Squeezing Meaning Out Of A Text - What the People Of the Book Do

In a couple of weeks from now we will be reading the Parshat called “Shelach”, שלח.  The Haftorah reading for this Parshat is from the Book of Joshua. It concerns the sending out of two spies on a dangerous intelligence gathering operation.   On one level it is a story of a clandestine insertion of two Jewish operatives on a secret mission, doomed from the get-go, hiding out in a bordello, a tale filled with suspense, danger, betrayal and escape.  But on another level; well let’s wait and see.

 Chapter 2 begins as follows:

וַיִּשְׁלַח יְהוֹשֻׁעַ-בִּן-נוּן מִן-הַשִּׁטִּים שְׁנַיִם-אֲנָשִׁים מְרַגְּלִים חֶרֶשׁ לֵאמֹר, לְכוּ רְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְאֶת-יְרִיחוֹ; וַיֵּלְכוּ וַיָּבֹאוּ בֵּית-אִשָּׁה זוֹנָה, וּשְׁמָהּ רָחָב--וַיִּשְׁכְּבוּ-שָׁמָּה

Reasonably translated the text reads:

“Joshua the son of Nun sent out from Shittim two spies secretly, saying: 'Go; see the land and Jericho.' They went; they came to the house of a woman, a harlot,  named Rachav, and they slept there”.

All in all the text seems pretty straight forward, but seeing as how we are the People of the Book, maybe there is more than meets the eye here.  And if so, then it calls for making interpretations.  But how does one do that?  We are talking about making a commentary on a biblical text; sounds a little chutzpadik if you ask me.

 Most of us have not gone to Seminary or Yeshiva, let alone received Smicha. And there are many of us Olim who are not fluent in Ivrit let alone Biblical Hebrew.  This is something like an English speaker having to deal with Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English, not exactly a walk in the park.  But that does not mean that we should not go forward.  So how do we start?

 In my opinion the way to start is to look to how the best of the best of Biblical Commentators went about making interpretations.  Hands down, that would be the 11th century commentator on the Torah, par excellence, Rashi. What was his interpretive method?  And even though we sorely lack Rashi’s knowledge, wisdom and capacity, can we give it a try without thoroughly embarrassing ourselves?

 I think so, and I will go so far as to speculate that Rashi would encourage us to do so.  Quoting from Avram Grossman’s 2012 book “Rashi” on his interpretive method: “According to Rashi, every biblical verse – and in particular, every verse in the Torah – bears a significance and message that go beyond merely conveying information.  Accordingly, one must do more than interpret the literal meaning of the words”.

 Ok, let’s start with the opening words: וַיִּשְׁלַח יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, Joshua sent…

Who is Joshua?  We have a tradition that you can tell something about a person by delving into the meaning of his name.  In this case,  יְהוֹשֻׁעַ means “God saves” or rescues or delivers.  We have a foreshadowing of what the two spies are going to encounter. 

 The root of the word וַיִּשְׁלַח when used as a noun has the connotation of an emissary or agent. So maybe, we have here: “God’s saving emissary”.  This could point to either Joshua or the two men or Rachav.  My money is on the later.

 Joshua sends out two men. They are spies.  What kind of spies are they?  The text says שְׁנַיִם-אֲנָשִׁים מְרַגְּלִים חֶרֶשׁ. The possible answers may focus on how you interpret the word חֶרֶשׁ.  If חֶרֶשׁ is being used as an adverb, then they were sent out secretlyBut why the need for secrecy?  An obvious answer, and one that relates to our world today, is to avoid intelligence leaks.  This is a clandestine secret mission, fraught with danger.  The fewer people who know about it, the better.  Was there possibly a spy from Jericho in the Israeli camp?...maybe, maybe not, best not take a chance.

 חֶרֶשׁ can also mean silentlyThat’s an easy one; silence or stealth goes without saying. However, חֶרֶשׁ has an implication of being deaf.  There is a commentator who suggests that the spies should pose as being deaf.  This is so because then the inhabitants of Jericho thinking that they are deaf will talk openly around them, and perhaps reveal secrets.

 חֶרֶשׁ can also signify earthenware or clay pots.  There is another commentator who suggests that the spies should pose as merchants selling clay pots.  This would be their cover when question by the city’s gatekeeper: “What is your business here?” “We’re here to sell our pots”.  Likewise, חֶרֶשׁ can also mean a carpenter, and another cover story: “We’re just here to errect some scaffolding for the city’s walls”.

 Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on espionage.  But my favorite genre of film and reading material happens to be mystery & thrillers, many of which involve spying.  I’ve seen or read a hundred of them.  What I have learned from this vast experience is that spies want to blend in.  They do not want to be remembered.  They do not want to call attention to themselves.  A pair of deaf people, pottery salesmen or carpenters are sure to be remembered.  And those commentators who are surely heads and shoulders above us laypeople have benefited from reading Graham Greene or John LeCarre, both of whom worked for MI6.

 Falling back on Rashi, the master of interpretation, I suggest that חֶרֶשׁ refers to the word plow or plowman.  The B’nai Yisrael are nomads.  At this juncture they are not farmers.  I’m thinking that the two spies change out of their herdsman attire, get rid of the pungent odor of the flocks by taking a good bath and don a farmer’s clothing.  If asked, they tell the gatekeeper that they are in town to buy seeds for next year’s planting.  I think it will fly, not only in the sense of a good cover story, but in the literal sense of the text.

 But going beyond the literal sense of the text, consider what a plow or plowman does.  It or he turns up the dirt which is exactly what the two spies have been tasked to do.  And incidentally, one verse later, that is what they will be accused of, “digging” into the land”, לַחְפֹּר אֶת-הָאָרֶץ. 

Let’s figure out how and why Rachav is sometimes referred to as an innkeeper and sometimes a hooker.  I’m not calling her a harlot; that’s too high blown for me.  But on the other hand, although I lived in Detroit for quite a while, I’m not calling her a Ho’; hooker will have to suffice.  Semantics aside, put yourself into the shoes of the operatives. Whether Rachav’s establishment is a Bed & Breakfast with optional special room service or an actual inn or a bordello that takes cash and doesn’t ask questions, it is a good place to hide out or a good place to gather information. 

It is interesting that although the two men remain anonymous, Rachav is identified by name and profession from the get-go.  She is called a זוֹנָה which is ordinarily translated as a woman of Ill-repute.  However, not a few commentators go to great lengths in order to clean up her act.  One way of doing this is to white wash the word  זוֹנָה.  Think of the Grace After Meals, the ברכת המזון, particularly the first blessing. In this Blessing we thank Hashem for the nourishment, the זן.  Or take a look at the word המזון.  It doesn’t take a leap of faith to see that these words share the same root.  That’s how a hooker becomes an innkeeper.  .But to me, Rachav is more than that: she is the first female Mossad agent, and a good one at that.

You can make your own interpretations.  Rashi would like that.  If you have a question or a doubt, run your commentary past your Rabbi or maybe your wife.  She’s more perceptive than you.  Put a smile on Rashi’s face.

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