Haftarah Parshat Shelach
June 1, 2002 in Israel
June 8, 2002 in the Diaspora
Biblical stories are often told in the most laconic language, leaving the details of the story to the imagination of the reader. This is certainly the case in this week’s haftarah where even the heroes of the story remain anonymous. When the rabbinic sages read the story of the spies that Joshua sent forth to prepare for the conquest of Jericho, they filled in the details of the story as they imagined them from their creative reading of the unique expressions used in the text of the story. Yet they derived the message of the story from its very lack of details. In the following midrash, we note this literary anomaly.
We are taught: Those who are involved on a religious mission (shalichai mitzvah) are exempt from the obligations of the sukkah, for nothing makes God happier than when He sends a person out to do a mitzvah. This is especially true when a person gives him or herself entirely for the successful performance of the mitzvah. No one so wholeheartedly gave of themselves to perform a mitzvah than the two spies sent by Joshua ben Nun to spy out Jericho, as it is written: ‘And Joshua the son of Nun sent out from Shittim two spies secretly (heresh), saying: ‘Go spy out the land of Jericho.’ Who were these spies? The rabbis taught that they were Pinchas and Caleb, who willingly gave of themselves for the success of their mission. What is the meaning of the word ‘heresh’ [which we translate as ‘secretly’]? It comes to tell us that they disguised themselves as potters [who work with ‘heres’ – clay] who peddled their wares so that they would not call attention to their real mission as spies. ‘So they set out and came to the house of a harlot named Rehab and lodged there.’ She stood there and received them. The king of Jericho noted their presence and heard that they had come to search out the land. What did Rehab do? She hid the two spies. Pinchas said to her: ‘I am a cohen [priest] and priests are like angels… when angels desire to be seen they are visible, but, when they wish they are invisible. So, there is no need to hide me…. How do we know, then, that Rehab only hid Caleb? Because it is written: ‘She took the two men and hid him. [The Hebrew word literally implies – ‘she hid him’ even though its simple meaning is that she hid the both of them.] This passage comes to teach us that when righteous individuals perform their mission selflessly, their mission will be successful. But, when the wicked set about to accomplish something, they will fail. This is evident from the story of the spies in the Torah. The spies sent by Moses were wicked. That is why their mission failed. (adapted from Tanchuma Shelach 1)
The rabbis learn that the spies whom Joshua sent were selfless servants of God from the fact that in the Biblical story they remain anonymous. The rabbis identify the characters in the story with two figures, Pinchas and Caleb, known for their selflessness and love of God. The attributes of these two “unsung” heroes are the stuff that has kept the ideals of Judaism alive. Perhaps this is why they so deserve God’s love!
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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