Shelach L’cha – Joshua’s Name

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.

Joshua and His Trees

With Jim, at Joshua Tree National Park

I love this photo. It was taken in one of my favorite places, and it’s me and my kid. (OK, so he’s a 30 year old man now, he’s still my kid.)

The place is Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The weird looking plants around us are Joshua Trees, yucca brevifolia. They are native to the southwestern deserts, especially the Mohave Desert.

Joshua trees live in a harsh environment to a very great age; some have lived almost a thousand years. In the springtime, if the winter has been wet enough and there has been a freeze, the tree blooms. Its flowers are heavy clusters of blossoms the size and appearance of quail’s eggs, and they have a pungent stink.

The trees are known as Joshua Trees because when Mormon travelers saw them in the 19th century, they thought the trees looked like Joshua, lifting his hands to the sky in prayer. Now I have looked and looked in Torah, and in the book of Joshua, and I have never been able to find an account of Joshua lifting his hands in prayer. Moses does so, most famously in Exodus 17, when Joshua is leading the battle against Amalek, and things go well only as long as Moses’ hands are lifted up. But never could I find the story to which the Mormons referred. (Readers, if you find it, please let me know in the comments!)

But when I look at the trees themselves, I can easily imagine naming them for Joshua. They thrive in the wilderness. They are prickly, and stinky, and yet still they command my attention, pulling at all my senses. I imagine Joshua was such a man, different from Moses, perhaps more charismatic. Moses led the people out of Egypt, fussing and challenging him all the way. Joshua led them into the Promised Land, and they did not challenge him.

Joshua was born in Egypt. He was true to the covenant to his dying day. He led his people into battles and lived to a great old age, as do his namesake trees.

The Sound of the Shofar

A shofar made from a ram's horn is traditional...

When I hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn] it seems to echo down the centuries.

The first time I heard it, I was surprised at the rawness of the sound. The shofar is not a fancy musical instrument. It is merely the hollowed-out horn of a ram.  There is no mouthpiece, no reed, no metal in it whatsoever.

If you have the opportunity to handle one, you will see that it is just an old piece of horn. And yet this simple object can work wonders on the Jewish heart. It wakes up our souls during the month of Elul. It thrills us on Rosh HaShanah. On Yom Kippur, it shakes us to our core. It awakens ancient memories.

When you hear the shofar, close your eyes. Feel time drop away from you. You are one with all the Jews of history: one with Joshua, one with David, one with the Maccabees. Feel the disturbance in your soul, the urgency of the shofar’s call.

Listen to what the shofar is saying to you.

Click here for the sound of a tekiah gedolah, a long blast on a shofar.