In the Diaspora
June 20, 2009
28 Sivan 5769
This week\’s haftarah proves a perfect counterpart to the parasha. The parasha recounts the episode of the spies who were sent to reconnoiter the land before the people entered the land of Canaan. Only two of the spies conducted their mission faithfully. The other ten betrayed their mission to Moses and to God. In the haftarah, on the other hand, two spies were sent on a similar mission to scout out the city of Jericho. These spies accomplished their task loyally, both to their task and to Joshua, the leader who sent them.
These same spies also exhibited another example of loyalty and honesty which proved to be an example for all generations. The ultimate success of their mission rested on a certain woman, named Rahab, the harlot, who chose to protect them and hide them when their lives were at risk. After she hid them and sent those who pursued them away so they would not be caught, she told these spies that she and others had heard of God\’s wondrous redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. She asked these spies to swear in their own name and the name of the Israelites to spare her and her family when they conquered the city of Jericho: \”Now, since I have shown loyalty to you, swear to me by the Lord that you will in turn show loyalty to me and my family…\” (verse 12) The spies replied: \”Our persons are pledged for yours, even to death! If you do not disclose this mission of ours, we will show you true loyalty when the Lord gives us the land.\” (verse 14)
In the 18th century, the chief rabbi of Bohemia, Rabbi Yehezkel Landau, author of the responsa, Noda Bi\’Yehuda, was asked a halachic question by the non-Jewish Austrian authorities. They asked whether a Jew could legitimately swear falsely if the Torah he held when he took his oath was pasul (ritually defective). Landau answers definitively that a Jew is never allowed to swear falsely no matter what. He continues his reply by giving a variety of illustrations from the biblical tradition in order to legitimate his answer to his non-Jewish questioners. After thoroughly proving from the Torah the unacceptability of false oaths, Landau cites anecdotal examples from the prophetic books to illustrate his point. Among his examples, of course, is the above story of Rahab, the harlot, and the spies. (see Noda Bi\’Yehuda Mahadura Kama Yoreh Deah 71)
This responsum, of course, is apologetic in nature, lest the Jews fall into trouble with their neighbors. It is interesting how Landau weaves into his legal answer biblical narrative stories, something which is rarely done, in order to make his answer both intelligible and significant to his non- Jewish inquirers. In particular, his use of the story of Rahab and the spies only points up how significant the element of loyalty and truth become in the aftermath of the catastrophe caused by the first set of spies. These second spies are transformed into a paradigm for the ages.
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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