Haftarah: Shelach: Partnership
Joshua 2:1-24: The last time that the Children of Israel were in Shittim they faced a spiritual disaster. (Numbers 25:1-9) Twenty four thousand men died in a plague when they were easily seduced by the Daughters of Moab and, who, in their passion, were willing to do anything, including idol worship. Pinchus stood alone among the leaders and Cohanim. Moses and Aaron watched helplessly on the side and wept. The Moabite god, Ba’al-Peor, is considered the nemesis of Moshe: “So Moses, servant of God, died there, in the land of Moab, by the mouth of God. He buried him in the depression, in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-Peor.” (Deuteronomy 34:5-6) Shittim is where Israel fell to Ba’al-Peor, where Moshe and Aaron failed, and where so many died. Who can begin to picture the pain and confusion the people associated with this place?
Shittim is where Joshua, the freshly minted successor to Moses, is camped with his nation. Moses has died. One cannot help but think that this place is somehow associated with his death. The people are already insecure: Can Joshua lead them as did Moshe? The ghosts hovering around Shittim do not haunt the new leader. Joshua chooses to confront them and other significant failures of the past. He decides to use Shittim as the place from which to send two spies to Canaan and Jericho. Joshua will use Shittim for good. He will send spies and they will lead the people forward, not backward.
Joshua will transform Shittim from a place of failure to a place of great success. He chooses the hero of Shittim, Pinchas, and the hero of the original spies, Caleb, as his two messengers to “Observe the land and Jericho.” (Joshua 2:1)
Caleb and Pinchas surely understood Joshua’s intentions when each observed the other as his partner. It was not necessary for Joshua to elaborate and offer detailed instructions. Three people were in the tent. Each understood that Joshua’s plan did not yet include the entire nation. The process would begin with the three men. What was their mission? How could they repair the sins of the spies and Shittim?
Joshua’s mission statement is vague: “Observe the land and Jericho.” We can only understand Caleb and Pinchas’ assignment by its denouement.
Caleb and Pinchas remain anonymous through the entire story as if their role was not as important as Rahab’s or even that of the king of Jericho. They are passive through much of the story: “The woman had taken the two men and hidden him.” (Joshua 2:4) “But she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them.” (Verse 6) In fact, they arrive on their secret mission only to sleep: “They arrived at a harlot’s house, her name was Rahab, and slept there.” (Verse 1) (How ironic that two men sent to repair the sexual sins of Shittim, head for a house of prostitution!) They were ready to go back to sleep as soon as she moved their hiding place to the roof: “They had not yet gone to sleep when she came up to them on the roof.” (Verse 8)
Rahab, who, as we would expect of a prostitute, lived on the outskirts of society: “For her house was in the wall of the fortification.” (Verse 15) She did not live in the actual city, but in its wall. Over her forty-year career she developed relationships with all the people in power. (Zevachim 116b) This woman is willing to risk everything to save two spies of Israel. She stands up to the king. It is also unusual for a woman of her profession to speak of oaths and honesty. No wonder the Sages teach that Rahab converted. This is a story of a woman who survived since the age of ten as a prostitute, who rose to the pinnacle of her profession, and yet has an unbelievable clarity and capacity for change. Rahab uses the very rope, ladder and flax that she had used to hide her customers and help them escape to save the two spies and pray: “I sinned with three things, and with the three things may I be pardoned.”
Rahab is searching for the same “Tikkun” as is Joshua. It is no surprise that the Sages believe that she married Joshua after her conversion.
Thirty-eight years earlier, the Children of Israel stood just across the Jordan under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. They were unstoppable, yet they did stop and wait and die out. Thirty-eight years earlier they were far more intimidating than now as they stood on the other side of the Jordan with their untested leader. There was cause for Canaan to be confident, but they were not. They were terrified: “Fear of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land have dissolved because of you.” (Verse 9) “We heard and our hearts melted – no spirit remained in any man because of you.” (Verse 11) The king of Jericho sent a message to Rahab rather than storm her home with his soldiers. The people of Jericho are terrified. They do not expect Israel to stall again at the banks of the Jordan.
God made it clear to Joshua that His relationship with them has changed: “Moses, My servant, has died!” (Joshua 1:2) Joshua must learn the rules of this new relationship. How involved would God be in their lives? Would He fight for them as He did for Moses? Or, would they have to assume a more active role in their futures. This story is the beginning of the switch from the Written to the Oral Law. Joshua and future leaders would not be able to turn to God for specific instructions: “Moses, My servant, has died!” They would have to determine what God wanted them to do. They would have to assume far more responsibility.
Joshua chose two leaders who had proven their willingness to assume the greatest responsibilities: Caleb and Pinchas. These two courageous leaders chose to be passive and see how God would guide them. They did not actively participate until it was clear to them how much of a role God would play now even after the death of Moses.
God chose to work through a woman who had taken the same path of Joshua; a path of repair and change. God would only play an active role for those willing to participate in the process.
There was no longer a Moses to ask God for specific instructions, but there were Joshuas, Calebs, Pinchas, and Rahabs who were able to communicate with God through their determination to assume the active role of participants in the process of Oral Law and to form a new partnership with the Giver of the Torah, The Creator of Heaven and Earth, and the Guider of History.
The rules of the partnership have not changed. They are as real for us today as they were for Joshua.