Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there. — Joshua 2:1
The Torah portion for this week is Shelach, which means “send,” from Numbers 13:1–15:41, and the Haftorah is from Joshua 2:1–24.
A story is told about Rabbi Joshua, who was extremely wise but not at all attractive. One day the rabbi met the emperor’s daughter. She bluntly questioned, “How could God place so much wisdom in such an ugly vessel?” Instead of addressing the princess’s comment, Rabbi Joshua asked, “In what does your father keep his wine?” The princess replied, “In earthenware vessels.”
The rabbi then asked, “Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to store fine wine in more beautiful vessels?” The princess agreed and had all her father’s fine wine transferred into gold and silver vessels. Not long afterward, all the wine turned sour. When the princess met the rabbi again she told him what had happened. In return, Rabbi Joshua explained the lesson he wanted the princess to learn: Just as fine wine is kept best in simple, non-attractive vessels, so is wisdom.
In this week’s Torah reading, we learned how the spies sent to Israel brought back a bad report about the land. In the Haftorah reading, it’s about 38 years later, and Joshua was sending two men to scout out the land. This time, they didn’t bring back a negative report; rather they obtained the knowledge necessary to capture the land and successfully brought their findings to Joshua. Soon afterward, Joshua led the children of Israel into the Promised Land.
The Jewish sages teach that when the men went to scout out the land, they disguised themselves as potters and called out, “Here are pots! Here are pots!” However, this isn’t just a commentary on what the spies literally did; it’s also a description of their state of mind. When the 10 spies sent in Moses’ time brought back a bad report about the land, they were following their own agenda. They had closed themselves off to God’s will and followed only their own.
In contrast, Joshua’s scouts were like earthenware pots. Such vessels have no intrinsic value on their own, like those made of silver, gold, or iron. An earthenware pot’s only value is the ability to hold something. Likewise, these men placed no value on their own egos. Rather, they saw their only value as serving as vessels for the will of God. The result was that they succeeded where others had failed.
One of the most powerful prayers we can pray is to ask God to use us as a vessel. The sages teach, “Make His will your will, so that He should make your will His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will.” Let’s be suitable vessels for God’s will; let our value be our divine content and not our earthly vessel.