Yehoshua has one of the least enviable jobs imaginable – he has been appointed as successor to the most illustrious prophet and Jewish leader of all time, Moshe Rabbenu. Hashem’s first communication to Yehoshua begins, “Moshe, my servant, is dead”, suggesting that Yehoshua’s entire career is only “bediavad” – Hashem is, as it were, settling for second best because Moshe Rabbenu, the servant of Hashem, is no longer available to continue his service. Rather than being charged with his own unique prophetic mission, Yehoshua, the servant of Moshe, is commanded to complete the tasks that Moshe himself would have carried out had he not been prevented by the Almighty from entering the land of Israel.
A cursory examination of the chapter reveals that Moshe’s name, memory and authority is invoked several times, emphasizing the idea that Yehoshua is merely a “relief pitcher” or “closer” who will do nothing more than see his revered master’s life’s work to its Divinely mandated conclusion. So, on one hand, Yehoshua is exhorted to present himself as a spiritual and political authority figure to the Jewish people. On the other hand, his autonomy and independence is curtailed by his commitment to preserving the legacy of Moshe Rabbenu and to ensure fidelity to the teachings and directives of a Torah that he himself did not receive. This need to balance the roles of teacher and student, leader and follower, independent thinker and dutiful servant may explain why he questioned the extent of his ability to win the respect, admiration and devotion of the nation like his teacher had.
Hence the need for Hashem to reassure Yehoshua three times by citing the very same phrase Moshe Rabbenu had used three times when he handed the reins of leadership over to Yehoshua, “be strong and courageous” – battle your enemies with confidence, study the Torah with diligence and lead your nation with strength. “Be strong and courageous” is both an inspiration to Yehoshua and a reminder of where he came from, vividly awakening memories of the master and emboldening the disciple at the same time.
Yehoshua will conquer the land of Israel and apportion it to the Jewish people, as Moshe was commanded. In anticipation of he instructs them to prepare themselves to cross the Jordan River in just three days’ time. Yehoshua then addresses the tribes of Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe, who had agreed to help their brethren fight in mainland Israel before returning to settle in the Transjordan with their families, and confirms that they plan to honor the promise they made to Moshe. The nation of Israel accepts the authority and leadership of Yehoshua as they did that of Moshe, echoing the words of the Almighty, “be strong and courageous”, remain loyal to the teachings of Moshe Rabbenu and His God and we will remain loyal to you.
In this chapter, Yehoshua dispatches spies to investigate the heavily fortified city of Yeriho (Jericho). Unlike Moshe Rabbenu, who sent a large delegation of very prominent spies and had them deliver their findings to the entire congregation at once, Yehoshua is careful to avoid any mishap or public relations disaster; therefore, he sends just two anonymous spies, he authorizes the mission in secret, and he instructs them to report back directly to him. On the surface, the purpose of their visit is not entirely clear, since the spies return shortly afterwards with limited information. Moreover, their destination is a house of ill repute that is being managed by Rahav, a famous prostitute – an odd choice of venue for a reconnaissance mission!
However, upon further reflection it seems that the objective of this operation was to evaluate the morale of the people of Yeriho and of Canaan in general. Wisely, the spies were sent to a seedy location where men prefer to preserve their anonymity and where they would therefore be less likely to be noticed or questioned. Moreover, it is a setting in which the foibles, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities of even the most powerful and influential men are revealed, and it is therefore an excellent place in which to evaluate the morale of a nation.
Rahav misleads a delegation from the King of Yeriho that attempts to apprehend the visitors, sending them on a “wild goose chase” while the spies hide safely in her loft. She then informs the Jews that the Canaanites are indeed fearful of the people of Israel and their God, and that ever since the Children of Israel left Egypt in a miraculously dramatic fashion, they have been intimidated. Out of recognition of her efforts in saving them from the King of Yeriho, the spies swear that, when siege is laid to the city, the lives of Rahav and her family will be spared.
As she lowers them out of her window (her house is in the wall of the city, so this is effectively an exit from the otherwise heavily guarded and fortified city), they mention that their oath, taken under duress, is not really binding. Nonetheless, they will honor it. They instruct Rahav to tie a red string in her window when the Jews arrive, apparently an allusion to the red blood placed on the doorposts of the Jews in Egypt when they were spared the fate of their Egyptian neighbors during the plague of the firstborn. Here too Rahav demonstrates her willingness to sever any identification with her host culture and her readiness to link her personal destiny to that of the Chosen People. The spies hide in the hills until the search parties seeking them give up hope, and then return to the Israelite camp to share news of their findings with Yehoshua, specifically, to inform him that “Hashem has given over the entire land into our hands, and those who dwell in the land have melted before us”. The purpose of their mission was to provide inspiration, moral support and encouragement to the Jews before their entry into the Land of Israel, and it has succeeded.
