D’var Haftarah: Challenged by a Heroine
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein
The sages viewed Biblical stories as more than just sacred recollections of the history of the Jewish people. The stories and the heroic figures encountered in them also played an important didactic role in shaping the lives of the generations after them.
Sometimes the hero or heroine has a character flaw that we are meant to notice and therefore avoid in our own lives. On rare occasions, the heroine rises up from her ignoble status to achieve greatness. A character such as this is, on the one hand, a source of great inspiration, providing a model for anyone challenged by the possibility to change. On the other hand, such a person could also be used to shame those whose behavior has become a source of embarrassment.
Rahab, the harlot, is an example of a heroine from this later category. She saves the spies sent by Joshua and recognizes and acknowledges their God and the significance of His actions in the world: “I know that the Lord has given the country to you, because dread of you has fallen upon us, and all of the inhabitants are quaking before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the waters of the Sea of Reeds for you when you left Egypt…When we heard about it, we lost heart, and no man had any more spirit left because of you; for the Lord, your God is the only God in the heaven above and the earth below.” (verses 9-11)
The downside of such exemplary behavior and faith in a person of such common origins is felt acutely by people of stature who veer from the path of integrity. The following midrash takes the people of Israel to task for not living up to the standard of behavior set by Rahab: Said Rabbi Abba bar Kahana: “You find that whatever was written about Israel’s reproachful behavior is written in praise of Rahab. With regard to Rahab it is written: ‘And now, take an oath, I ask, to me, by the Lord, that I have done mercy to you’ (Joshua 2: 12).
And with regard to Israel, it is written: ‘Therefore they take an oath in vain’ (Jeremiah 5:2). With regard to Rahab, it is written: ‘And you will keep alive my father and mother’ (Joshua 2:13). With regard to Israel: ‘In you have they ridiculed father and mother’ (Ezekiel 22:7)
With regard to Rahab, it is written: \’And she brought them up to the roof’ (Joshua 2:6) With regard to Israel: ‘Those who bow down on the roof to the host of the heaven’ (Zephaniah 1:5). With regard to Rahab, it is written: ‘And she hid them in stalks of flax’ (Joshua 2:6)
With regard to Israel: ‘Who says to a piece of wood you are my father’ (Jer. 2:27) In regard to Rahab it is written: ‘And she said [to the spies]: Go up to the mountain’ (Joshua 2:16)
With regard to Israel: ‘They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains\’ (Hosea 4:13) In regard to Rahab it is written: ‘You will give me a true token’ (Joshua 2:13) With regard to Israel: ‘Truth they will not speak’ (Jeremiah 9:4). Thus whatever is written with respect to Israel’s reproachful behavior is written in praise of Rahab. (Adapted from Pesikta deRav Kahana 13:4 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 227-8)
Rahab’s behavior, then, has presented an enormous challenge to those who should have stood firm in their loyalty to God and the Torah.
One can only hope that her challenge will be met.