Spy vs. Woman

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

Spies. Sex. Prostitution. Feminine faith. Male failure. They all come together in this week’s Parshah, Shelach, and the accompanying Haftorah, as we take a look at the two sets of spies that the Israelite nation sent out in advance of their conquest of the Land of Canaan. Let’s take them in chronological order.

Spies I

Another calamity strikes the Jewish people on their way to the Land of Canaan.

This time, Moses sends scouts to evaluate the land, and to report back as to its size, its topography, its population, and the strength of its inhabitants. For this task, Moses chooses twelve “men of distinction,” and “heads of the children of Israel,” and provides them with specific questions and data points that he would like answered upon their return.

So far so good, right?

Forty days later the scouts return. However, rather than making an objective report to Moses, ten of them go straight to the people, and provide a highly subjective and unflattering description of the Land of Canaan. They emphasize the might of Israel’s inhabitants, the presence of giants, and the invulnerability of fortifications. As a result of their speech, the Jewish people lose heart. They forget either that G-d has promised to deliver the land into their hands, or that He has the ability to do so and, terrified, they weep and wail and demand to be taken back to Egypt.

G-d does not respond to this forgetfulness kindly. For their role in their unfaithful reporting and stirring the people’s fears and doubts, the ten scouts were killed. As for the rest of the nation, there would be a tall price for their lack of faith: they would be condemned to wander the desert for forty years until they were replaced by their children. And so it was, that forty years later, an entirely new generation of Jewish men entered the Land of Canaan.

The story is extremely perplexing. What went wrong? How did the “men of distinction” and “heads of the Children of Israel” screw up so badly?

The Midrash states that the entire scouting mission was ill-conceived, and one that bore the mark of G-d’s disapproval from the start. Indeed, in the first words of the Parshah, G-d tells Moses: “Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan.” Numbers, 13:2. The Midrash notes that the words “for yourself” was G-d’s way of saying “this is your idea, not my commandment or recommendation.”

Why did G-d disapprove the mission? And why did Moses proceed, despite the indications of G-d’s disapproval?

There are many explanations for this. Some explain that the Jewish people wanted to send secret spies; Moses didn’t want to send anyone, but compromised, and agreed to send ambassadors rather than spies. Some explain that the people wanted to show G-d that they were ready to take initiative and to be active participants in the conquest of the Land of Canaan, and not merely rely upon G-d’s miracles. Thus, they sought to approach the conquest through natural means. G-d, on the other hand, intended this particular conquest to be an almost entirely supernatural one, much like the exodus from Egypt.

But, once again, the striking commentary of the Kli Yakar stands out. He says: Do you know why G-d disapproved of the mission?

Because Moses wanted to send men. Men have a hard time reconciling what they see and understand intellectually with what they trust and believe on a super-rational level. Yes, we trust G-d, but….but still! We need to see for ourselves, we need to make our own assessment and determination!

G-d told Moses: “In My opinion, you should send women – not men. Women already have a love for the Land of Canaan, simply because it is what was promised to their forefather. Women are less likely to be cowed by a show of physical strength or military might, simply because they trust Me to continue to take care of My children as I have promised I would. Send women, and you will receive a more flattering and accurate report of the Land of Canaan. Send women, and your path to the Land of Canaan will be characterized by optimism, not fear.”

Indeed, as Rashi later notes (Numbers, 26:64) “the women were not included in the decree enacted in the aftermath of the spies, for they cherished the Land.”

Spies II

As related in this week’s Haftorah (Joshua, 2: About forty years later, after Moses’s passing, Joshua assumes the mantle of leadership, and the responsibility for conquering the interior of the Land of Canaan. He also sends spies, but he sends real spies – two men to covertly slip in to the Land of Canaan, and to gauge the military readiness of its citizens.

It seems that they stopped in the house of Rahab, a beautiful courtesan who made her home in the thick wall surrounding Jericho. When the King of Jericho heard rumors that Rahab was harboring Israelite spies, he demanded that she turn them over to him. She defied his command and hid them, denying to their pursuers any knowledge of their whereabouts. That night she moved them to the roof of her house, and hid them under stalks of flax. When the city gates had been closed, and all was quiet once again, they emerged.

What of their mission? It turns out that Rahab was a veritable treasure trove of information. She advised them that the inhabitants of Canaan were terrified of the Israelite nation that had already vanquished the powerful kings Sichon and Og, and scarcely had the heart to do battle. Rahab asked only, in exchange for her having sheltered them, that when the Israelites attached Jericho, they spare her and her family. The spies agreed, and instructed her to tie a red string outside of her window, and everyone within her house would be spared. She then lowered them by a rope out of the window and down the outer wall of Jericho, where they escaped and rejoined their compatriots.

Sure enough, when the mighty walls of Jericho fell before the Israelite army, Rahab’s house, marked with a red string in her window, remained intact, and she and her family were spared.

Who was this Rahab, whose path the spies were fortunate enough to have crossed?

The Talmud states that Rahab was a prostitute that had plied her trade for…wait for it…forty years. She was ten years old when the Israelites left Egypt, and she engaged in prostitution throughout the subsequent forty years of wandering until the age of fifty. And what a prostitute she was! The Midrash lists the four most beautiful women in the world as Sarah, Abigail, Esther and Rahab. The Talmud relates that anyone who had been intimate with her who merely mentioned her name, saying, “Rahab, Rahab,” was immediately consumed with lust for her.

Since her clients included most princes and dignitaries, she was well acquainted with the citizenry’s thoughts and plans. Thus, when she told the spies that “no man has any more spirit left because of you,” she knew this both from what they had personally confided in her, as well as the visible impact of their fear on their flagging libido.

According to the Midrash, after she was rescued by the Israelites, Rahab converted and repented. She is reported to have cried,

“Master of the Universe! I have sinned with three things: with my eye, my thigh, and my stomach. By the merit of three things pardon me: the rope, the window, and the wall, pardon me for engaging in harlotry because I endangered myself when I lowered the rope for the spies from the window in the wall.”

See Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Megillah 15a, and Zevachim 116a–b.

Not only did Rahab convert, but the Midrash also attests that Rahab ended up marrying Joshua, and that their progeny included the great prophet Jeremiah, the prophetess Chuldah, and several other famous biblical personalities.

How interesting! Moses separates from his wife because his constant communications with G-d do not permit the distraction of sex, as we discussed here. He initially rejects the women’s contribution to the Tabernacle of their copper mirrors, due to the role of those mirrors to promote sexual attraction, as we discussed here. And when he sends spies to the Land of Canaan, he rejects the suggestion that women be sent, and sends men instead, with calamitous results.

In contrast: Joshua sends spies, who are both saved by, and who receive all of their intelligence from Rahab, a woman whose very profession is sex! Not only does Joshua unquestioningly accept her information and proceed accordingly, but he marries her – the leader of Israel marrying the most popular and well-bedded prostitute in the land! How many people thereafter would say “Rahab, Rahab,” and be overcome with lust for Joshua’s wife? Forty years’ worth!

Moses and Joshua, of course, were neither equal in stature, nor in the level with which they would commune with G-d. Still, it is difficult to ignore the strikingly sex-positive and female-empowering message from the contrast between the failed spies sent by Moses, and the successful spies sent by Joshua.

Shabbat shalom!