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Parashat Shelah

June 10, 2015

by Rabbi Isaac Mann

The importance that the Torah gives to someone’s name is underscored in this week’s Torah portion of Shelah. Before Moses sent forth the twelve spies to scout out the land of Israel, he changed the name of one of them, namely Hoshea, the representative of the tribe of Ephraim, to Yehoshua (the Hebrew equivalent of Joshua) (Bemidbar 13:16).

The purpose of the name change is obvious. While the meaning of “Hoshea” is salvation, there is no indication whence comes the salvation. By adding a yud to the name, it now makes reference to G-d as the source of the salvation. As Rashi suggests (ad loc.), Moses prayed for Hoshea — “May G-d save you from the conspiracy of the spies.” Thus when the spies returned from their mission and brought back a negative report, only two maintained their faith in G-d’s promise that Israel would conquer the Land, one of whom was Joshua. Could it be that if not for the name change Joshua, the faithful servant of Moses (see Shemot 32:17 and Bemidbar 11:28), would have fallen in with the majority of the pack and cast doubt on G-d’s ability to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land?

That scenario seems highly unlikely. Moreover, Joshua’s fellow spy Caleb, from the tribe of Judah, who remained faithful to G-d and to Moses did not have a name change and yet avoided being drawn into the group of doubters and deniers of G-d’s omnipotence. So why did Moses feel compelled to change the name of his loyal student and follower — and how did that impact on the latter’s disavowal of the evil report of the ten spies?

In regard to Caleb’s not having a name change, a simple answer might be that the name “Caleb” is a reference to a dog, and thus unsuitable for modifying it to refer to the Divine. “Dog” and “God,” while quite closely related spelling-wise in English, don’t go together in Hebrew and certainly not on an association level. But on a deeper level, the Midrash suggests that Caleb did not need a name change to ensure that he wouldn’t fall in with the other spies because he went on his own to Hevron, where the patriarchs were buried and prayed  at their gravesite (the Meorat Ha-Makhpeilah) that he not succumb to their machinations (see Rashi to Bemidbar 13:22). This is derived from the singular expression of Va-yavo ad Hevron  (he came to Hevron) as opposed to the other verbal expressions which are in the plural, referring to all of the spies.

The key then to Caleb’s steadfastness was prayer and not some kind of “magical” change of name. If so, one might suggest that in similar vein the key to Joshua’s loyalty and refusal to go along with the malshinim (the ones who spoke negatively about the Land) was also prayer — the prayer of Moses that Joshua remain strong and unyielding to the temptation of his colleagues, all of whom are described by the Torah as being men of stature (13:2). Surely they must have tried to win over the disciple of Moses to their way of thinking. That Joshua did not bend to these prominent leaders of their tribes was not a foregone conclusion. No matter how great one is you can never be sure that in times of stress and extreme pressure one doesn’t yield to the majority. By changing his name to Yehoshua, the great leader of the Jewish people carved prayer into Joshua’s very essence — “May G-d save you …”

Many of us are probably familiar with the custom of adding a name (or changing a name) of someone who is very ill. While there may be kabbalistic reasons for explaining the efficacy of doing so, the main component of a name change is prayer. We pray to G-d through this name change that the sick person should have healing and life (thus the common additions of Rafael or Hayyim to the given name). The key to salvation is prayer; name change is just the vehicle for the prayer.

Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.