describing Moses' prolonged stay upon Mount Sinai: "'And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights' (Ex. 34:28). How could Moses have know when it was day and when it was night? Was there not darkness and mist over the mountain?" The midrash answers that when Moses learned the written Torah, he would know it was day, and when he learned the oral Torah, he would know it was night.[7]

Commentators explain that the written Torah is like the day in that it is clear, black and white; whereas the oral Torah is constantly in flux, coping with the "night" of time and place, so that the answers to questions necessarily stem from subjective discretion of the sage ruling on the Halakhah. The written Torah is the Torof G-d's light, stemming from the absolute clarity that is above time and place. The oral Torah is the Torah of darkness, stemming from the mist and haze of the human world. Both Torahs were given in conjunction with each other in order to set right the world of darkness. Therefore the oral Torah prevails over the written Torah even to the extent of uprooting the written Torah, for "the Torah was not given to the ministering angels".[8] When followers of the Torah seek to apply its teaching in the light of changing circumstances from day to day, they are forced to choose between the way of the sons of light and the way of the sons of darkness.

The generation of the exodus from Egypt wished to measure their actions against the brilliance of the miracles of the exodus; they wanted the sure victory they had witnessed on the Red Sea. They were the generation of the written Torah, of the bright and clear, of the absolute and objective; for them the ways of the natural world were insufficient and unsatisfactory since such ways left responsibility for the outcome in human hands. The "sons of light," blinded by miracles--and this was their "darkness"-- could not conceive of the possibility of their actions in the natural world prevailing over the way of the miraculous, thus they flatly rejected conquering the land.

The "sons of darkness," who understood the inner ethical messages of the Torah of the night, the oral Torah--and this was their "light"-- accepted responsibility for their actions and prevailed over the sons of light. Parshat Shelah teaches us about the failure of the sons of light when it comes to living in the natural world, and by extension indicates the supremacy of the world of nature over the world of miracle. Thus we see that the miracle of nature is far greater than the nature of the miraculous, for ultimately the sons of darkness who entered the land were helped by miracles precisely because they did not rely on them.

In his book Orot ha-Tehiyya,[9] Rabbi Kook describes the relationship between human beings and angels--in our terms, between the "sons of darkness" and the "sons of light"--and the success that is destined to come precisely from human beings, from the sacred which lies hidden in the profane:

Since the soul of the human being is more lofty and more internal than the angels, and precisely because of its greatness, it descended to the lowest level and from their will arise with great wealth and will prepare the entire world along with it for a supreme, authentic ascent. Thus the sacred that is in the profane, that descends to the utterly profane, is more sublimely sacred than the most sacred of the sacred, except that it is very much hidden. And there is no end to the improvement of the world that will come from all the good that comes to the world via the profane, that will reveal His honor and make seen His glory at the joyous time when "there shall be neither sunlight nor cold moonlight" (Zech. 14:6), "and there shall be light at eventide" (ibid., v. 7). Before the light of the Messiah, may he come speedily in our day, the force of the sacred which is in the profane shall awaken, first awakening the profane, and all shall talk in the tongue of humans and not in the tongue of the Holy One, blessed be He.[10]

Every community of believers includes both "sons of light" as well as "sons of darkness"--those who want to live by miracles and those who are willing to live by nature. There are established members of the faith who are capable of coping only with the Torah of the day, who aspire to absolute clarity in all that concerns the Torah, the country, the State, and the days of the Messiah; and there are "sons of darkness," who know and fall in love with the Torah of the night, and who take pride in the way of nature which is called for and necessary to realize their destiny. Rabbi Kook continually and consistently stressed that living by the laws of nature--the nitty-gritty work of building a people, a land, a state, an army, an economy, etc.--brings in its wake the necessary miracles and ultimately leads to a sanctity which even supersedes the pure divine light witnessed by the generation of the exodus from Egypt. The ultimate destiny of the "sons of darkness" is described in the words of the prophet Isaiah:

The people that walked in darkness have seen a brilliant light; on those who dwelt in a land of gloom light has dawned. You have magnified that nation, have given it great joy; they have rejoiced before You as they rejoice at reaping time, as they exult when dividing spoil. For the yoke that they bore and the stick on their back--the rod of their taskmaster--You have broken as on the day of Midian. Truly, all the boots put on to stamp with and all the garments donned in infamy have been fed to the flames, devoured by fire. For a child has been born to us, a son has been given us, and authority has settled on his shoulders. He has been named "The Mighty G-d is planning grace; the Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler"--in token of abundant authority and of peace without limit upon David's throne and kingdom, that it may be firmly established in justice and in equity now and evermore. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts shall bring this to pass. (Is. 9:1-6)

[1] The difficulty raised by this homily indeed led certain commentators to interpret it the other way around; cf. Yefe To'ar, which says, "since he distinguished beween those who entered the land, granting them the light of life, and those who left Egypt, placing them in darkness." It is clear, however, that such an interpretation is not what the homily intended.

[2] Cf. Numbers ch. 2, describing the encampment of the Israelites in the wilderness.

[3] Cf. Num. 20:1 and Rashi on this verse.

[4] Cf. commentators' remarks trying to explain the inverted nuns surrounding these two verses.

[5] Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 64b, phrased somewhat differently.

[6] Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Ha-Shanah 3.5.

[7] Midrash Tanhuma, Parshat Ki-Tetze, 36.

[8] Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 25b.

[9] Chapter 46.

[10] Also cf. Ayin Ayeh of Rav Kook on the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 10a and 54a.

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