16 Jun 2017

Haftara for Shelah Lekha 5777: Active Listening

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Please click HERE to listen to this week’s audio recording read by Rabbi Joseph Dweck


‘The first duty of love is to listen’.

— Paul Tillich

Joshua 2:1-24


Yehoshua sends two spies to survey the region of Yeriho in Canaan. The men come to the house of Rahab the madame of the local house of ill-repute, who gives them shelter. Locals in Canaan hear of their mission and report it to the king. He directs Rahab to deliver the spies but she covers for them saying that they have already come and gone. Meanwhile, she provides them a hiding place under some flax on her roof.
A deal is struck between Rahab and the spies and she tells them how she knows of all that God has done for the Children of Israel, including the splitting of the sea some forty years earlier and since then the ‘spirits of the men have not stood’. She asks that she and her family be spared during the invasion of the nation into Canaan. They agree given that she provides a signal, namely, a red rope that will hang from her window. Her family is to be kept inside during the siege. If she fails to do this, no guilt would be found with the spies.


Our words are remarkably potent. They can heal and kill, strengthen and damage, save and condemn. Among human beings nothing is more powerful than words. Our words however, come from our thinking. The verbal terms that we use to express ourselves are rooted in our perception and understanding of reality. How we speak comes from how we think.

Being conscious then, of the way we speak, requires being conscious of our own thought. But herein lies a formidable problem. Our thinking is what we use to think with! If it is flawed we are stuck thinking in a flawed way. The way out is elusive. This problem can only really be addressed by being open to the thoughts of others. Hearing different, external thinking helps us genuinely to change and calibrate our own.

Being open to that input from someone other than ourselves, requires vulnerability, humility, and ultimately a desire to seek truth at all costs in order for it to succeed. The default mode of human thought is quite the opposite however. Rather than strive for truth it aims for thinking that favours the self and reduces anxiety. Seeking truth means being open to the potential pain of realising that our own thinking is flawed and that it requires adjustment — an endeavour that neither favours the self nor reduces anxiety. But when we do expose ourselves to these uncomfortable, external checks our reward is a healthier and more powerful identity.

The process through which we calibrate realistic thought is through interacting with others. As Louis Cozolino writes in his book How Therapy Works: ‘The brain is a social organ of adaptation, shaped to connect with and change through interactions with others’.

Yet even this, is fraught with difficulty. It is possible for a group of people to (even subconsciously) make collective decisions that are unchallenged and lack critical evaluation. This happens often in order to maintain the safety of conformity. They do this by suppressing opposing viewpoints and avoiding outside influences. Such parochial decisions are not fit to deal with reality. It is out of concern for this phenomenon that the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Israel, would automatically invalidate unanimous decisions![1]

To calibrate our minds towards discovering truth, we must be open to hearing alternative viewpoints that originate outside our own thinking and seek the truth within them that we might be prone to miss. As Rambam elegantly taught[2], ‘Accept the truth from whoever speaks it’.

The difference between groupthink and genuine collaborative, interactive thought is highlighted in the juxtaposition of our haftara and parasha. The parasha tells a story of a group of greats who embarked on a mission to spy in order to gain information about the Promised Land. They did not engage with anyone in the land, nor did they seem to debate regarding what they would report. They all, save two, came back saying that the land was not a real option and that the future was grim. They assumed that they had been seen as minuscule in the eyes of the people and that they had no chance.

The land that we crossed through to scout out: it is a land that devours its inhabitants; all the people  that we saw in its midst are men of great stature, we saw giants…we were in our own eyes like  grasshoppers, and thus were we in their eyes! (Num., 13:32-33)

Because they were small in their own eyes, they believed that the natives had seen them that way as well. They took no ‘temperature’ of the people and their actual feelings, all they brought back was some fruit, bad news and conjecture.

We came to the land that you sent us to, and yes it is flowing with milk and honey, and  this is its fruit…but it means nothing! For the people are fierce…we are not able to go
up against  the population, for it is stronger than we! (ibid., 13:27-28,31)

However, after forty years of roaming in the desert, Yehoshua sent another delegation to spy the land. They, along with their conduct, however, were categorically different from the first lot, and they therefore, completed their mission with success. There were not enough spies in Yehoshua’s mission to lend itself to groupthink — they were not twelve, but two. They also actively engaged with the people of Yeriho. They heard from the most reliable source, Rahab the most famous madame of the city, about how the people were really thinking and feeling. Her house of ill-repute was also the centre for the exchange of information.