The Jewish people encamp by the Jordan River and prepare to cross it. For the first time, instead of the Ark traveling amidst the people and being carried by Levites, it will be carried by Kohanim and will go forth 2,000 cubits ahead of the nation, leading the way. Yehoshua instructs the Children of Israel to prepare themselves fully because they will witness miracles in the course of their journey. Hashem informs Yehoshua that the crossing of the Jordan will elevate him to grandeur in the eyes of his people and allow them to perceive that Divine providence is protecting him as it protected Moshe.
Yehoshua gathers the Jews together and proclaims that the miracles they observe this day will instill confidence in their hearts that Hashem is with them and that He will enable them to conquer the Canaanites and settle in their new homeland. Yehoshua selects one representative from each tribe for a purpose that will be explained in the next chapter, and then describes to the people what they are about to see: When the Kohanim, carrying the Ark of the Covenant, step into the water of the Jordan River, it will stop flowing. The water traveling downstream will continue to the sea, while the water arriving from further upstream will pile up in midair, leaving dry land upon which the Israelites can walk. This indeed happens, and the Kohanim remain standing in the Jordan until the entire nation has crossed over successfully.
Undoubtedly, the stopping up of the Jordan is reminiscent of the Splitting of the Sea in the story of the Exodus. It is worthy of note that the generation that entered the Land of Israel, by and large, did not directly experience the departure from Egypt. There is a disconnect between the exit from bondage and the settlement of the land, which was a deviation from the original plan – if not for the sins of the Jewish people, they would have transitioned in a seamless fashion directly from Egypt to Israel with a relatively brief sojourn in the wilderness. The crossing of the Jordan simulates one of the most dramatic and powerful moments of the Exodus and in a sense recreates it; here, instead of the Jews “believing in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant” they arrive at belief in Hashem’s continued providential care and the authority and credibility of Yehoshua, the successor.
The use of the Ark and Kohanim in this capacity brings us back to the original appointment of Yehoshua in Parashat Pinhas in the Book of Bemidbar, wherein Moshe is told “and before Elazar HaKohen he [Yehoshua] will stand, and he will inquire of the Urim and Tummim before Hashem – by his word shall they go out and come in, he and the entire Children of Israel with him, and all of the congregation.” As Rashi explains, the dependence of Yehoshua on the Kohanim, the nephews of Moshe Rabbenu, reflects the continued influence of Moshe and his family on the destiny of the Jewish people. The Ark, embodying the Torah received by Moshe at Sinai, underscores this as well. So again, at the moment of Yehoshua’s elevation to prominence, there is a recognition that he stands on the shoulders of giants – we never forget where he came from.
After the Jewish people complete their passage to the other side of the Jordan River, Hashem commands Yehoshua to address the twelve men – one per tribe – who had been selected for a special task previously. They are instructed to retrieve one stone each (a total of twelve) from the place where the Kohanim are standing in the river and to carry these stones on their shoulders to the location where they will be spending the night. There, they will become monuments to the miraculous “cutting off” of the Jordan River that allowed the Jewish people to cross on dry land. Yehoshua himself set up twelve additional stones in the river itself at the spot where the Kohanim stood. Twelve stones being set up is also undoubtedly an allusion to the twelve stones that Parashat Mishpatim tells us Moshe Rabbenu set up at Mount Sinai, one for each tribe, when the Jews officially accepted upon themselves the covenant of Torah observance. And, in fact, many commentators suggest that these stones were the ones on which the Torah was to be written, as commanded in Parashat Ki Tavo.
According to the simple meaning of the text, the Kohanim remained in place until the entire nation had passed over the Jordan and then they too crossed over before the river resumed its flow. However, the Rabbis of the Talmud, cited by Rashi, understand that the Kohanim stepped back out of the river onto its eastern bank, allowing the river to return to normal, and that only then did the Ark miraculously carry them in midair over the rushing water to the western side.
The text notes that the crossing of the Jordan took place on the tenth of the month of Nisan. To the student of Torah this is a memorable date for another important reason. Immediately prior to the Exodus from Egypt the Jews were commanded to offer a sheep as a Paschal sacrifice. The mitzvah was “on the tenth of this month [Nisan] each person should take a sheep for his family or household. And it shall be safeguarded until the fourteenth of the month…” The process of leaving Egypt began on the tenth of Nisan, and here too, the crossing of the Jordan, clearly designed to remind the Jews of the Exodus, took place on the 10th of Nisan as well. One verse in our chapter makes this connection explicit, “Hashem your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you crossed, just as Hashem your God did with the Sea of Reeds, when he dried it up before us until we had crossed.”
