When Encountering the Other, Try Respect


Each week in synagogue, we read a portion from the Torah and, alongside it, a portion from the Prophets, the Haftorah, which picks up on some of the themes of the Torah reading.

The ancient rabbis selected these Haftorah portions with care. Often, the very selection of a particular story from the Prophets can be seen as an ancient form of commentary on the Torah reading.


That is the case this week, when we read in the Torah portion about the spies, those 12 leaders sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan before the Israelites are to enter it. The Haftorah portion chosen for this week is from the book of Joshua, telling the story of the actual conquest of the land 38 years later under the leadership of Joshua. In Joshua, there are also spies, but they act much differently from the spies in the Torah, and the outcome is very different as well.


In the Torah, the spies travel the length and breadth of the land. They see its wonderful produce, and they bring back examples of it to show the Israelites the fertility of the land. But they only encounter the inhabitants of the land from a distance.


They never speak to them but only see them from afar. In their report about the land, they say that "the people that we saw in it are men of great size … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (Numbers 13:32-33).


The spies argue against entering the land, and their failure of nerve is all about their perception of the "other" — those inhabitants of the land that they see from a distance but to whom they never speak.


They guess at what these strange folks might think about them, but they know little and are consumed by fear. And because of this, the Israelites end up wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.


Fast forward to the time of Joshua. In the Haftorah, spies are again sent into the land, but this time, they go straight to a populous city, Jericho, and encounter an actual inhabitant of the land, Rahav. This Canaanite woman, so different from the Israelites, speaks with them and tells them what the Canaanites are really thinking — they're actually scared to death of the Israelites.


Not only that, she also saves the spies' lives and makes a deal with them to spare her and her family when the Israelites finally conquer Jericho.


So here are two very different stories of encountering the "other." In the first story, blinded by fear of the unknown, the spies never really see the inhabitants of the land, never speak or interact with them — and the result is failure.


The Israelites cannot enter the land and are forced to resume their wandering. In the second story, the spies have a true encounter with a Canaanite, learn from her, and make a pact with her that is to both parties' benefit — and the result is success. The Israelites enter the land and conquer Jericho with a minimum of loss of life on both sides.


The ancient rabbis placed these stories side by side to teach us how to approach others who may be very different from ourselves. In place of fear and avoidance, they counsel dialogue and mutual respect. In their time as well as in ours, this is the path to peace.


Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected]



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