Living on the Fringes: This Week’s Torah

For this coming Shabbat, the traditional Torah-reading (Shelach L'Cha, Numbers 13: 1 to 15: 41) and prophetic passage (Joshua 2: 1-24) do three things in their storytelling that today we would not think conventional or "proper":

  • They use puns and word-plays to reach beyond conventional language, to make a deep religious and spiritual point;
  • They treat sexuality not with prudish reserve but with relish, as one path toward a life of love and Spirit;
  • They treat living not according to convention but on the edge, at the fringes of our selves and of society, as a sacred path to God. 

Try that in most of our synagogues, churches, mosques, temples!

In this Torah portion, Moses sent twelve scouts across the Jordan to tour the land (in Hebrew, "latur"). Ten of them came back scared by the “giants,” seemingly impregnable, they found there. They felt that compared to these giants, they themselves were mere "grasshoppers." 

 Only two of the scouts found the land inviting. One of them was the Joshua who shows up in the prophetic passage that accompanies this Torah portion. From the panic of the other ten came thirty-eight more years of wandering in the Wilderness (Num. 14).

The bilingual Hebrew-English pun of “latur” and “tour” helps us to see "latur" as indeed a touristy kind of visit, in which the “tourists” merely glance here and there, never deeply gazing, never getting intimately connected with the Land they glance at. (To this very day, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism uses as its symbol the picture of two ancient Israelites, the scouts Moses sent into the Land, carrying between them a gigantic cluster of grapes, just as the Torah describes them.)

 “Latur” is also used in the final verses of the same weekly Torah portion (Num. 15: 37-41) about the tzitzit (fringes) we are to tie on the edges of our four-cornered clothing. There too the verb is used about the danger of just glancing around hither and thither at the world, not really deeply seeing -- and thereby whoring (zonim) ourselves after trifles that we erect into false gods.

 Gazing at these fringes teaches us to look deeply into the world, not casually like tourists.

How? Because the fringes are threads of connection between each of us and the rest of the world. Our bodies, our hearts, our minds, our souls do not end at a clear, sharp boundary between our own self and the others. It is not good fences make good neighbors, but good fringes make good neighbors.

In this way, the fringes on the four corners of our clothing are like the corners on a farmer's fields. The farmer may be leasing the land from YHWH, the Breath of Life, but s/he must not eat what grows in the corners of the field.   The real Owner insists that what grows there may only be eaten by the poor, the orphan, the landless foreigner. The corners are a fuzzy mixture of my land and the community's land  -- because God owns it all. The fringes on my clothing are a fuzzy mixture of my cloth and the community's air -- and remind me that the real Owner of it all is the Breath of Life. 

As we gaze at the fringes of connection, we remember that if we look deeply at these connections, not merely glancing at others as a tourist might, we see the ONE Who connects us all.

 Perhaps the rabbis who chose how to divide up the weekly Torah portions chose to connect this passage about tzitzit with the one about the scouts precisely because they wanted to connect and highlight "latur."

The rabbis also assigned as the Haftarah (Prophetic passage) to be read with this Torah portion a report on the scouts whom Joshua sent into the Land thirty-eight years later, as the marching Israelites approach the city of Jericho – a high-walled Canaanite redoubt. Joshua sent only two scouts, as if he had learned the lesson long ago: two is good, twelve is dangerous.


These scouts find themselves in the house of a Jerichoan woman named Rachav. 

Her name means “broad.” Think of Psalm 118: 5: Min hameytzar karati Yah; Anani bamerchav Yah. “From the narrow place I called to God;“God answered me with broad open spaces [merchav, from the same root as rachav].” And note that “maytzar, narrow” echoes Mitzrayyim, that Tight and Narrow Place of slavery, that Egypt from which the Israelites are still escaping. It is a broad and open woman who opens the Land to them.

Rachav the Broad is specifically called a whore (zonah). She lives really on the edge – for she entertains her guests in the very edge of the wall that itself is on the edge of Jericho.

