Parashat Shelah

by Cantor Sandy Horowitz

What’s in a Name?

Parashat Shelah tells the story of twelve spies sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan that has been promised by God to the Israelite people. Upon their return, ten of the twelve report that the enemy is too great and the land unconquerable, thereby instilling doubt and fear among the Israelites. Only two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, remain faithful to God’s promise of a successful outcome.

The Torah portion begins by listing the names of the spies, representatives from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Joshua, future leader of the Israelite people, is an unassuming fifth from among the twelve: “From the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea the son of Nun” (Numbers 13:8).

Numbers 13:16 reads, “These are the names of the men which Moses sent to spy out the land; and Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun Joshua/Yehoshua.” Without fanfare or even a verse to call his own, Joshua receives a new name.

Name changes are significant events in the Torah. God changes Abram to Abraham, and Sarai to Sarah, in recognition of their positions as ancestors to God’s chosen people; Jacob becomes Israel after a night of wrestling with the angel of God. By contrast, the event of renaming Hoshea to Joshua is nearly buried in the text; nor does the Torah provide a reason for the new name. What’s more, unlike his ancestors, Joshua is renamed by Moses, not God.

What is the significance of Joshua receiving a new name at this moment in the biblical narrative?

The ancient Rabbis provided one explanation in Sotah 34b. Joshua’s new name in Hebrew is Yehoshua, created by adding the letter yud to his former name; Sotah 34b interprets the letters of the new name to mean “God will save you [Ya yoshiakha] from the counsel of the spies.” This suggests Moses believed Joshua might be influenced by the ten spies who chose fear over faith, therefore he renamed him prior to the scouting expedition, to protect him from their evil counsel.

The midrash Bereishit Rabbah 47 tells a story of how the yud became part of Joshua’s name:

“Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai said, the yud which the Holy One, Blessed be He took from Sarai, soared aloft before the throne of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and spoke before Him: ‘Ruler of all the worlds, because I am the smallest of the letters, you took me from Sarah the Righteous. Said the Holy One, Blessed be He, formerly you came from the name of a woman, as the last of the letters; I’m now giving you to the name of a man, and you will be the first of the letters.’ As it is said (Numbers 13:16) Moses called Hoshea bin Nun Yehoshua.”

One might imagine the poor yud, unattached and flitting around the throne of the Holy One, waiting and wondering how long it would be before Hoshea would make his appearance and provide yud with a new home.

Generations pass. Yud waits. Joshua finally shows up in Exodus 17 and successfully leads an army against the Amalekites — but his name remains unchanged. Yud continues to wait. Exodus 32 mentions Hoshea as he stands with Moses, apart from the golden-calf worshippers. Still no name change. Finally, in this week’s Torah reading Hoshea becomes Yehoshua; Sarah’s yud has landed, as promised.

In her article “From Sarah to Joshua: The feminine perspective on materiality and the physical”, Chana Weisberg suggests that the yud provided an important and necessary spiritual connection between Sarah and Joshua. Weisberg invokes Bemidbar Rabbah 21:11 which recounts how it was only the men among the Israelites who succumbed to the spies’ fearful report, whereas the women remained steadfast and, as Weisberg writes, “did not participate in the sin of rejecting the land”. She states that they knew to do this as “a part of their spiritual heritage, passed down from mother to daughter, derived from our matriarch Sarah’s example.”

Weisberg cites another midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 60:16, which elaborates on how, as she puts it, “Sarah transformed her physical home into a spiritual sanctuary”: a candle burned through the week from one Shabbat to the next, and a protective cloud hovered continually over Sarah’s tent. These and other similar occurrences ceased when Sarah died, but according to the midrash, they returned when her son Isaac married Rebecca. As Weisberg writes, “This was the spiritual heritage that the women of Israel received from Sarah—and which she imparted to Yehoshua by gifting him a letter from her name.” By being linked with Sarah by means of the yud, Joshua, like the women, retains his faith in God.


Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.