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    Order of spies – Sh’lach L’cha

    May 30th, 2021

    The spies bring back their report, from a 1907 Bible card

    Twelve spies were sent into the Promised Land to check out its nature (Num. 13:2).

    Nachmanides says their names are listed in the Torah in order of personal status. This presents us with a problem, since Joshua, who was destined to become Moses’ successor, did not top the list, though we would have thought this was the appropriate way to acknowledge him.

    Sforno disagrees with Nachmanides and thinks the spies were of equal status but they were listed according to age.

    In tractate Sotah, the Talmud has a further suggestion, that the listing reflected the outcome of their mission and followed the men’s contribution to national history.


    The Land eats its inhabitants – Sh’lach L’cha

    May 30th, 2021

    One of the worst and most frightening things that the spies reported when they came back from their mission was that the land “eats its inhabitants” (Num. 13:32).

    These words are explained by some of the commentators as saying that the soil of the land was so hard and the climate so harsh that no-one could settle down there and expect to lead an ordinary calm life. The effort to till the land was beyond the capacity of most people and it overwhelmed them to the extent that sometimes they died in the attempt.

    Whether this description of Eretz Yisra’el was justified and truthful is highly doubtful. Though Caleb argued to the contrary, assuring the people that if God supported them they would be alright, the majority of the spies embroidered the facts and invented difficulties which disheartened the people.


    Agents of Moses – Sh’lach L’cha

    May 30th, 2021

    The return of the spies, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, c. 1851

    Chapter 13 of B’midbar is an example of the law of agency. Moses carried out the investigation at the Almighty’s command by means of agents.

    The notion of agency is that A can perform a legal act by means of B so the act will be recognised as the legal act of A. The Hebrew phrase is Shelucho shel adam kemoto, “a person’s agent is as himself”.

    Jewish law utilised the idea from an early period in its history. In Exodus 12 the paschal sacrifice is offered by means of agency. In a worship service conducted by a cantor or officiant, the latter is the sh’liach tzibbur, the agent of the congregation.

    Anything the principal can do himself can be done by an agent, but this does not apply to the commission of an offence. The rule is ein shaliach lid’var aveirah, “one may not appoint a shaliach to commit a transgression” (Kiddushin 43b).


    Why I am a Jew – B’ha’alot’cha

    May 23rd, 2021

    Revelation at Sinai, painting by Zely Smekhov

    God commands Moses to tell Aaron about lighting the lamps (Num. 8:2). In a broader sense every one of us is an Aaron who needs light to illumine his life.

    Is there something in Jewish identity that gives life meaning?

    For some people the chief feature of Jewish identity is the Holocaust. “Why am I a Jew? Without the Holocaust I would not feel Jewish!” Others say, “Without Israel I would not feel Jewish!”

    The Holocaust Jew says, “I am Jewish because I cannot be annihilated!” The Israel Jew says, “I am Jewish because my determination cannot be squashed!”

    There is something great in both ideas, but there is something missing, the deeper dimension that says, “I am Jewish because of Sinai. Without Sinai I would not feel Jewish!”

    Sinai is shorthand for spirituality, wisdom, commitment, compassion, excitement, cultural richness. With Sinai I find a message in every moment, a poem in every place, a challenge in every deed.

    The Holocaust Jew and the Israel Jew should not forget to be a Sinai Jew.


    White as snow – B’ha’alot’cha

    May 23rd, 2021

    Miriam and Aaron criticised their brother Moses so God had to punish them. Miriam was as white as snow (Num. 8:10).

    The Torah says she had become leprous. The Targum Onkelos tries to protect Miriam’s honour by leaving out the word leprous.

    The midrashic literature takes the word white in an ethical sense, suggesting that Miriam caused people to be white with shame.

    Disloyalty to Moses’ accredited leadership is not only an offence against community solidarity: it is also an insult to God, who was the one who chose and appointed him.