I know that God has given you the land, and that the dread of you has fallen upon us;
all the settled-folk of the land are quivering before you! For we heard about [how]
God dried up the waters of the Sea of Reeds before you when you went out of Egypt,  and what you did to the two Amorite kings who were across the Jordan,
to Sihon and to Og,  whom you devoted-to-destruction. We heard, and
our hearts melted [in fear], and no life-breath rose within anyone because of you, for God your Lord, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath! (2:9-11)

Not only did they go with the intent to listen and to understand what the actual circumstance was rather than assume as their predecessors did[3], they also built a valuable, albeit unconventional relationship with Rahab and her family while there!

Our life [shall be] in place of yours, to die, as long as you
do not tell this business of ours!  And it will be,
at God’s giving the land to us, that we will act toward you in
loyalty and faithfulness. (2:14)

Rahab the harlot converted and married Yehoshua. (Megila, 14b)

Their faithfulness was met with faithfulness, their honesty with honesty and their compassion with compassion. There was a real dedication to truth and connection rather than fear and protection.

The error of the first spies brought us the most mournful day of our year; the 9th of Ab. On this day we mourn the greatness that we allowed ourselves to lose because of our refusal to overcome the powerful, primal urge to protect ourselves. We immersed ourselves into our own thoughts without sensitivity to their consequences. We remember destruction and loss and we plead with God to restore it for us.

But as Rambam teaches, we continue to fast only because we have yet to rectify the problems that caused the calamities in the first place:

There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the
calamities that occurred to them… This will serve as
a reminder of our wicked conduct
and that of our ancestors, which resembles our

 present conduct and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us.[4]

Along with the loss of our own land and sovereignty came the loss of our Sanhedrin. It was a temple within a temple[5]. It was a temple of rigorous thought, peer review, testing and examination. Within its walls ideas were offered, discussed and vetted. Unanimity was rejected[6], but consensus embraced[7]. It was a voice of guidance, leadership and authority for all the people.

The Supreme Court (Sanhedrin) in Jerusalem is the core of the  Oral Law.
They are the pillars of instruction

 from whom statutes and judgments issue forth for the entire people of Israel[8].

It is all lost to us now, and we are witnessing its ultimate repercussions. We can and must continue to emulate its noble ethos and continue to pray, as we do three times a day, for its restoration in our days.

Restore our judges as at first, and our counsellors as at the beginning, and remove from us agony and sighing. May You alone, Lord…vindicate us in justice[9].

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] Sanhedrin, 17a; MT, Hilkhot Sanhedrin, 9:1.

[2] Forward to the ‘Eight Chapters’ introducing his commentary on Pirke Abot.

[3] Footnote regarding Rahab and Yam Suf

[4] Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Ta’anit, 5:1

[5] MT, Hilkhot Mamerim, 3:8

[6] Sanhedrin, 17a; MT, Hilkhot Sanhedrin, 9:1.

[7] Exodus, 23:2

[8] MT, Hilkhot Mamerim, 1:1

[9] Siddur, Silent prayer – Amida

Parasha Perspectives

IV  Shelach-Lecha 

53                              Story of the ‘Spies’  (13:1-14:10)
The mission (13:1-24); The bad report (13:25-33)
Panic, crying and rebellion (14:1-10)
54                              Moshe successfully pleads for the People  (14:11-25)
55                              Consequences of the ‘spies’  (14:26-45)
Punishment for the People: forty years in the midbar
Punishment for ten bad spies: died of plague (14:36-38)
Defying Moshe, some of the People try to invade the
Land and fail (14:39-45)
56                              Certain offerings must be accompanied by a mincha
and nesech, wine libation  (15:1-16)
57a                           Challah  (15:17-21)
57b                           Offerings for community sins  (15:22-26)
57c                            Laws for individuals who sin unintentionally or
intentionally  (15:27-31)
58a                            Concerning a man who gathered wood on Shabbat
58b                            He is stoned by word of God  (15:35-36)
59                              Law and significance of tzitzit  (15:37-41)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS