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Haftarah Parshat Shelah Lekah

Haftarah Parshat Shelah  Lekah (Joshua 2:1-4)
June 14, 2014 / 16 Sivan 5774

This week’s haftarah was clearly chosen for Parshat Shelah Lecha because of the similarity in its plot to the opening episode in the Torah. Both contain “spy” stories, the one in the Torah an unsuccessful attempt to prepare for the conquest of the land while the haftarah recounts an exceedingly successful mission to the city of Jericho. In the Torah’s story, Moses sent forth twelve spies to scout out the land of Canaan before the children of Israel’s entry into the land: “The Lord spoke to Moses: ‘Send (Shelah lehcha) men to scout the land of Canaan’” (Numbers 13:1) Ten of the twelve spies returned with a pessimistic report which destroyed the people’s morale and caused the entry into the land to be postponed for forty years.  The haftarah, in contrast, has Joshua, who assumed the mantle of leadership from Moses, send two anonymous spies to Jericho to prepare for its conquest: “Joshua the son of Nun secretly (heresh) sent two spies from Shittim.” (Joshua 2:1)

What caused the failure of one mission and the success of the other? The rabbinic sages searched out clues in unusual phrases found in the sentences describing the missions. Resh Lakish, the Talmudic sage, teased from the words “shelah lecha”, understood here to mean “send for yourself”, that the mission was initiated and carried out for the sake of the people without God’s consent. (Sotah 34b) This contrasts with the picture painted of Joshua’s spies in the following midrash: “There was never a person sent to perform a mitzvah (religious duty) who was willing to risking him or herself their lives for its success like the two men whom Joshua the son of Nun sent; as it says: “And Joshua the son of Nun sent out of Shittim two spies heresh” (Joshua 2:1). Who were they? Our Rabbis taught: They were Pinchas and Caleb. They went and risked their lives and succeeded in their mission. 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 -reading the word heres (earthenware) – and so that people should not say that they were spies… All this serves to teach you how much these two righteous men risked their lives in order to perform their mission. The messengers, whom Moses sent, however, were wicked men. How can we infer this? From what we read in the present section: ‘Send for yourself men’.” (Adapted from Bemidbar Rabbah 16:1)

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the second Gerer Rebbe (also known as the S’fat Emet) elaborated on the significance of this image: “This midrash used the image of ‘kadarim’ – purveyors of earthenware vessels because this sort of vessel has no intrinsic value other than its usefulness since the material that they are made from is worthless. [Like the earthenware vessel,] a person should see him or herself as a vessel ready to do the will of God blessed be He without personal concern. And in truth this midrash is taught regarding this world where a person is sent into a dangerous place where everything is vanity and fleeting spirit. The purpose of the commandments is to enable people to do God’s will and in so doing bring the vital living spirit of God into everything in the world. (Adapted from Sefat Emet Parshat Shelah 5631 Or Etzion ed. p. 111-2)

This is a countercultural message in the modern world where religion is expected a means for self-development. The message here is that the performance of mitzvot should be unencumbered by issues of ego and self. Their purpose is to serve God and to bring God’s will into the world. The success of our mission here on earth is about giving, sharing and doing – that is what made Joshua’s messengers successful.  It can work for us as well.

About This Commentary

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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