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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Parashat Shelach Lecha - the Haftara

Shelach Lecha - the Haftara
Joshua 2:1-24
Reading date: 13th June 2009 – 14th Sivan 5769

Our Highlighted Haftara text

"Now, since I have shown loyalty to you, swear to me by Adonai that you in turn will show loyalty to my family. Provide me with a reliable sign..."Joshua 2: 12

The signs to enter YHVH's Promised Land and see His Presence may be found in surprising places!

In this week's parasha, Shelach Lecha, we read of the disastrous episode of the spies sent to scout out the land of Israel. It is this lack of faith and gratitude that sentences the Israelites to wander in the desert for 38 [more] years. In a parallel account, (hence its choice by the Rabbis for this week) the haftara provides closure: Joshua similarly sends two spies, and this time the mission is successful.

Besides the obvious connection to the book of Numbers' spy story, the haftara has a number of parallels to other narratives in Torah. The crimson thread connects this narrative also to the birth of Perez and Zerach (Gen. 38), the sons of Tamar. Like Rahab, Tamar was a Canaanite woman who used sexual seduction to secure safety for her herself and her family. The crimson thread that identifies Rahab's house and protects her and her family is reminiscent of the blood on the doorposts that protected the Israelites in Egypt. (Parenthetically, the 'crimson thread' that identified the harlot's house is said to be the original 'red light' district.) Finally, Rahab's bravery lying to the king about the spies' whereabouts calls to mind the midwives who similarly risk their lives when confronted by Pharaoh. Interestingly, Rahab actually explicitly refers to the Exodus narrative as one of the things she knows about the Israelites' God.

The book of Joshua is the first book of the section of Prophets, and continues chronologically from the death of Moses. Joshua succeeds Moses and is the military leader who invades and conquers Canaan. Joshua lived around 1200 BCE (the beginning of the Iron Age).
Rahab is a fascinating character. The Hebrew root of her name: (resh, het, bet) means 'wide' or 'spacious'. The word frequently appears with the former meaning when dimensions such as 50 cubits wide are listed (Noah's Ark, and the Ark of the Covenant). The latter meaning is given as the etymology of the city Rehovot. After several disputes over wells between the herdsmen of Gerar and the herdsmen of Isaac, they dug another well that they didn't fight over, and they named the place Rehovot, for "now at last Adonai has granted us ample space to increase in the land." (Gen. 26:22). The Bible uses the phrase, rehov ha'ir, which probably refers to the centre, open area of the city (like the Roman forum). In Modern Hebrew, the word rehov means street. Appropriately enough, Rahab 'worked the street.'

Rahab is identified as a 'zonah - prostitute' which lends an almost comic quality to the story. One tradition recorded in the Babylonian Talmud goes even further, and describes her as the Marilyn Monroe of the Bible- just saying her name can make men go crazy (Megillah 15b). Generally, however, the Rabbis try to recast Rahab; (following Rashi) that ‘zonah’ refers to being an innkeeper, like 'birkat hamazon'- the grace after meals. Some midrashim go even further and make Rahab into a righteous convert like Ruth, since she says, "Adonai your God is God in heaven above and here on earth" (Josh. 2:12).

This is surprising, because in the Bible, prostitution is often paired with idolatry, which is described as literally, whoring after other gods. The remedy for such idolatrous prostitution is found at the conclusion of our parasha, where, instead of 'looking' after false gods, we are commanded to look at the tzitzit (blue threads): "You shall look at it and recall all the commandments of Adonai and observe them so that you do not follow your heart and eyes whoring after them" (Num. 15:39). The word to 'follow' is ‘taturu’, the same verb used to describe the 'spying' of the scouts: ‘latur et ha'aretz’ (it even sounds like the English: tour!). Rashi comments: the eyes and heart are the bodies' spies.

The lesson of the spies' mission gone horribly wrong is that they focused on the wrong things. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (liberally adapting the midrash of Shmot Rabbah 24:1) describes the experience of two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon at the greatest miracle, the splitting of the sea:
"What is this muck?"Shimon scowled, "There's mud all over the place!""This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!" replied Reuven."What's the difference?" complained Shimon. "Mud here, mud there; it's all the same."... For Reuven and Shimon the miracle never happened.

In addition to this theme of prostitution / spying, the motif of looking at a particular colored thread also connects the Torah and haftara portions. In the haftara too, the spies are told to look for a red cord. The red string is a sign, 'ot' which serves as an ironic reminder that the Israelites disregarded the 'ot' the very signs that the Almighty had performed: "How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs ‘otot’ that I have performed in their midst? (Num. 14:22). In the Rahab narrative, the red thread becomes a sign of loyalty, the very opposite of prostitution.

It seems that even earth-shattering miracles are no guarantee that our lives will be filled with the Almighty’s presence. Perhaps we have to look for Hiss signs in more subtle ways. Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute is an unlikely hero. Yet it was Rahab who had the faith in the Almighty that the Israelites themselves hadn't demonstrated, and helped them keep their eyes open.
To enter the Promised Land, we have to be prepared to see the Almighty’s Presence, and the signs may be found in surprising places!

Shabbat Shalom

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