June 18, 2011
16 Sivan 5771
It is easy to see the connection between the haftarah from the book of Joshua and this week’s parasha. Both relate episodes in which spies are sent out to scout out the land. The mission in the Torah ended tragically. The twelve spies sent by Moses scouted out the land and brought back a report which doomed the mission to conquer the land to failure and destined the children of Israel to forty years in the desert. In the later mission, Joshua sent forth two anonymous spies to scout out the city of Jericho to prepare for its conquest. This mission ultimately ended in success. Joshua’s charge to his spies is expressed in these words: “Joshua son of Nun secretly (heresh) sent the spies from Shitim, saying, ‘Go, check out the region of Jericho’. (2:1)
The word “heresh” has prompted multiple interpretations because it is generally used to mean “deaf” and its plain meaning as we have translated it above seems to be that the mission was intended to be “secret”. One midrash, playing on the consonants of this word, reads the Hebrew word as “heres” meaning pottery and describes how the spies came into the city unnoticed: “What is ‘heresh’? It teaches that they made themselves out to be potters, who shouted out their wares [to attract customers].” (Numbers Rabba 16:1)
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, the S’fat Emet (the second Gerer Rebbe) offers an interesting midrash on this midrash in the name of his grandfather, the first Gerer Rebbe: “When they went to the prostitute (Rahab), it was necessary for them to control their impulses, this is what is meant by “heresh”, for the material from which a piece of pottery (heres) is made has no importance. Its significance is measured in its use and what it holds. This is why an earthenware vessel can only become ritually impure from its contents. So, too, here, the spies were like an ax in the hands of a woodchopper (God). They were vessels doing the will of God. Mixing in their own desires would have ruined the mission.”
The S’fat Emet notes an awareness that important people sometimes get caught up in their own egos and libidos. He points out that when this happens the mission that they set out to accomplish will be compromised. Only when a person takes on a “higher task” selflessly will the mission be accomplished successfully. It is sad that this message is timeless.