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Spies, Spirit and Strings

Parshat Shelach

Although we generally explain the connection between the haftarah and the weekly parsha, there is little reason to do so this week. The story of Yehoshua’s spies that we read in the haftarah is almost as familiar as the story of Moshe’s spies of whom we read in the parsha, and the connection between the two is quite obvious. We have also discussed the contrast between the successful mission carried out by Yehoshua’s agents and the failed mission of Moshe’s agents. Nonetheless, each reading of the text seems to reveal new aspects of each story and, with that, new contrasts between them.

Moshe’s spies were charged with the mission of touring the land and bringing back a report of the relative strengths of the enemy. The spies do travel through the land and they do bring back samples of the exceptional fruit found there—just as Moshe had directed them. However, rather than simply reporting the strengths of the enemies, these men went on to focus on the relative weakness of Israel. The spies of Yehoshua, however, were charged with the same mission: to scout the land and report back to Yehoshua of what they saw. But they did not fulfill that mission! The Rav, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, makes the point that the two spies spent their time hiding in the house of Rachav and then hiding in the mountains before returning to camp. They had no opportunity to scout the land and, therefore, could not report to Yehoshua anything regarding the people or the land! And so, they did not fulfill the mission given to them, “L’chu re’u et ha’aretz….”

The Rav, in his inimitable fashion, explained that, actually, the meraglim of Yehoshua did accomplish their mission. The spies were tasked to find the vulnerable points in the enemy’s fortifications; they were assigned the task to find the weaknesses of the enemy. And this they did in a simple phrase: “V’gam namogu kol yoshvei ha’aretz mipaneinu,” “the inhabitants of the land have ‘melted away’ because of us.” Rav Soloveitchik shared the deepest truth in the words of these spies. They told Yehoshua that the greatest weakness of the enemy is their low morale, their fear, their lack of spirit. An army that does not believe in itself, one that enters a war with the expectation of being defeated, can never win. As he put it: “No fortified wall and no giant can counter a person’s spirit!” And without that spirit one is doomed to defeat.

How interesting it is that Chazal identify one of Yehoshua’s spies as being Kalev, the very one who argued with Moshe’s spies and proclaimed: “Alo na’aleh v’yarashnu otah,” “We can surely go up and conquer the land”; the one who had the confidence to challenge the negative report; the one who had the faith in Hashem to assure the people of victory. He had the spirit! Is it any wonder, then, why Yehoshua chose him as a spy? And is it any wonder why Hashem describes him as a man who had “ruach acheret bo,” a different spirit, a positive spirit, a confident “ruach”?

And, perhaps, that is exactly the message we must learn from this story. A message of bitachon, of confidence in God’s promises, which can overcome all obstacles and conquer all enemies.

As I reviewed the haftarah this year, it occurred to me that there was another reason for having it read for this parasha—not only the clear connection to the parsha’s spy story. As Parshat Shelach closes, we are given the mitzvah of tzitzit, strings on our garments that would remind us of the importance of observing Hashem’s mitzvot—“Ureitem oto, uzechartem et kol mitzvot Hashem va’asitem otam, So when you see them you will remember Hashem’s mitzvot and keep them.” As our haftarah closes, Rachav fears that once the Israelites conquer Yericho the spies will forget the promise they made to save her and her family. The meraglim, therefore, gave her a sign that would remind them to keep the promise they made to her. And that sign was…to tie a string in her window, a string that would remind them to keep the promise they made to her.

Spies, spirit and strings tie together the parsha and the haftarah.


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

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