 But there is something different about this zonah. She turns upside down what it means to be a zonah --  deeply different from the "zonim" that the Torah portion warns us against, when it tells us to focus on the fringes of the edges of our garments.

For this whore has fallen in love with YHWH, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of all life (for this Name of God can  only be “pronounced” by breathing),  the God Who has led the Godwrestlers out of slavery.

 Rachav knows the Godwreslers will win because the God Who is the Breath of life has become not a warm and comfortable breeze but the Hurricane of Change. She turns upside down what it means to be a zonah because she knows that God has already turned all history upside down, to free these miserable slaves from the Imperial Pharaoh.

So the Broad who out of all Jericho is by far the most broad-minded, the most wide-open to new possibility, welcomes the two Israelite scouts. She helps the scouts scope out the city.

Now this band of runaway slaves is bringing their revolutionary vision into Canaan, facing a city famous for its walls. She expects the world to be turned upside down – or right-side up – again.


Rachav the Broad asks the scouts she has befriended: "Hishavu-na b' YHWH --- Make an oath, please, by YHWH, that just as I have shown lovingkindness to you, you will show lovingkindness to my family when you take the city.”

 But the words for "swear an oath" [hishavu] and "seven" [sheva] make a pun, a word-play. So "Hishavu-na -- make an oath, please!" could also mean, "Make a seven, please!"

 Make a "seven" for YHWH” -- Make the seven creative days for God, the seven days that culminate in Shabbat, the day of open possibility, the day when we do not Make or Do but simply Be. This “seven” of restful self-reflection is what brings down the walls that make our lives narrow, the walls that block our way to a future full of open possibility.

 No wonder that when the Godwrestlers did approach the walls of Jericho, they took the advice Rachav had given the scouting party. They made a "seven" for God. They danced seven dances around the walls of Jericho.

 No wonder the walls fell.

 Rachav the Broad, the whore, knew this wisdom because she lived on the edge like the tzitzit, the fringes on our clothing.

 And not only geographically, on the edge of the edge – the edge of the city wall. She was a whore, a “broad.” Broad-minded. Open to visitors, open to the people that itself lives always on the edge.

The Bible is not affirming sexual promiscuity or prostitution. But it is affirming that Rachav has learned how to turn the openness of whoring into a far deeper kind of spiritual openness. She has learned to open herself when it comes to ultimate issues – to open her life to the God of open possibility. She teaches us how to see the deepest truth embodied in the fringey tzitzit, instead of – as the Torah portion warns us -- touring and whoring after the false gods of walls, giants, towers, arrogance.

She stands with the Bible’s group of "outsider," "transgressive" women who have a healing impact on the future (Lot's daughter, Tamar, Ruth. . .). They challenge the men who dominate most of biblical tradition, which is strongly committed to "insiders" and boundaries. These women were not only transgressive in their own time; their stories continue to be subversive across time, into our own time.

Can we lift up these women in new ways? What would it mean to have a Judaism, a Christianity, an Islam in which they were really models?

 The scouts brought tragedy upon the people by looking -- like tourists -- merely at the surface of the land and at the other people who lived there. Can we look deeply at the land and earth and people, instead of seeing merely surfaces? Can we look deeply enough to heal the earth and air and water, instead of poisoning them to feed our giant appetites for wealth and power? Can we look to see that our neighbors are neither giants nor grasshoppers, but breathing life-forms like ourselves, woven into the Breath of life?

And can we look at our selves and ask – are we still committed to that God of fringiness, the God Who lives on edges, or have we built towers and walls around ourselves, do we preen ourselves on being giants in the land, impregnable – while God is getting ready to turn the world upside down on behalf of runaway slaves?

Puns and word-plays are themselves a kind of fringiness, breaking down the conventional walls and barriers we place between our words, making instead illicit connections that are unexpected, funny. So from the word-plays of this weekly portion can we also learn to pause and laugh at the rigidity we often impose on ourselves in the very name of religion?

 We plan, God puns.  Not only with words: with life.



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