"Rachav, Rachav" - Prostitute, Proselyte, Prophet

For Congregation Ner Shalom - 
June 17, 2011

(Rahab and the Spies by Marc Chagall)

So there I was thinking about what to talk about this week. Our Torah portion is Shlach Lecha, in which the Israelites send a dozen spies into the Promised Land, 83.3% of whom come to believe that the Canaanites are too mighty for them to conquer; that they are as giants to the Israelites' grasshoppers.

Last year I talked about this whole grasshopper thing in connection with the Israeli attack on a flotilla of activists heading to Gaza. Then last Sunday I again drashed this grasshopper story for the Sonoma Pride Interfaith Service, connecting it to the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ rights.

I have gotten so much mileage out of these grasshoppers! And looking toward tonight, I couldn't bear to exploit the little critters yet again. Let them have shabbat off to do whatever grasshoppers do on shabbat, without the heavy burden of symbolism.

So I needed a fresh view. And, well, that's what haftarah is for. So I took a peek at this week's reading: Chapter 2 of the Book of Joshua.

And that's where I first saw her. Our eyes met across the ages and the pages. And I fell in love. Rachav: the prostitute, the proselyte, the prophet.

How had we never met? I'm sure I've heard or seen her name somewhere, but I'd never gotten around to reading her story. And it is a good one. Almost cinematic in its physical intrigue - men hidden on rooftops and climbing out of windows on ropes. I will tell you the whole story and at least try to draw some meaning from it.

It takes place 40 years after this week's Torah portion. The Children of Israel have wandered for four decades in the Wilderness. The slave generation, with just a couple exceptions, has died off. Moses is gone too, succeeded now by Joshua ben Nun, who talks with God with some frequency and who, like his predecessor, can also engineer a parting of the waters when necessary, albeit with the less daunting flow of the Jordan.

The Children of Israel are ready to cross over the river and take the Promised Land. Once again, spies are dispatched — only two of them this time, sent to scout out the City of Jericho. And they come first thing to the house of a zonah, a prostitute, named Rachav, and they "lodge" there, say the translations, although more literally vayishk'vu would mean that they "lay" there, which in Biblical Hebrew is not unlike saying they "got laid" there. So yes, opening scene, two Israelite guys sent on a mission, hit the big city for the first time, and their first stop is the brothel.

Meanwhile the king of Jericho is tipped off that some Israelite spies have found their way to Rachav's house. He sends messengers demanding they be turned over. But she tells them the men left the city gates before nightfall, and if the messengers are quick, they might still be able to catch up with them.

She takes the men and they go gaga. Here I don't mean gaga crazy and I don't mean Gaga the pop diva, but rather hagagah - she takes them "up to the roof." There she hides them under a pile of flax stalks, it being, apparently, flax season, and flax being a source of fibre for rope making, which is about to be relevant. There she confides to them that the men of Jericho are certain they will be Israel's next conquest. Whether she is conveying common knowledge or pillowtalk to which she is especially privy, we don't know. But, she tells them, the citizenry has heard about the Parting of the Red Sea and the people's hearts have melted with terror because, as she says:

כי יי אלהיכם הוא אלהים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת

Ki Adonai Eloheychem hu Elohim

bashamayim mim'al v'al ha'aretz mitachat.

"Because Yah, your God, is God in heaven above and on the earth below." (Words we still sing in the Aleynu prayer.)

Rachav offers to help the scouts escape on the condition that when the invasion comes her family be spared. They agree, instructing her to keep her family in her house and to hang in the window a tikvat chut hashani - a cord of crimson thread - so their forces will know which house to spare. She then lowers a rope out her window and the spies climb down and escape... And sure enough, four chapters later, when the conquest comes and the City is laid waste, Rachav and her parents, siblings, nieces and nephews are left alive.

I think Rachav is a fascinating character. She has a pivotal role in the plot, providing crucial intelligence. And she has a literary role too, providing a tikkun - a kind of reversal of the disastrous scouting trip of the previous generation. Instead of leading the Israelites to believe that their success was untenable, she convinces them it is, in fact, inevitable.

She is also complicated. She engages in treasonous conduct seemingly without qualm, lying to her king's messengers and throwing in her lot with her people's enemy. Yet our tradition doesn't treat her as a traitor, but rather as a proselyte. Someone who acts out of love and fear of our God. our Israelite God. And that makes her, in rabbinic eyes, a hero.

