Shlach Lecha: Living On the Edge

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

Dear Friends: with all the rain we’ve had around here, it feels more
appropriate to be studying the Torah portion Noach rather than
Shlach-Lecha, but nevertheless, it’s the season to talk about spies
and their clandestine reconnaissance. Fans of James Bond, take note:
the Torah portion tells the story of the spies who went up from the
desert to scout out the Land of Israel and came back discouraged,
while the haftarah tells of a much more successful mission 38 years
later.

To wit: after Yehoshua [Joshua] led the Israelies across the Jordan
river to begin their conquest of the Land, he sends two men up to
Jericho, where they enter the city and are saved from discovery by a
harlot named Rachav, who has heard about the wondrous miracles of
Israel from Egypt onward and so believes their victory is inevitable.
They make a deal with her: if she lets them escape, they’ll save her
and her family when the town is conquered in the coming battle.

Rachav is an interesting character: on the one hand, she’s a
prostitute and disloyal to her king and people, but on the other hand,
she is more “God-fearing,” in the most literal sense, than the tribal
princes sent by Moshe in the Torah portion. She is also, quite
literally, someone on the margins of society: she lives up against or
perhaps in the wall of the city, which allows her to let the spies
escape through the city wall from her dwelling. (Cf. Yehoshua/Joshua
2:15).

A recurring theme of the Bible is that insight and inspiration often
come from the poor or powerless- in fact, much of the spiritual
leadership in Biblical narrative comes from those without formal
power, status, wealth or authority. For example, the haftarah for the
Torah portion Metzorah tells the story of four “metzorim,” or men
afflicted with ritual impurity, who are outside the gates of the city
and thus able to see things that the king and his advisers cannot.
(Cf. 2 Kings 7.) A third example might be the haftarah for the first
day of Rosh Hashana, in which Hanna, the childless woman, shows the
officiating priest the meaning of true prayer. (1 Samuel 1)

The story of Rachav contrasts the king of Jericho- sitting at the
center of the city, physically and politically- who can’t see the
truth nearly as clearly as the prostitute living right at the outer
wall. Taken together with the stories mentioned above, perhaps the
message is this: leaders must listen to the people on the edges of the
community- they may have something important to teach, something
visible only from the margins of power or status. As ancient sage Ben
Zoma taught: “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.” To
learn from all people requires both openness – to remember that the
harlot at the gate may be wiser than the king on the throne- and
humility, to accept wisdom where it may be found.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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