There is one last fascinating link between our chapter and the narrative of the Exodus – the use of the phrase “so that this shall be a sign amongst you, when your children ask in the future, saying ‘what are these rocks to you? And you shall say, etc.”, which is an obvious allusion to the famous declaration of Moshe Rabbenu to the Jews at the time of the Exodus “And it will be when your children shall say to you ‘what is this service to you’? And you shall say, etc.” Again, in our chapter “When your children ask their parents in the future, saying ‘what are these rocks’? You shall make known to your children, etc.”
By now, the miracles of the Exodus were already a fading memory for the Jewish people, their dramatic effect had begun to wear off after forty years of wandering in the desert. The experience of Divine intervention at the Jordan River provided a new and exciting story for a new generation that could be passed from parents to children and could serve as a basis for faith in Hashem and His providence as they established themselves in the Holy Land.
Word of the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River spreads throughout the region, leaving the kings of Canaan scared and bewildered by the newly arrived Jews. In the meantime, Hashem commands Yehoshua to prepare sharp rocks in order to circumcise the Jewish people. During the forty years of sojourn in the desert, the ritual of circumcision was not practiced, so only those Jews who were born in Egypt had fulfilled the commandment. Everyone born in the desert was still uncircumcised as of the entry into Israel (although Rabbinic tradition states that the Levites did, in fact, circumcise their children even in the desert). The reason offered in most commentaries for the deferral of circumcision is that it was dangerous and could be potentially life-threatening to undergo a surgical procedure while traveling in the wilderness.
Here we find the clearest and most explicit connection between the arrival in Israel and the Exodus from Egypt, as immediately following the mass circumcision is the celebration of the Passover holiday. We know from Parashat Bo that an uncircumcised male is not permitted to participate in the Paschal sacrifice; hence the need for the ritual to be carried out right away. Indeed, the Rabbis have a tradition that the Jews had a similar mass circumcision before the first Paschal offering in Egypt itself. The idea is clear: a personal commitment to the covenant of Abraham, symbolized by the berit milah, must precede the affirmation of the national covenant of the people of Israel, symbolized by the Paschal sacrifice. As the Jews are performing the circumcisions, Hashem Himself says “today I have rolled the disgrace of Egypt off of you”, a fitting preparation for the Passover observance.
We may even suggest that the fact that the Jews did not circumcise in the desert was not motivated by practical concerns but was divinely mandated for a theological purpose. The delay of circumcision until right before the first Passover celebrated in the Holy Land allowed the people to recreate the experience of the Exodus as it actually occurred to their parents and grandparents. The tradition teaches that, other than the first anniversary of the departure from Egypt, the Passover sacrifice was not offered for the forty years that the Jews wandered in the desert. So this unique convergence of events – crossing the Jordan, berit milah and Passover – were indeed a powerful “second take” of the story of the Jewish people, a kind of virtually remaking of their past to connect it to their future. Our chapter then describes how the Jews, now able to eat of the produce of the land, stopped receiving the manna from heaven that had been sustaining them for the past four decades. Truly the end of an era.
The chapter concludes with an encounter between Yehoshua and an armed and apparently threatening figure who turns out to be an angel of God. The angel tells Yehoshua to remove his shoes because he is treading upon holy ground and is about to receive a communication from God. The chapter divisions, which were not made by Jews, do us a bit of a disservice here in leaving the content of the message for the chapter six. However, it is interesting to note that the Rabbis interpret the appearance of this angel as a rebuke to Yehoshua for one of two sins – either neglecting the daily Temple service or neglecting the study of Torah. The Midrash states that Yehoshua asked which of the two failures he was being criticized for and was told it was for his failure to study.
This is fascinating because, as mentioned before, the honor given to the Temple Service and Kohanim as well as the focus on learning Torah are two ways in which Yehoshua demonstrated his loyalty to Moshe Rabbenu and the legacy that preceded him. The Rabbis are suggesting that he had become overly concerned with his own success and image as a leader and had lost some of his earlier devotion to the teachings of his mentor. The visit from the angel reminded him to put his ego in check and remember the purpose for which he had been chosen to lead. In the following chapter, we will see the relevance of this Midrash to the content of the angel’s message.