Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bob Epstein on Shalakh Lechah - Humor in the Book of Joshua - a Drash

Humor in the Book of Joshua - a Drash

This week’s Parshah – שלח לך – tells the story of the scouts sent out to explore the Promised Land.  Ten of them came back with tales of fierce giants and brought back a cluster of huge grapes to suggest just how big these giants must be.  Because of their lack of faith, the Israelites were sentenced to wander aimlessly in the desert for another 40 years.
The feckless behavior of the ten scouts, “serious people” in the words of the Tanach, who saw אלהים ‘s wonders, is contrasted in the Haftorah to the behavior of a lowly Cannanite woman, Rahav, who heard reports of what יהוה had done.

Every once in a while, I come across an interpretation in Tanach which astounds me.  Three examples come to mind:
·    - First, that Queen Esther was a bigamist.   חז”ל say she was married to Mordechai and by offering his wife to the unsuspecting  Ahasuerus, Mordechai, according to Rabbinic tradition, committed a sin in order to achieve a Mitzvah.  Amazing!

- Next is King Saul – each time he asks “Who is David” it’s because he doesn’t believe that David is Jewish!  Saul’s obsession with the legitimacy of Ruth’s conversion turns him into a tragic hero.  Among tragic figures, King Saul, in my opinion, towers מִשִּׁכְמ֖וֹ   וָמָֽעְלָה “from his shoulders on up” in heroic stature, flaw and pathos.  Amazing!

- Finally, there is the example from this week’s Haftorah – the conversion of Rahav the harlot into a Jewish hero par excellence.  What amazed me was not that she became Jewish, but how unaware I was of our tradition.  Realizing others in our community may also have overlooked this extraordinary woman, and that there may be other למופת  דוגמאות (exemplars) obscured in our text, I asked Danielle if I could learn today.     After all, Rahav is the first convert to Judaism in the return from Egypt, preceding Ruth by 400 or so years and converted without ever having met a Jew! The Rabbis say she was one of the four most beautiful women in the Mikra and her conversion is regarded as more complete than that of Jethro.
This week’s haftorah describes the preparations for the conquest of Jericho.  Two men were selected to reconnoiter the town.  With the huge Israelite camp just across the Jordan River, the arrival of spies was anticipated by the inhabitants.  What the spies didn’t anticipate was their reception.  Rahav gives them the information they sought:” I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you.  And, she famously says:
 כִּי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם--הוּא אֱלֹהִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל, וְעַל-הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת.
 For the LORD your God is God in heaven above, and on the earth below.

As Rabbi Ian Shaffer of Yeshiva University points out, we can imagine that when the spies recovered their ability to speak, taking their cue from the Alenu prayer, their reply was אין עודThere’s nothing to add – you said it all!

The Rabbis considered Rahav as one of the greatest בעלי תשובה.  I don’t think teshuva here is about turning, returning, or repenting, it means she found the answer- she got it!
Compared to Ruth’s conversion centuries later, Rahav’s presents a different model, not about loving a people, but about understanding God.  That understanding and with it, the realization of the inevitability of the conquest of the land of Israel, led to Rahav’s second extraordinary characteristic: אוהב ישראל:  Her love of the Jewish people.  At the risk of her life, she hid the spies, fed them, misled their pursuers, and planned an escape route.  Even more amazing, Rahav bargained for her life and her family’s, managing to escape when the rest of Jericho was destroyed.
So, here is a woman, living in the late Bronze Age, who runs a business when businesses were few and women’s rights fewer, who is quick-witted, generous, bold and thinks totally out-of-the-box.   A woman, we would say, with alle maylis – all the best qualities.  Amazing.
I’d like to look at the Haftorah through the lens of literary criticism, for it was a story long before it was a text.  Let’s consider the tone.  There are many aspects of comedy in the Book of Joshua – the most outrageous being 40,000 soldiers limping toward Jericho, hands locked together, for all men younger than 40 had just been circumcised.  Picturing Jericho, we can imagine a long white city wall with a scarlet rope dangling from a corner.  The language, especially the double entendres, reinforces the comic elements.
I can imagine, as people are scraping the chulunt  around the campfire, a  Damon Runyonesque character, eyes twinkling when not rolling,  introducing the story of Rahav:
Tonight I’m going to tell you the story of Rahav whose name means broad.  Now Rahav lived in a hole in the wall and you couldn’t miss it because there was a red cord hanging outside the window.  Some people say the cord was to make it easy to find the place and others say it was to get out of town when you just had to get out of town quickly.  Either way – the woman was a genius.  The Radak agreed with Rashi that Rahav engaged in one of the two oldest professions, but while Rashi said it was hospitality, the Radak thought it was the other one.  Rashi said it was an inn and Rahav was a cook and we can imagine the Radak adding “Some inn, some cook”.
Now, if you follow the Radak, you may wonder just how the spies spent the night at Rahav’s house – “what is a Cohen doing in a cemetery”, so-to-speak.  They would have left much sooner (how long can you spend averting your eyes), but for their obligation to dissuade Rahav from converting! I tell you they didn’t sleep a wink.  When they weren’t reciting תהלים (Psalms) they were performing מִצְווֹת.
! סדקים ללא  צדיקים Their righteousness had no chinks.

When the spies returned to the camp and told them how Rahav had saved them and what an 
אשת חיל, a woman of valor, she was, all the חייליםthe soldiersvolunteered to rescue her.  Joshua's biggest problem was getting the soldiers from shouting out their names as they passed under her window.  They were so loud he had to have the shofars blown – that’s when the walls fell.
Rahav continued to show her love for Israel from the time she joined the Israelites.  Wherever she went, you could hear people exclaiming רהב עשתה עוד חיל"”, which can be translated as "has added luster to her glory."
I think the ambiguity of Rahav’s profession is deliberate and serves a comic function. Not that it matters, since the previous behavior of a convert, say חז”ל, is irrelevant.  That question, I think, says more about the questioner’s values than Rahav’s.

1) There is a quote in Tractate Nedarim:  “Had not Israel sinned, only the Chumash and the Book of Joshua would have been given them. “
 If the Bible ended with the Book of Joshua do you think we would understand our story any differently?

2) Are there stories in Tanach which you think are over-looked in our community?

I’d like to conclude with an image from this week’s haftorah:  Rahav twinning the scarlet thread over the cord from her window.  Our tradition speaks of the souls of the צַדִיקִים being entwined.  I think, from time to time we need to look closely at the braid and make sure that all the threads are accounted for.

Shabbat Shalom! 

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