Class 29 -Rachav: The Courage to Create a New Reality
Mrs. Leah Kohn
The story of Rachav is set forth in the Book of Joshua, Chapter Two, takes
place approximately forty years after the Exodus from Egypt, when the
Jewish people are ready to cross the Jordan River to conquer the land of
Israel. The entire world is aware of this imminent event, given that the
Jewish people have been in the public eye ever since they left Egypt. The
Ten Plagues, the Exodus and its ensuing miracles had had a tremendous
effect on all of mankind. What's more, the Jewish people had vanquished
Egypt - at that time the world's premier civilization - as well as several
At this point in Jewish history, Moses has just passed away and Joshua has
taken over as leader. He decides to send a two man reconnaissance mission
into Israel, in order to determine the best way to conduct his conquest of
the land. The two he sends are Pinchas and Calev, men of exemplary
character and accomplishment. Calev was originally sent by Moshe with
eleven others to spy out the land of Israel forty years prior. He (and
Yehoshua) accomplished this mission according to God's will, while the
other ten failed, and died as a result (Parashas Shelach, Chapter 13, Book
of Numbers). Pinchas - a grandson of Aaron - was also distinguished and
there are stories about him in the Torah that indicate his greatness (see
in particular Parashas Pinchas, Book of Numbers).
So Pinchas and Calev cross the Jordan into Israel, and stop for the night
in the city of Jerico, at the house of an innkeeper named Rahav. The Hebrew
word for innkeeper is "zonah", which comes from the word "mazon" (food).
Rachav is referred to in the Book of Joshua as "isha zonah", which can be
translated as "a female innkeeper, who provided food for people".
But the word "zonah" also means prostitute. Rahav was a prostitute,
involved with many people, and she supported herself by running a brothel
disguised as an inn.
In Hebrew, the name Rachav means "wide" or "broad". In a positive sense,
she has a broad heart - she likes to be a host and help people and
give. The risk for this type of personality is that some fall into
immorality because their good-heartedness makes it difficult for them to
say "no". Our sages say that, besides Rachav's giving, open nature, she
was physically exquisite and that she channeled these qualities in the
wrong direction and fell easily into her profession. Moreover, Rachav
started working at the age of ten. So, most likely, she had difficult life
circumstances, for whatever reason. As a woman, she was very exclusive in
her business, and we are told that many important people, including kings,
were involved with her.
Why would Joshua's spies stay in such a disreputable place, given they are
from a Nation that at that point in history is famous for its high moral
standards? Precisely because of this moral reputation, Pinchas and Calev
choose Rachav's inn because they expect the Canaanites will never look for
And here they find Rachav, a non-Jewish native of Canaan who, through her
business, is connected to the leaders of the land of Israel. (The
potential for extracting political information is another reason why
Pinchas and Calev choose Rachav's inn).
But things go wrong. The king of Yericho is informed of the presence of
the spies in his domain and he sends messengers to Rachav, where they have
been seen. Surprisingly, instead of giving the spies up, she hides them on
the roof of her inn and tells the messengers, "It is true; the men did come
to me, but I do not know from where they are. When the city gate was about
to close at dark, the men went out; I do not know where the men
went. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them!" (Joshua 2: 4-6).
What causes Rachav to protect Pinchas and Calev, and to risk charges of
treason? As a Canaanite, especially connected to high officials, one would
imagine her loyalties would be with the kings she knows and her nation. Our
sages tell us Rachav's actions were not a betrayal of state, but a
consequence of her sincere conviction that the Jewish conquest was Divinely
ordained and that the Jews had a right to their Land. For the past forty
years, the world had heard about the miracles that had followed the Jews
from the Exodus to the Red Sea, to Sinai and throughout their long sojourn
in the desert. Rachav's concludes, logically, that God is squarely behind
In other words, she knows exactly who G-d is. She approaches Pinchas and
Calev in their hiding place on the roof and, at last, reveals her
intentions behind the unlikely favor she has done for them. She requests
of them, "...swear to me by Hashem, since I have done kindness with you,
that you too will do kindness with my father's household and give me a
trustworthy countersign...that you will save our souls from death" (Joshua
2: 12-13). Her words reflect an understanding that the Jewish Nation is
invincible, given God's protection of them, and that they will destroy
those nations who remain in the land without taking on the seven laws of
Noach, which Torah requires of non-Jews.
In essence, Rachav tells Pinchas and Calev that she and all of her family
will convert to Judaism. If their intention was to remain in Israel after
the Jewish conquest, and abide by the seven laws of Noach, she would not
even have had to approach the two men, since there was already a guarantee
that any nation accepting these terms would be allowed to remain peacefully
in Israel. Rather, Rachav sees in the Jewish Nation something awesome in
which she wants to participate, even though she understands that she is not
expected or obligated by the Jews to do so .
Why didn't everyone in Canaan see this awesomeness and take action, at
least to the extent of accepting the Seven Laws of Noach, which was the
alternative to their annihilation, were they to stay in the land without
changing their idolatrous, immoral practices. Instead, only one nation
leaves the country, while the others stay, without accepting the Noachide
Laws, which means they are sure to be annihilated by the Jews. Only Rachav
takes a step that everyone else should logically take, and goes even
further by expressing her desire to actually become Jewish.As we opened up,
everybody knew about what's going on. But she is unique.
The choice that Rachav makes is a choice between action and denial, which
is a dilemma that is part of the human condition to this day. Things that
are behavioral - not even having to do with Judaism - the diet we should
eat, the cigarettes we shouldn't smoke, the habits we should break - we are
all capable of sustaining or destroying ourselves in these ways. The goal
is not only to know what is right, but to actually internalizing this
knowledge. And herein lies the difference between Rachav and the other
inhabitants of Canaan, who knew what action to take in order to survive,
but did not accept the reality of having to change. By contrast, Rachav
not only knew what to do, but turned the new circumstances to her
advantage, seeing the opportunity to create for herself a new reality.
The business of change is a hard job for anyone, yet rewarding because it
changes our essence. It is a step-by-step job of growing, and slowly
bringing into ourselves and into our heart, what our head knows. The
difference between knowing and internalizing is that knowledge is something
external to us. It is something we know about, something we have, but it
is not who we are. What exists in our heart is who we are and what we want
to strive for. To turn something from a possession to an essence - that is
what life is all about.
Rahav did it, although she was not a likely candidate for this
accomplishment. What led her towards such unbelievable behavior, will be
the subject of our next class. But before that installment we would like
to involve you, our 3,700 readers, in a discussion about the power of change.
Please respond to firstname.lastname@example.org. Our next class will feature a selection
of your responses.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2000 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and ProjectGenesis, Inc.