Haftarah Parashat Shelah lekha
Shabbat Mervarekhim Hahodesh
June 9, 2018 | 26 Sivan 5778
Almost everyone has heard of Ruth the Moabite. In the rabbinic tradition, she became the paradigm for the ideal convert to Judaism when she refused to leave her mother-in-law after the death of her husband, saying: “your people shall be my people, your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:16) But Ruth is not the only “non-Jewish” heroine who the rabbinic tradition holds up as a paradigm of loyalty to God and the Jewish people. She is joined but the unlikely hero of our haftarah, Rahab, the harlot.
Rahab’s righteousness is displayed when she literally saves the lives of the spies whom Joshua sent to scout out Jericho. But it is her dramatic statement to to the spies that led a number of sages to consider her a righteous convert. She tells them: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that your terror has fallen upon us and that all the dwellers of the land quake before you. For we have heard how the Lord has dried up the Sea of Reeds before you when you came out of Egypt and what you did to the two Amorite kings across the Jordan, to Sihon and to Og, whom you put to the ban. And we heard, and our heart failed, and no spirit in any man rose before you, for the Lord your God, He is God in the heavens above and on the earth below…” (Joshua 2:9-11) While not as definitive as Ruth’s famous loyalty oath, Rahab’s statement contains within it both a recognition of God and God’s special relationship with Israel.
And just as Ruth, though a Moabite, became the progenitor of King David, so to Rahab is considered the progenitor of a long line of priests and prophets. According to an early midrash: “…Eight priestly prophets were the offspring of Rahab the harlot and these are they: Jeremiah, and Hilkiyahu, Shariah and Mahasiah, Baruch, and Neriah, Hanamel and Shalom. Rabbi Yehudah: Also Huldah the prophetess was among the grandchildren of Rahab the harlot.” (Sifre Bamidbar 78, Kahana ed. vol. 1 p. 189)
This midrash follows the pronounced Biblical tendency to attribute fantastic roles to characters (especially women) who were not normally thought to have a special status in their societies. But the midrash goes one step further – explaining WHY the Bible has this tendency: “And we can learn a lesson here – if someone from a foreign people is willing to put themselves out and risk their life by drawing herself close to God, Israel who lives by the Torah, should be willing all the more so.” (Sifre, p. 189 – adapted translation) In other words, if Rahab (or Ruth) was capable of such dedication and selflessness, surely we should be as well!
But as we so often see, we Jews are often NOT so clear-eyed and appreciative of what we have. Sometimes it takes fresh eyes – often unexpected ones – to remind us of the power of God and Torah. May the Jewish people continue to inspire, and be inspired by, righteous converts!
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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