“The Joshua Syndrome” Parashat Shelach 5780

The Jewish People stand at the doorstep of the Land of Israel. In preparation for battle with the Canaanites, each tribe sends one scout[1] to reconnoitre the land. The Torah introduces all of the scouts by name, noting that the scout from the Tribe of Ephraim is named [Bemidbar 13:8] “Hosea the son of Nun”. After all the scouts have been introduced, the Torah tells us [Bemidbar 13:16] “Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua”. Rashi, the greatest of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, explains why Moshe changed Hosea’s name. Rashi quotes the Talmud in Tractate Sotah [34b] and says “[By giving him the name Joshua, which is a compound of Hosea and G-d’s name, meaning ‘G-d may save’,] Moshe in effect prayed for him: ‘May G-d save you from the evil counsel of spies (me’atzat meraglim)’”. Moshe’s prayer seems to work because when the scouts return, all of them but Joshua (and Caleb) besmirch the Land of Israel and testify that trying to wrest it from the Canaanites would be a suicide mission. G-d kills the ten besmirchers and sentences the Jewish People to forty years wandering in the Sinai Desert.

The verse introducing Joshua, along with Rashi’s explanation, opens up a very large can of worms. The following is only a partial list:

  1. Why does the Torah make it appear as if Moshe changed Joshua’s name immediately before he sent the scouts into the Land of Israel? Joshua appears in the Torah as “Joshua” no less than four times before the episode of the scouts. Why doesn’t the Torah tell us that Joshua’s name was originally “Hosea” the first time we meet him?
  2. According to Rashi, it is clear that Moshe was suspicious from the outset that the scouts would return from their mission with an evil report. Why did Moshe send them into Israel knowing that they would fail?
  3. Why does Moshe pray only for Joshua and not for any of the other spies? One of the commentators suggests that Moshe prayed for Joshua because he was Moshe’s aide-de-camp and it would have looked extremely bad for Moshe had Joshua gone down like the rest of the spies. Pardon me, but this sounds like nepotism. Perhaps, had Moshe prayed for the rest of the spies, they would not have returned with pessimistic report, G-d would not have sentenced the Jewish People to forty years wandering in the desert, and we would be learning about something else this week.

Each and every one of these questions has been addressed before but I have not seen a holistic answer that addresses all of them. This is what this week’s lesson endeavours to do. The first stop along our way to a holistic answer is the commentary of the Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, who lived in the twelfth century in France. The Rashbam suggests that Moshe began calling Hosea by the name “Joshua” long before the episode of the scouts and that only Joshua’s family and closest friends still called him “Hosea”. The question remains why the Torah chooses this particular moment to inform us of a name change that took place much earlier. To address this question, we turn to the only other example of a person in the Torah whose boss changed his name: Joseph. His boss, Pharaoh, changed his name to [Bereishit 41:45] “Tzafenat-Pa’aneach”. The reason that Pharaoh changed Joseph’s name is trivial. On the morning of the day that Pharaoh met Joseph, Joseph was a Jewish slave rotting away in prison. He was suddenly rescued from his prison cell when Pharaoh had a dream that he could not understand and the Royal Butler suddenly remembered that Joseph had successfully interpreted his dream while he was in prison. Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and Pharaoh rewards him by making him the Grand Vizier of the Egyptian Empire. The problem is that as far as the rest of Egypt is concerned, Joseph is still a Jewish criminal doing time for attempted rape. Now while the etymology of the name “Tzafenat-Pa’aneach” is unclear, most modern linguists agree that it is of Egyptian origin. By changing Joseph’s name, Pharaoh changes Joseph’s identity, not only in the eyes of the Egyptians but in Joseph’s own eyes, as well. Joseph is no longer a Jewish criminal, he is now Egyptian royalty. Every time Joseph hears his name, this message is reinforced.

Why did Moshe change Hosea’s name to “Joshua”? Rashi seems to answer that question: so as to offer Joshua a modicum of protection “from the evil council of spies”. To which “spies” in particular is Rashi referring? It seems that he is referring to the scouts that Moshe sent to spy out the land. Yet this hypothesis is problematic for three reasons: First, the Rashbam asserts that Moshe changed Hosea’s name to Joshua long before the episode of the scouts. Second, Rashi’s use of the word “spies” – “meraglim” – is problematic. While our Sages in the Midrash regularly refer to the scouts as “meraglim”, the Torah does not. In fact, in the entire episode of the scouts in the Book of Bemidbar and in Moshe’s recap of the event in the Book of Devarim, the word “meragel” is not used even once. The Torah uses the word “tarim”, which is translated by the JTS translation on the Sefaria web site as “scouts”. The term “meraglim” is borrowed from the episode of Joseph and his brothers, where Joseph [Bereishit 42:9] accuses them of being “meraglim” – spies. The third reason why Rashi cannot be referring to the scouts when he uses the word “meraglim” is a grammatical reason: Had Rashi been referring to the scouts that the Torah had just named, then he would have said that Moshe prayed to save Joshua from “the evil council of these (definite) meraglim (ha’meraglim)”. Rashi only talks about “the evil council of [some undefined] meraglim”. From whom, then, was Moshe trying to save Joshua?

I suggest that when Rashi uses the word “meraglim”, he is referring to something else entirely. According to Rabbi Michael Jablinowitz, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim, the word “meragel” and the word “ragil”, which means regular or routine, come from the same source. When Moshe prays that G-d save Joshua from “the evil council of the meraglim”, he is referring to people who take things for granted. I suggest that Moshe is trying to save Joshua from himself. Let me explain: Moshe was closer to G-d than any other human. They spoke as equals [Shemot 33:11] “as one man speaks to another”. As a result, Moshe’s face literally shone with light to the point that he needed to wear a mask to protect bystanders. As Moshe’s aide-de-camp, Hosea spent his every waking hour surrounded by G-dliness. Hosea regularly witnessed overt miracles that were witnessed by no other human. To him, it was “just another day at the office”. Moshe calls Hosea “Joshua” to regularly remind him that the supernatural environment that he takes for granted is anything but “routine”.  When Moshe sends scouts to reconnoiter the land, it is clear that the land is going to be captured by natural means, with spears, arrows, and anti-tank guided missiles. Moshe fears that Joshua, finding himself in an environment seemingly stripped of G-dliness, will crack under the pressure. And so before Moshe sends him on his mission, he reminds him of the reason why he changed his name so long ago: “On the other side of the Jordan River, you will not see the things you have become used to. But G-d is very much there. Know this”.

We in modern day Israel suffer from a sort of “Joshua Syndrome”. We have become so used to miracles – the Six Day War, thirty nine Iraqi Scud missiles missing Tel Aviv, absorbing nearly a million immigrants and doubling our population in our first five years – that when things are only “normal”, G-d very quickly is removed from the picture. Less than ten years ago, we discovered huge natural gas deposits under the Mediterranean, turning Israel into an energy exporter. In only two years, the Sea of Galilee has gone from zero to overflowing. In less than five years, water desalination technology has turned an acute water shortage into a water surplus. In Israel today, all you have to do to see miracles is to open the newspaper. May G-d save us from the evil council of those who take things for granted.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] The “scouts” that Moshe sent are typically referred to as “spies”. Nevertheless, according to the US Army, “The scout platoon’s mission is to conduct reconnaissance and security operations to answer the commander’s information requirements and provide early warning to the protected force.” These are the very instructions that Moshe gave to his scouts, see Bemidbar [13:17-20].

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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