“A Name Change Becomes a Game Changer”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, we read the well-known story of the scouts who are sent into the Land of Canaan in anticipation of the Children of Israel’s arrival in the land.

As previously noted (Shelach 5764-2004), the leaders who were sent into Canaan were not intended to be spies, but were meant to serve as scouts who represented their individual tribe’s interests. The tribe of Zebulun, for instance, needed to make certain that their land was located by the sea because of the sea-faring interests of the tribe’s members. Judah needed to make certain that their territory included fertile lands, which were located in a proper climate for the vineyards they were to plant, which would enable them to produce quality grapes and vintage wine.

When Moses sends out the scouts, G-d tells him (Number 13:2), that, אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו תִּשְׁלָחוּ, כֹּל נָשִׂיא בָהֶם, you [Moses] shall send one man each from his father’s tribe, every one a leader among them. These select representatives were all men of great stature, who were obviously trusted by their tribal members to serve as their loyal representatives.

The very next verse states that Moses sent them into the wilderness of Paran at the command of G-d. Scripture (Numbers 13:3) testifies, כֻּלָּם אֲנָשִׁים, רָאשֵׁי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה, they were all distinguished men, heads of the Children of Israel were they.

The Torah then proceeds to list each of the twelve tribal leaders by their personal names and their fathers’ names. Oddly, when the list concludes, the Torah notes (Numbers 13:16), אֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לָתוּר אֶת הָאָרֶץ, וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לְהוֹשֵׁעַ בִּן נוּן, יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, these are the names of the men whom Moses sent to tour the land. Moses called Hoshea, son of Nun, “Joshua.”

Rashi famously comments that Moses renamed Hoshea, Joshua, explaining that the name change represented a prayer for Joshua. Moses beseeched G-d: יָ־הּ יושִׁיעֲךָ מֵעֲצַת מְרַגְּלִים, May G-d save you [Joshua] from the conspiracy of the spies.

This comment seems to indicate that Moses did not have great confidence in the representatives who were being sent to Canaan. Therefore, he felt it necessary to provide additional support for Joshua with a special blessing. By adding the Hebrew letter י–“Yud” to Joshua’s name, together with the letter ה–“Hay,” the new name formed the first part of the Tetragrammaton, the sacred four letter name of G-d. This not only symbolized Joshua’s future role as the leader of Israel, but also invoked G-d to be ever-present with Joshua and to protect him from the evil intrigues of the inhabitants of the land and of his unreliable colleagues.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the change of name was intended to not only impact on Joshua, but also upon his companions. The other scouts would now have to call Joshua by his new name, which would impress upon them that they were engaged in a sacred Divine mission. They would now know that G-d, who in the past had always helped Joshua and the Jewish people, would be their salvation in the future as well. Additionally, by adding the single letter “Yud” to the name Hoshea, it now becomes a future name, rather than a name of the past.

Some would argue that Moses changed only the name of Joshua, and not the names of any of the other scouts, because anything improper that Joshua, Moses’ primary disciple, might do would reflect poorly on his mentor, Moses.

The Targum Yonatan suggests that Moses blessed only Joshua because of Joshua’s extreme humility. Moses felt that Joshua’s exceptional modesty would make him susceptible to the evil persuasions of his fellow spies.

Not everyone agrees that Joshua was meek and impressionable. The Chofetz Chaim suggests that there were significant personality differences between Joshua and Caleb. Joshua, who was naturally forceful, would have no compunctions about speaking out strongly against the spies. Caleb, on the other hand, who was more retiring, usually kept his opinions to himself. Because Joshua was so outspoken he was more likely to be harmed by the other spies, and was in need of an extra blessing.

What about Caleb? Where did he find the strength to resist the evil influences of the other scouts?

Scripture, in Numbers 13:22, reports, that as the scouts traversed the land of Canaan, וַיַּעֲלוּ בַנֶּגֶב, וַיָּבֹא עַד חֶבְרוֹן, the scouts ascended in the south and “he” arrived in Hebron. Noting the change from the plural to the singular, Rashi comments that only Caleb alone went to Hebron, where he prostrated himself in prayer on the graves of the Patriarchs, praying that he not be enticed by his companions or be party to their evil schemes.

This narrative, perhaps, displays a philosophical difference of opinion between Joshua and Caleb regarding the benefits and blessings of past generations. Caleb felt that by going to the ancestral graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and offering intensive prayer, he would gain strength and inspiration.

Moses felt, and perhaps Joshua did as well, that contemporary leaders possess a power within themselves to invoke a strength equal to the strength of the great Patriarchs and Matriarchs, which will enable them to resist evil.

While scripture does not determine which of these two methods is stronger or more effective, it is good to know that even an average Jew can choose either of these venues, or both, and hopefully be spared from the evil influences, and emerge blessed as well.

May you be blessed.