Haftarah Parshat Shelah Lekha (Joshua 2:1-24)
June 13, 2015 /26 Sivan 5775
Sages throughout the generations have searched for clues to distinguish why the spy mission that Joshua sent to scout out Jericho succeeded while that sent by Moses to reconnoiter the entire land failed. The spies who Joshua sent were described as “heresh” (spelled: het resh shin): “Joshua son of Nun secretly (heresh) sent two spies from Shittim, saying, ‘Go reconnoiter the region of Jericho.’” (2:1)
The word ”heresh” usually means “deaf”, but here takes on the meaning of “stealth”. A midrash tells a story of how this was accomplished based on a wordplay. The word “heres” (spelled: het resh sin – the difference between a shin and sin is only a dot) means “pottery”: “What is the meaning of the word ’heresh’?’ It teaches that they provided themselves with pots, and cried: ‘Here are pots! Whoever wishes let him come and buy!’ Why all this trouble? So that no one might detect them and that people should not say that they were spies.” (Bemidbar Rabbah 16:1)
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the second Gerer Rebbe (19th-20th century Poland) recorded his grandfather’s explanation of the significance of this midrashic story. He focused on the special halachic qualities of ceramic pottery. He explained that pottery does not become ritually impure from what touches it on the outside, but rather only from what is put in the pot. He discerned that people should learn from this that, like pots, people need to see their “external” needs as secondary to their inner spiritual qualities. It is the inner divine spark hidden in each of us which must take precedence over our external self-centered needs. The more a person makes service to God central to his or her life, the more this divine spark will be recovered and the more God’s will will be brought forth into the world. (Sefat Emet Bemidbar, Or Etzion ed. p. 115)
Moses’ spies failed because most of them were in involved in their own self-interests instead of serving the larger picture. Joshua’s spies, according to the Sefat Emet’s reading, succeeded because they became like “heres” protecting and serving that “inner spark” over their own needs. They were selfless rather than selfish and that made all the difference.
This idea is counter-cultural in a world where the focus on “self” has become paramount. Still, it warrants our attention if we really want to make the world we live in worthy of God’s presence.
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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