Parshat Shalach Lecha
In Israel: June 21, 2003
In the Diaspora: June 28, 2003
The most regarded figure in this week’s haftarah is not the spies sent by Joshua to scout out the city of Jericho. Instead the story’s unsung heroine, is the person who saves the spies from almost certain doom. This character, Rahab, the harlot, risked her own well-being because of her realization that the one true God had sent these spies on their mission. How ironic it is that a person with a disreputable profession should be the one religiously discerning person in the entire city! Yet it is Rahab who is aware of God and it is Rahab who decides to save the spies. Once she has hidden the spies, she confesses to them her reason for saving them: “I know that the Lord has given the country to you…. for the Lord your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below.” (Joshua 2:10-11) At this point, she makes a single request of the spies: “Now since I have shown loyalty (hesed – often translated: kindness) to you, swear to me that you will in turn show loyalty to my family. Provide me with a reliable sign (Ot emet – a sign of truth).” (verse 12)
Rabbi David Kimche, the 13th century Provencal commentator, found two points in Rahab’s manner of expression unusual. He notes that Rahab asks for mercy only for her family and not for herself. He also wants us to be aware of what he perceives to be the distinction between “hesed” and “emet” in her request from the spies. Kimche gives this explanation: “’Hesed’ is a good act which a person does for another without thought of compensation. Rahab did an act of ‘hesed’ when she hid the spies since they had not done anything for her. This is why she asked them to do an act of ‘hesed’ for her family and not for herself, since any act that they would do for her would be an act of ‘emet’ – a compensatory or obligatory act since she had already saved them… This is why they answered her: ‘We will do for you hesed and emet’ (verse 14), since they intended to save both her and her family.”
I am not sure that this formal moral distinction is found in the plain meaning of the dialogue between Rahab and the spies. Kimche, however, makes us aware of a valuable lesson. It is religiously important to fulfill one’s obligations in this world. There is even a certain amount of utility in doing so since it insures that on the most basic level people have a reason for doing good for others. Rahab, according to Kimche, rises above this basic level of doing good and does ‘hesed’ for its own sake (lishma) without thought of compensation, offering us a model of religiosity at a higher level.