The parshah and Haftorah of Sh'lach Lecha tell of the arrival, rejection and eventual return of the Hebrews to the Promised Land. At first, they are denied entry when 10 scouts bring a terrified report, and the people doubt God’s commitment to them. Decades later, their descendants craft a plan, and place their trust in the prostitute Rahab. They are granted entry.
Moses, newly arrived somewhere between wandering and settling down, sends 12 chieftains to reconnoiter the land. They explore the entire expanse, south to north and in between. They find a place of oversized bounty: enormous grapes, pomegranates and figs and, in a timeless phrase that connotes ceaseless fecundity, nourishment and sweetness, a land “flowing with milk and honey.” (Numbers 13:27)
In the Torah, the settings of scenes convey rich metaphoric, symbolic and emotional meaning. The powerful imagery of this passage has resonated for millennia; the image of two men carrying a cluster of grapes, symbolic of Israel’s produce, is to this day the logo of the nation’s ministry of tourism.
The Torah’s expansive description of the Promised Land is enticing, but it provides too many options. When every choice is possible, it is hard to make any. No wonder the 10 scouts felt small. They were not small compared to the inhabitants; they were small compared to the wide-open space. They knew they were no match for it, that they were unable to inhabit it fully.
This week’s Haftorah, by contrast, is set in a city: Jericho. More specifically, it takes place in a brothel, and features the constructed elements of urban life: houses, rooftops, windows, walls, gates. These create a very different setting, with different metaphoric meanings.
Built elements indicate choice. Someone decided to place the wall here, not there. Someone chose to build the gate there, not here. The built environment signifies a mastery over the land — something missing in this parshah.
More specifically, walls symbolize division. They demarcate space and, symbolically, time. Walls signal here and there, inside and outside, before and after. In the parshah, the Hebrews could have entered the land but did not do so. With no boundary signaling before and after, their journey was not yet complete. They were unable to arrive. In the Haftorah, by contrast, the city wall signifies an end to their travels, and the commencement of a new phase of life.
But walls keep out. How can this wall signal entrance?
This wall is pierced by gates (Joshua 2:5, 7) and a window (verses 15, 21). Gates and windows both beckon and bar. “Gates stand between here and there, between the known and the unknown.” (The Book of Symbols, Taschen) When we pass through a gate, we are aware of leaving one space and entering another — and, with rites of passage, we become aware of leaving one phase of life and entering another. Gates make us conscious of transition.
When the Patriarch Jacob dreamt at Beth El, he saw a ladder rising to Heaven. He identified that place as “Sha’ar HaShamayim” — the gateway to Heaven. (Genesis 28:17) In our Haftorah, the gates of Jericho become the gateway to the Promised Land, and a symbolic rite of passage for the Hebrews.
Further, Rahab ties a rope to her window to allow the two scouts passage. Ropes symbolize ascension — in this case, the ultimate aliyah.
Human beings need to mark transitions: before/after, inside/outside, living/dead. Without them, we feel unsettled, incomplete. But God, who is all things at all times, experiences no such binaries and feels no such need. Rahab, herself an “in-betweener,” understands this deeply when she describes God as “the only God in heaven above and on earth below” — that is, as the ultimate Transcender of Division. (Joshua 2:11) JN
Rabbi Dean Shapiro was the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe.