Empathy for the Outsider

This week’s Torah portion relates the story of the 12 scouts who are sent by Moses on a reconnaissance mission to determine if the land of Israel that God has promised they will inhabit is indeed all that it has been described to be.  In his orders to the scouts, he tells them:

“Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of a country it is.  Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?  Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?  Are the towns they live in open or fortified?  Is the soil rich or poor?  Is it wooded or not?  And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.”  (Numbers 13:17-20)

 While the premise of the story seems to be a scouting mission into the land, its deeper meaning and message may be that the struggle between God and Israel over matters of faith and fidelity to the covenant is a complex and turbulent one.  God demands that His people demonstrate faith that His promises will be fulfilled, yet the people’s doubts must be satisfied by seeing the land for themselves before they attempt to inhabit it.  At the end of the story, God becomes angry that ten of the scouts return from the mission with a discouraging report that says that the land cannot be conquered, and threatens once again to obliterate the people and start over again with Moses as leader.  If this type of interaction were experienced in the realm of human relationships, we might deem it a relationship in trouble and need of help.

Even more intriguing is the companion story to the Torah portion that is told in the Haftarah for Parashat Shelakh-Lekha.  Taken from the second chapter of the Book of Joshua, it tells the story of a scouting mission ordered by Joshua after he assumed the leadership role from Moses.  Joshua sends two scouts, not 12, to check out the city of Jericho, a key stronghold that will need to be conquered.  The scouts approach the city and come upon the home of a prostitute named Rahav, which is squeezed into the small space of the broad wall surrounding the city.  While she could turn them in to the authorities, she instead protects the two scouts, diverting the guards who come to capture them and hiding them in her house.  She does this because, as the text says, the people of her land are “filled with the dread of God.”  It’s likely that this story was written at a time of higher national confidence than the Torah story, or perhaps written as a statement of wishful thinking.

Rahab asks that she and her family be protected during a future invasion.  Assured that they’re safe and will be able to return to base with an accurate report, the scouts promise Rahab they’ll take care of her and tell her to place a sign outside of her house so the conquering Israelites will know to leave her alone.

Is there a significance to the story that Rahab is a prostitute?  Bible scholar Danna Nolan Fewell asserts that there is.  She writes:

“From Israel’s perspective Madame Rahab is the epitome of the outsider.  She is a woman, a prostitute and a foreigner.  As a prostitute, she is marginal even in her own culture, and her marginality is symbolized by her dwelling in the city wall, in the very boundary between the inside and the outside.  And it is Rahab who saves the lives of the feeble Israelite spies, who willing cavort with foreigners, indeed with a woman whom they would have eventually slaughtered in battle.”

Rahab is the quintessential outsider.  She is marginalized by being a prostitute, hardly the kind of work for which someone is honored at a testimonial dinner.  Because she is a woman, she is already marginalized by her society.  And according to the story, she is a foreigner who faces the additional stigma of being outcast.

Her status as an outsider makes her the perfect savior for Joshua’s two scouts, and by extension for the nation of Israel.  In the times in which the story was written, the Israelite nation was very much an outsider, enslaved, demeaned and brutalized by a powerful nation and facing the arduous task of establishing themselves in the world.  Across the centuries, the People of Israel has faced oppression, exile and torment.  There have been times we have had to navigate our way through social systems that denied our legitimacy, even our right to exist.  It could be said that we, the People of Israel, are also the quintessential “Outsider Nation,” marginalized, facing discrimination and rejection.  Who better to save the Israelites than Rahab, herself an outsider?

The Haftarah chanted this week can serve as a powerful reminder that we, the members of this “Outsider Nation” that has so often been compelled to seek acceptance, must practice acceptance and tolerance.  There are, distressingly, so many opportunities to do so.  All around us there are people who ostracized—refugees, immigrants, people who appear “different” and are thus unfairly perceived as a threat.  It is our obligation as Jews to end their ostracization and isolation, and to bring those who are forced to the fringe of society into its heart.

In that spirit, I encourage you to attend this year’s Pride Shabbat in celebration of LGTTQ+ individuals.  This year’s theme is “Hineni: Bearing Witness as a Response to Discrimination, Exclusion, Hatred and Violence.”  Join us for a Music Lover’s Shabbat Service at 7:45 PM, followed by a presentation by Les Skolnick of Keshet, an important organization devoted to the full inclusion and equality of LGBTQ people in Jewish life.  Les will speak about how we can create a culture of acceptance in our synagogue.

Shabbat Shalom!

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