Parshat Shelach Lecha: Numbers 13;1-15:41; Joshua 2;1-24.

Imagine the scene at the beginning of this week’s portion: 12 leaders in Israel are preparing for their 40-day trip to spy out the Holy Land.

As they complete preparations, Moses approaches the group and pulls aside the leader from the tribe of Ephraim.  They have a brief, but important conversation; during those few moments, Moses changes this man’s name. Though the Ephraimite was given the name Hoshea at birth, Moses adds the small letter yud, changing his name to Yehoshua, or Joshua in English.

Rabbi Jared Anstandig
Rabbi Jared Anstandig

As readers of the Torah, we are not unfamiliar with name changes. Even Sarah underwent a name change. Genesis 17:15 tells us that though she was born Sarai, “her name will be Sarah.” This change, like Joshua’s, is subtle. God simply replaced the letter yud in Sarai with the letter hey.

Though the Torah gives no explanation for this, the commentator Rashi offers a suggestion: “You shall not call her name Sarai which means “my princess” — a princess to me but not to others — but Sarah, in a more general sense, shall be her name: She shall be princess over all.” Rashi suggests that Sarah’s birthname, Sarai, has a particularistic connotation. Her new name, Sarah, is universalistic.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes the connection here. If removing the letter yud made Sarah more universalistic and less particularistic, then assigning the letter yud to Joshua must have made him more particularistic and less universalistic. He notes this in Nefesh Harav (306-307),

Initially, Joshua was a very public individual. He was involved in the world; he interacted with everyone. He was very integrated with the life of the average person. For this reason, Moses prayed that Joshua would distance from them and that he would be his own person. And so, Moshe appended the yud because that letter reflects particularism, against universalism.

Anticipating the negative peer pressure of the 11 other spies, Moses changed Joshua’s name to emphasize that Joshua must not be a universalist at this juncture. Now, Joshua needed to be an individual. He needed to have confidence in what is right and commit, unwaveringly, to it. While his 11 other comrades give a terrible report of the land, Joshua needs to be steadfast in his opinion.

Ultimately, there is no “right way” to interact with the world. The best path for us is to find the middle path, in which we successfully balance the worlds of Joshua (the yud) and particularism with Sarah (the hey) and universalism.

It is a difficult balance to strike and perhaps, at times, it can be an especially lonely path, But, when we are able to live with the yud and hey, we end up living with yud-hey, the two-letter name of God. 

Rabbi Jared Anstandig formerly served as the rabbi of the Orthodox community in Ann Arbor; now he will be a Sgan Rosh Beit Midrash of Beit Midrash Zichron Dov in Toronto, Canada.

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