July 12, 2024
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The Battle That Was Not a Battle

Parshat Shelach

The well-known story related to us in our haftarah this week, the story of Yehoshua’s spies and the events that took place in the city of Yericho even before its conquest, parallel the primary story found in our parsha. In past articles, we discussed some of the differences between the two stories, the most essential one being that in the parsha the spies sin and cause the Israelites to remain in the desert for 39 more years, while the episode told in the haftarah tells of a successful “undercover” mission that paved the entry of Bnei Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael some three days later. The account related in the second perek of Sefer Yehoshua should not be regarded as an isolated incident with no connection to the larger chain of events that followed. It is, in reality, a mere prelude to the entire story of the conquest of Yericho and all that followed the battle.

And it is that connection that I choose to discuss with you this week.

The battle for Yericho was anything but that; it was not a battle. The author (Yehoshua) makes it clear that the Israelites did everything but fight. At Hashem’s command, Bnei Yisrael set up their army around the city. They are led by the Aron, the Ark of Hashem, which was preceded by seven kohanim blasting shofarot. The troops then passed before the Ark and proceeded to march around the city once each day. On the seventh day they followed this same procedure seven times and, following the last circuit, the city’s walls collapsed, killing the enemy and allowing the troops to enter the city.

That was it! The army paraded around the city and sounded the shofarot—but they never even raised a sword. That was the very reason why the people were prohibited from taking any of the spoils because, as we’ve mentioned here before, “to the victor belong the spoils,” and the victory belonged to God-and to Him alone. That was precisely the lesson that Hashem wanted the people to learn. But they didn’t. The perakim that follow tell us how Achan ben Karmi did take from the spoils—and the result was that Yehoshua’s army was defeated in the very next battle, the war against the city of Ai.

Rabbi Menchem Liebtag addresses the question as to why all of Israel was punished when but one man sinned and took from the spoils. Why does the text declare that “the people of Israel trespassed” when only Achan did? Rabbi Liebtag’s response is both quite satisfying and illuminating. Although the sin was committed by one, the underlying attitude was shared by many. Achan sinned because he believed that the nation who had fought in the war had earned the right to take from the spoils; that the victory was not all of God’s doing. And that sinful attitude was shared by the people.

Before the next battle against the city of Ai, Yehoshua’s agents come back with the report that the city was small and relatively weak so that there was no reason to “exhaust the entire army.” Rather, they suggested, we need to send only 2-3,000 troops to battle and that would suffice to conquer the citizens—which is what Yehoshua did. But Israel had yet to win even one battle! She did not fight against the residents of Jericho—God did! Yet they felt that they were powerful enough not to send the whole army into battle. They felt that they could do it alone! They, like Achan, never learned the lesson of Yericho. And therefore, they, like Achan, were punished.

We are blessed to hear the words of the prophets after Torah reading on each Shabbat and Yom Tov. How wonderful it would be if we spent time reading the selection from its source and learning even more than the limited selection chanted in the Beit Knesset.

The words of our nevi’im still speak to us today.


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

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