April 15, 2024
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Parshat Shelach

When discussing this week’s haftarah, the story of the spies sent by Yehoshua, the most troubling question that is often asked is why would this greatest student of Moshe Rabbeinu seemingly repeat the very “mistake” of his teacher, the one of which we read in the parsha. It is a question we have dealt with in the past years and I will, therefore, allow those possible resolutions to stand on their own merit.

This year, I would like to address another question, one no less troubling to me than the previous one. What, if anything, was the purpose of the mission? Clearly, Yehoshua did not send these spies in order to determine whether the land was good or not (as the nation wished to determine 38 years earlier). Hashem had already guaranteed that it was a good land, “eretz zavat chalav ud’vash,” a land flowing with milk and honey. Nor was there a military need to send spies to find out how well fortified the cities were or how powerful the armies were, for God had already guaranteed him victory, as we read in the first perek of Sefer Yehoshua. And there certainly was no need to learn about the population itself, as they had already faced the Canaanites of Arad in battle and their mission would only bring them to the nearest city, that of Yericho.

Our mefarshim grapple with this question, and both the Radak (Rav David Kimchi, 1160-1235) and the Ralbag (Rav Levi ben Gershon, 1288-1344) suggest that there was a different purpose to this mission—different from that of Moshe Rabbeinu. Yehoshua knew these two righteous individuals well and was confident in their positive report. The decision to send them was based upon the leader’s desire to remove any hesitation regarding the invasion from the people themselves. Having full confidence in God’s word would certainly fill a believing nation with confidence in the upcoming battle. But Yehoshua sought to raise the morale of the people even more by having some of their own testify of what they themselves had heard and seen. Indeed, the report to Yehoshua and the final words of our haftarah echo precisely that very purpose: “…all the inhabitants of the land have melted (in fear) because of us.”

And yet, perhaps the focus of the haftarah, and one of the reasons Chazal chose this perek as the reading for this parsha, is not connected to Yehoshua or the spies or the nation. Perhaps our rabbis saw a subtle message in the character of Rachav, the resident of Yericho who took in and protected the spies, which they hoped to reveal to us. Rachav, “isha zonah,” was a woman who was part of the lowest levels of society. A person who dwelled in the city wall itself, far from the seat of power and open to attack from non-citizens who could enter the city at any time. And yet, it was this woman who related the essential information that the spies sought and, eventually, saved the very lives of the spies. The contrast between Rachav and the spies of our parsha couldn’t be starker.

Moshe had every reason to trust men who were described as “anashim,” important and “roshei bnei Yisra’el,” leaders of the nation. It was they, however, who fated the nation to wander 39 more years before arriving at the Promised Land only after the exodus generation and died out. While this “lowliest” of women, shunted by society, provided the encouragement and confidence needed to inspire the Israelites to begin their invasion.

We may regard background and pedigree as telling indicators to a person’s character, but Hashem looks into the heart and judges one’s character by their deeds and not their genes.

By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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