Summary of the portion:
- Moses sends 12 spies to the Land of Israel to report on the inhabitants and the country. Joshua and Caleb give a good report, but the rest of the spies say the land is too dangerous and the people are frightened.
- God is furious, and threatens to wipe out the Children of Israel. Moses intercedes on the behalf of the people. God announces that only Joshua and Caleb will enter the land – all others who left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel.
- Moses teaches the Israelites about taking challah, the observance of Shabbat, how to treat strangers, and the laws of fringes.
Name changes in the Torah text have great significance. Most of us are familiar with the story in which Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, and the patriarch Jacob gets a new name, Israel.
This week’s Torah portion has another significant name change.
In the initial list of leaders going into the Land of Israel as spies,
Verse 8 tells us, “From the tribe of Ephraim, Hosea son of Nun.”
Then in verse 16, we read:
“Those were the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout the land; but Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua.”
What the text does not tell us is why Moses changed the name of Hosea to Joshua ben Nun.
When I asked Rashi, he told me that “by giving him this name Joshua, which is a compound of Yah and Hoshia, “God may Save”, he in effect prayed for him, “May God save you from the evil counsel of the spies.”
When I asked Sforno, he told me that Hosea was already known to be a man of valor among his peers, who had given him the name Joshua, and Moses was only formalizing the custom that already existed.
When I asked Yerushalmi Sanhedrin, she told me that Moses added the yud to the front of Hosea’s name because it was the equivalent of the number 10, and Moses hoped to arm him spiritually by making him the spiritual equivalent of the other ten spies. The yud he received was a special letter, because it was the yud that was replaced with a hey when God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah. Sarah had a strong spirit, and the yud was given to Joshua for strength.
When I asked Bamidbar Rabbah, she told me that Moses added the yud to Joshua’s name because Caleb would get his reward from the land, as it teaches in Deuteronomy 1:36, “to him will I give the land on which he has trod.” But Joshua received the reward that would have gone to the other ten spies, in that a yud, which stand for ten, was added to his name.
In another place, Bamidbar Rabbah said, “When Moses saw that the spies were a wicked bunch, Moses said to Hosea ben Nun, “May the Lord “YAH” save “Hoshia” you from this evil generation.”
All of this is to say that Joshua was lifted up by God and Moses to be a mighty leader of a strong-willed people. From it we also learn that one of the glories of Torah is that there is no single story, no single right answer. When we perform the mitzvah of engaging with words of Torah, we need not fear that all the answers are found, because we continue learning more from that time to this.
I gave this d’var Torah for the Tuesday Morning Minyan at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA, in celebration of the beginning of my 26th year as a Jew. A quarter century ago I entered the mikveh and became a Jew; a wandering soul found her way home at last.