13 June 2011

Thoughts on Shelach: The Narrative Thread

The link that connects the Torah portion of Shelach to its Haftarah appears to be the act of sending spies. At the beginning of Shelach, Moses sends spies into the land of Canaan; and similarly, in the Haftarah, Joshua sends spies to the Canaanite city of Jericho. But the linkage between the portion of Shelach and its Haftarah goes deeper than the act of sending spies. Two other matters bind the sidra to its Haftarah: the importance of faith, and the significance of a colored thread.

In the Torah story, the spies stray from the divine path. They relinquish their faith in God’s guidance and protection, and when faced with the apparent Canaanite might, they are beguiled by the vision of their eyes and succumb to the dictates of their heart. They report to Moses that it would be impossible for the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land. Shortly after, God tells Moses to instruct the people of Israel to place threads (tzitzit) on the fringes of their garments, including one blue thread to remind them of heaven, so that they will not go astray by following the dictates of their hearts and their eyes, thereby “prostituting” themselves (as the Torah puts it – see Numbers 15:39) through their trust in false beliefs.

In contrast to the lack of faith that the spies in the portion of Shelach display, Joshua’s spies enter Jericho and encounter a woman named Rahab, a prostitute who wants to change her life. She has heard of the miracles that God performed for Israel. She knows in her heart that God will enable the Israelites to conquer Jericho, and indeed all of Canaan; and she wants to join the nation of Israel. She hides Joshua’s spies and helps them escape, lowering them from her window by a crimson cord. In return for her help, she asks that she and her family be spared. The spies tell her to leave the crimson cord hanging from her window, so that the soldiers will know which house to spare. In the ensuing battle, Joshua’s army conquers Jericho. Rahab and her family are spared, and Rahab joins the nation of Israel.

The Haftarah, then, in many ways is the antithesis of the sidra. Whereas in the Torah portion, the spies abandon their trust in God’s power and guardianship over Israel, thus figuratively “prostituting” themselves, in the Haftarah an actual prostitute rejects her former life and places her trust in God and in the oath of Joshua’s spies that the Israelite army will spare her and her family. In the Torah, God commands the Israelites to wear a blue thread on the fringes of their garments to remind them of heaven and figuratively to bind them to their faith in God, lest they be led astray by the dictates of their hearts and their eyes. It is a token of trust between man and God. In the Haftarah a colored rope marks Rahab’s house for the Israelite soldiers, but it is also a mark of Rahab’s faith in the honor of men and their commitment to their word. As the blue thread of the tzitzit is a token of man’s faith in God, Rahab’s crimson cord is a token of trust between man and man.

© Copyright 2011 by Ben Roshgolin. All rights reserved.


For the supernal associations of the blue thread in the tzitzit, see Chullin 89a (top), Menachot 43b (bottom), and Zohar II:139a (top).

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