I also like the text's disinclination to dance around her profession. While some of the sages try to recast her as an innkeeper, most don't. She is a woman who has, as the Marxists would say, taken charge of the means of production. And she holds obvious importance in her community;  enough so that the king's messengers don't storm her house but rather knock on her door, wait for an answer, and believe it. She is unapologetic. She is willing to make deals to protect her family's safety. And whatever position she might make her money in, she thinks on her feet.

The rabbis of the Talmud can't get enough of her; in fact, those bookish men in their musty academies seem just a little over-stimulated by her. One midrash says that Rachav was so completely alluring that a man need only say her name twice - Rachav, Rachav - and he will ejaculate. (Yes, it's right there in Talmud.) Rabbi Nachman (the Talmudic one, not the Chasidic one) objects that he said her name twice and that it didn't happen. Rabbi Yitzchak responds that the phenomenon only applies to those who had actually ever seen her face to face, which was undoubtedly politer than saying, "What are you? Gay?"

The rabbis' excuse for obsessing about Rachav is that she is a person of exceptional virtue. She is a model convert, even more sincere and heralded than Yitro or Ruth. Her acknowledgment that Adonai is God in heaven above and on earth below are her words of conversion, revealing her desire to cleave to the God of Israel, a desire present, say the sages, since she heard rumor of the Crossing of the Red Sea when she was a girl. She becomes a Jew and, according to legend, is later married to Joshua, becoming the foremother of many prophets, among them Jeremiah and Chuldah, one of the several female prophets mentioned in Tanakh.

What's more, the rabbis happily point out that in her new faith she forswears being a prostitute. They say this undoubtedly for two reason: (1) to demonstrate the redeeming nature of Adonai; and (2) to have another opportunity to say the word "prostitute." Of course, forswearing being a prostitute might not be so remarkable; according to midrash she'd been in this profession for 40 years already. And as any dancer or athlete can tell you, when you work in a physically strenuous job, you do need to have a retirement plan.

But what is Rachav's symbolic value to the story and to us? Her name, Rachav, means "wide" or "expansive." And while I don't discount the possibility of this being a sexual joke right in the text, I think there's another way of looking at it. She, Rachav, is the first person we meet in the Promised Land. The "expansiveness" suggested by her name stands in contrast to Mitzrayim - the narrow place the Hebrews escaped from. A hint that some important transformation has taken place. The Children of Israel were not the same as they'd been 40 years earlier; the world was no longer the same. Where all had seemed too narrow even for breath, the horizon had now opened up. Everything was possible.

And Rachav seems to symbolize change. Change was in the air. The Children of Israel were about to come into their own. And in Jericho, regime change was about to take place. Rachav, called a prophet in her own right, foresaw all of it and she acted. Unlike so many of us, who follow our human nature and await change with fear or with denial. She looked ahead and took action in the name of her own survival and that of her loved ones. Maybe she is a reminder that action is available to us; that the shockwave of change might be beyond our control, but how we surf that wave is not. Rachav challenges us. Are we looking ahead with earnestness? Are we taking action on behalf of our own survival? Do we have what it takes to save the planet? To save our people? To save ourselves? Have we even bothered to make our stupid earthquake survival kits?

In the story, we can't easily judge the tenor of Rachav's actions. We are told nothing about the politics of Jericho. We don't if the king was a venerable leader or an evil despot. We don't know if life was sweet or cruel. We don't know if Rachav was a proud businesswoman, or if she was enduring a hated career not of her own choosing and perhaps this was her ticket out. The sages attribute her actions to a love of Adonai, maybe a love of life that was higher and deeper than loyalty to any earthly head of state.

I think her actions were rooted not in fear but in hope. Rachav ushers in change. And as she braces for the blast of the shofarot and the now-famous a-tumbling of the walls, she hangs a tikvat chut shani in her window. A cord of scarlet thread. But, let's do one more twist of that thread. Shani, the word describing the scarlet dye, could be read in Hebrew in connection to shanah, the verb meaning "to change." And tikvah, which here means "cord," or something that is wound or twisted together, can also mean, as many of you know from the Israeli national anthem, "hope." With this multiplicity of meaning in mind, Rachav placed in her window and displayed to the winds of the future, tikvat chut hashani - the hope of a thread of change.

Change is inevitable and continuous. It connects us back to Jericho and to the Big Bang and to God's first thought long before that. And it connects us to all that is yet to be. We all bear witness to change, and we all are part of change. And so may we, like Rachav, bring to that change not trepidation but hope and determination. May our intentions and our actions move us along a thread of change that draws us inexorably from the narrow place, Mitzrayim, to the expanse: Rachav, Rachav.

And let us say, Amen.

Gratitude to "Linda" who commented on my last drash for the nice turn of phrase around witnessing and being part of change.