Overview

A major part of the portion of Shelach is occupied with the story of the spies sent by Moses to the Land of Israel. Forty years later, now at the threshold of entry into the land, Moses’ successor, Joshua, sends two spies of his own into the city of Jericho.

In what seems to be a lesson learned from the failure of the previous spies, Joshua sent just two of the most trusted men in Israel on this mission. Although Scripture leaves them nameless, the Midrash identifies them as Pinchas and Caleb.1 Caleb had been together with Joshua in the first mission to the Land, and had remained faithful to G‑d by resisting the test of discouraging the people from entering the Land as his colleagues had done. Pinchas had also stood up against all odds in an act of zealotry, when he publicly killed the leader of the tribe of Simeon and the Midianite woman with whom he was sinning.

The mission of the spies was to get a feel of the atmosphere that prevailed in the city now that the Israelites were about to enter. This knowledge, coming firsthand, would strengthen the people in preparation for battle. In addition, Joshua needed to know the the layout of the city to make its conquest most efficient.2

The spies came to the city and went to the home of a certain “Rahab the zonah.” The commentaries differ as to the meaning of this word, which usually means “a prostitute.” Rashi, following Targum, sees this word as rooted in the Hebrew word mezonot, meaning “sustenance” or “food.” According to this approach, Rahab had an eatery that people would frequent. The Talmud,3 however, understands this word in its more usual sense. The spies specifically visited her house because she was frequented by the aristocracy of the land, which made her an important source of intelligence.4 Another reason was that entry into the home of such a woman would adequately cover up for the spies: the Canaanites knew that promiscuity was forbidden to the Jews, and they would not suspect her visitors of being Jewish spies.

Word of the two suspicious visitors had, however, reached the king of the city. Jericho had been on very high alert, and the unfamiliar men were spotted upon their entry to the home of Rahab. Orders were sent to Rahab to deliver her visitors to the authorities. Rahab quickly hid the men, and then opened the door to the messengers. She admitted to have been visited by two strangers, but claimed that the men had already left the city. She suggested that they be pursued, as they could not have gone far.

The messengers heeded her advice, and the wild goose chase began. Meanwhile Rahab returned to the roof, where she had hidden the men, and began describing to them the great fear in which the inhabitants of the land were living. News of the events of the splitting of the sea and the miraculous wars with Sichon and Og had reached Canaan. The people were in total awe of the people of Israel and of their G‑d, who evidently was in complete control of the world.

Rahab advised the spies to escape via a window of her house (which was built into a wall of the city), and to hide for three days. Before doing so, she asked them to promise her that the Jews would not harm her or her family in the imminent war. The spies swore to her that this would be done. She was to dangle a red thread from her home as a sign to the Jewish army, and her entire family was to stay in the house and not go out of it.

The spies returned after three days with news that G‑d had practically already given the land into their hands.

A kohen as a spy

As mentioned above, the Midrash identifies one of the spies as Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the high priest. This is interesting, in view of the fact that when Moses sent the original twelve spies, there was a representative from every tribe besides that of Levi—the tribe to which Pinchas belonged.

The lack of a Levite representative in the times of Moses can be readily understood: that tribe did not take part in any military action, nor were they to receive an independent tribal territory in Israel. The function of the tribe of Levi was to serve in the Temple and to teach Torah to the people, and for this reason they did not take part in the usual affairs of the nation. Why, then, did Joshua choose to send Pinchas as a spy?

This question takes on an added dimension with the character of Pinchas in particular. In his commentary, Rashi picks up on a linguistic peculiarity in one of the verses of the haftarah. In telling the story of Rahab hiding the spies, it says that Rahab hid “him,” in the singular. Rashi offers a simple explanation, that Scripture often speaks about the plural using a singular form. The reason for this choice in this particular case was because she hid them quickly and in a narrow place, akin to the speed and space of hiding one person.

Rashi however goes on to quote a Midrash which states that Rahab indeed hid only one of the spies: “The spies were Pinchas and Caleb, but Pinchas stood in front of them and was not seen, for he was like an angel.” Pinchas’s body was of such a spiritual nature that it did not necessarily have to be manifest to the physical eye. (it is interesting to note that in many sources Pinchas is associated with Elijah the prophet: “Pinchas is Eliyahu.”5 Eliyahu is only person in Scripture whose physical body was elevated to that of angelic status. He ascended to heaven—body and soul together—in a fiery chariot.6) So it is odd that a man like Pinchas, totally removed from the physical world, should be chosen for this delicate military mission.

In chassidic thought, this choice of a spy from the tribe of Levi represents some of the deeper ideas carried in this biblical story.

The conquest of the Promised Land and the settlement of the nation of Israel therein was to be the fulfilment of G‑d’s overall plan in creation: to turn a lowly and dark place into an abode for G‑d. The Jews were to take the “land of Canaan” and turn it into the “the Land of Israel.” This was to be achieved by ridding the land of its unholy content and imbuing it with a spirit of Torah and mitzvot.

In the broader sense, this mission is the mission of every Jew in all times. The soul, a G‑dly being, is sent down to exist in the physical world, in a human body. This incredible descent is with the intention that the soul should influence and elevate the body (as well as the world around it)—to turn an animal-like body into being a conductor for G‑dliness. The spies that Joshua sent were, in effect, the first stage towards this spiritual conquest. Spiritually, their mission encapsulated this great plan of fusing the physical and G‑dly.

The two spies sent by Joshua signified the spiritual (Pinchas) and the physical (Caleb). Body and soul. The Levite and the Israelite. So Joshua sent both Pinchas and Caleb as the precursors to entering the Land, for it was a group like this that represented the overall intention behind that entrance. This yields an additional dimension in the singular reference to them in the verse: the ultimate G‑dly intention is the union and harmony of these two components.

The ultimate fulfilment of this fusion between the physical and G‑dly will take place when Moshiach comes. At this time, the Talmud tells us, the tribe of Levi actually will receive a portion in the Land of Israel.7 The idea behind this can be well understood in light of the above:

The only reason the tribe of Levi did not receive an independent portion in the land was because they had to be separated from amongst the people to serve as their spiritual guides. This is a necessity at a time when the physical and material world are at least perceived to be in contrast to the G‑dly reality. In the times of Moshiach, this dichotomy or separation will disappear. “The occupation of the entire world will only be to know G‑d… as the verse states, ‘The knowledge of G‑d will fill the earth like the water covers the sea.’”8 At that time there will be no need to separate the tribe of Levi from living life like the rest of the people, for the life of the entire world will be at highest level of G‑dly awareness.

This sending of a kohen such as Pinchas—along with an Israelite—as the first stage in the conquest of the Land signified both the crux of the mission as well as its ultimate fulfillment.9