The haftarah for the first day of Passover recounts the first celebration of this festival to occur in the land of Israel. Moses had passed away on the seventh of Adar, and the people mourned their beloved leader for the following thirty days. As G‑d had commanded, Joshua had been appointed as Moses’ successor by Moses himself during his lifetime. Now, after his passing, Joshua is reassured by G‑d that He will be with him and grant him success.

While still in the midst of the mourning period, Joshua sent two spies over the Jordan into the city of Jericho. It was to be upon their return that the Jews would enter the land. On the seventh of Nissan, the thirtieth and last day of mourning, Joshua conveys the word of G‑d to people: “Prepare yourselves, for tomorrow the L‑rd will do wonders among you.”1 Indeed, three days later, on the tenth of Nissan, the Jews crossed the Jordan River, which miraculously stopped flowing during this time.

Our haftarah is a collection of verses taken from a number of points during this period. The first three verses describe the eve of the entry into the land. The fourth verse begins the account of the Passover celebration four days later, on the fourteenth of Nissan.

The central part of the Passover celebration, as stated in the Torah, is the Passover offering (Korban Pesach). One of the laws of the offering is that a male who has not been circumcised may not partake of it. As the verses describe, the Jews had not been able to circumcise themselves throughout the forty years of their sojourn in the desert (see below). It was for this reason that Joshua conducted a mass circumcision immediately after entering the land, so the Passover sacrifice could be joined by all.

Before its conclusion, the haftarah records two additional and significant events:

1. The cessation of the manna, the miraculous food the Jews ate until then in the desert.

2. An encounter that Joshua had with a G‑dly angel (see below).

The concluding verse is taken from the end of the chapter. G‑d miraculously delivers the powerful city of Jericho into Jewish hands, and Scripture attests that “G‑d was with Joshua, and his fame was throughout the entire land.”

The Circumcision

Why did the Jews not circumcise themselves when they were in the desert? Given the fundamental importance of circumcision in Judaism, how could it be that this mitzvah was not performed for an entire generation?

A number of explanations are offered:

1. Traveling through the desert made the people weak, thus rendering it dangerous to undergo circumcision.2 Although there were stops during the journey—often for many years—the Jews did not know at all when their travel would continue. They traveled “by the word of G‑d,” and they did not know anything in advance. Undergoing a circumcision and traveling right afterworlds would be dangerous.3

2. In order for the body to heal from the procedure, it was necessary to have a “northern wind”—a fresh breeze with sunshine that would assist in healing the wound. Because the Jews were surrounded with the “clouds of glory” for protection, no such breeze was able to enter, as it would have moved the clouds apart and made the Jews vulnerable. It was for this reason that circumcising the new generation was postponed till now.4

3. The circumcision procedure as performed by Jews consists of two parts: milah, the removal of the foreskin; and periah, the uncovering of a thin layer under the foreskin (the epithelium), which is peeled back or removed. It was the periah which the Jews did not perform in the desert due to their weakness, and their circumcision had to be completed now.5

The encounter with the angel

The few verses that describe this encounter leave much room for explanation. A man appears to Joshua with a drawn sword. Joshua is unsure whether he is a friend or foe. The man identifies himself as an angel, and Joshua falls on his face. The angel then commands Joshua to remove his shoe, for the place he stands on is sacred. End of Scene. What was this about?

Rashi identifies the appearing angel as Michael. Michael is the ministering angel for the Jewish people. His appearance at this time was in order to aid them in their battle for Jericho.

We will recall that after the sin of the Golden Calf, G‑d wanted to send an angel to lead the people in their journeys. Moses was emphatic that “if Your presence does not go with us, do not take us out of here.”6 Now however that Moses had passed away, the angel came to assist.7 This was the meaning of his words “I have now come”—for in the days of Moses I was not welcome…

The angel appeared with a forceful demeanor, so much so that Joshua initially suspected him to be an enemy. The reason for this was that although this was the guardian angel of Israel, and he had come to assist them, there were a number of items for which the angel was taking Joshua to task. What had gone wrong?

Our sages identify a number of things that Joshua had overlooked:

1. Due to the Jews’ preoccupation with the imminent invasion of Jericho, the afternoon sacrifice (korban tamid) had not been offered that day.

2. Since the Jews were preoccupied with ambushing the city, and had neglected Torah study.

The angel actually emphasized that his immediate concern was the neglect of Torah study: “Now I have come”—I have come for the shortcoming happening at present.

Our sages identify yet a third problem. The law was that if the holy ark was out of its designated place on a given night, the Jews would refrain from marital relations with their spouses that evening. The Tabernacle had been set up in Gilgal, but the ark had been taken to the outskirts of Jericho in preparation for the imminent war where the ark would play a prominent role (see Joshua, ch. 6). Joshua had neglected to ensure that the ark was returned to its place, thus “withholding the people from the mitzvah of procreation” that one night. (According to one opinion in the Talmud, it was for this reason that Joshua did not merit sons of his own.8 )

An additional point to be addressed is the instruction of the angel to Joshua to remove his shoes. This is very reminiscent of the event of Moses at the burning bush, where the first thing he was told by G‑d was to remove his shoes. The simple idea here was that shoes—especially in those days—were always dirty. It was respectful to remove one's shoes in a place that warranted honor. Any place where G‑d (or for that matter a G‑dly agent) is present is a holy place, and thus calls for respect in this manner.9 Many commentaries, however, maintain that this instruction is more of a metaphorical one, and it was to remove any form of “extraneous” distracting thoughts or deeds that would take away the mind and heart from being in the presence of the Divine.10