Haftarah Parshat Shelah Lekha
June 1, 2013
23 Sivan 5773
It is obvious why the rabbis chose the story of Joshua’s spy mission to Jericho before its conquest as the haftarah for Parshat Shelach. This story clearly parallels the story of the spies found in the Torah reading. Building on the disastrous results of the first spy mission, many commentators were troubled that Joshua would dare attempt a second spy mission, but since he did, they felt themselves compelled to justify the mission and how it differed from the failed mission sent by Moses.
Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (Ralbag – 13th-14th century France), a philosopher and a rationalist, stands out in attempting to resolve these questions: “It is appropriate that we explore this question in order to dispel doubt, why it was valuable for Joshua to command representatives of the people and send the spies. What was the purpose of [sending] these spies? Would their assessment have halted the people from coming to inherit the land? After all, Joshua had already determined that in another three days they would cross the Jordan to come to inherit the land? [We might also ask] why did Joshua not rely on God’s words that promised that no one would stand before him all of his life? [Furthermore,] why did he agree to send spies after knowing the consequences of the mission sent by Moses?
To dispel these doubts, we offer two [possible] reasons: The first was to explore if it was possible to fight against the people who lived in the land that they were sent to spy out or not. The outcome of this question would determine whether the people would go out to war or avoid it; the second [possible] purpose was to strengthen the resolve of the warriors, for when they would hear that fear of Israel had befallen the inhabitants of the land they would be encouraged in battle. [It is obvious that Joshua sent them for the later reason, namely,] that they should determine if fear of the Israelites had fallen upon them. [We know this because they did not spy out the land or Jericho, but rather they came at night and left the same night after hearing from Rahab the mindset of the [people of the] land. This is indicated by their report to Joshua: ‘For God has given into our hand the whole land.’” (Adapted and abridged translation)
Ralbag, the rationalist, assigned to Joshua the role of a military strategist. He could not imagine otherwise. He does not have Joshua dispel God’s role, but he does expect human beings to make sensible decisions. It goes without say that this is an important message for all of us. Religious belief does not require that we abdicate reason. Ralbag shows us that they should go hand in hand in shaping who we are and what we do.
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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