Toppling Walls

Writer and story consultant Amy Handelsman is a current LABA fellow. Here are Amy’s thoughts on some timely ancient texts we’ve been studying on this year’s theme, WAR + PEACE.

Twice a month as a LABA fellow, I am privileged to take part in a study session at the 14th Street Y, where Lead Teacher Liel Leibovitz leads a discussion of a classical Jewish text around the theme of war and peace. As a civilian who has never experienced combat, I found that some of these texts—taken from Chumash and Talmud—have been a bit abstract for me. However, our session on January 8th struck a deep chord, coming on the heels of the Golden Globe Awards, when Hollywood women wore all black as a united shout-out to the #MeToo movement, and in advance of the second annual Woman’s March on January 20th, when hundreds of thousands would take to the streets in protest.

The heroine of that night’s text (Joshua 2) was Rahab (Hebrew for “wide” or “wide open”), the harlot who paved the way for the Jews to storm the city of Jericho and thus enter Canaan. She did this by hiding two nameless and bumbling spies sent by Joshua to do reconnaissance, and thus securing safety for herself and her family. There was no doubt for Rahab that the Chosen People would prevail—she’d heard stories about the Divine Grace of Exodus—and she proved herself a canny and strategic ally. The fact that she was a non-Israelite, a woman and a prostitute is in itself most transgressive, and says a lot about who actually had the smarts and the chutzpah in our narrative.

A bit of further backstory. The sending in of spies is a callback to when Moses ordered twelve spies into Canaan to scope things out (Numbers 13:1-33). Ten spies came back quaking—saying there were giants in the land, and we were but lowly grasshoppers. Only two spies—Joshua and Caleb—saw things differently; and they made it into the Promised Land, but only after wandering in the desert for forty years.

Leibovitz explained the Promised Land—the land of milk and honey—as a metaphoric conceit. It is likely that the actual territories of Egypt and Canaan held similar riches. Rather, the Promised Land implied a nation with enough moral agency to set up a sovereign state. As a people, we were not ready: three months after the Exodus with Moses, we not only saw ourselves as lowly grasshoppers, we were convinced that others saw us that way, too. We wished to return to Egypt. And it took forty years of wandering to get to the point where we could step up to claim our inheritance, and with the help of G-d, blast down those walls.

Every child knows the African-American spiritual, “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” Allow me to set the scene: We arrive at the city which we circle once for six straight days. On the seventh day, we circle it seven times in parade formation: the armed men leading, followed by the priests blowing their ram’s horns, followed by the Ark and the rearguard. And only on the seventh day do the people give out a great shout. (The seven-day structure is an echo of Bereshit: the earth was created in seven days; Jericho was destroyed in seven.)

The song lyrics proclaim, “and the walls came tumbling down,” but the Hebrew translation reads more like “the walls fall flat,” a destruction as swift and devastating as the Twin Towers crumbling on 9/11.

What struck me further was the prelude to this devastation. There were no weapons seen; any actual warfare was “off-stage.” The pageantry involved marching with the ark, the priests blowing their horns and, only on the seventh day, that great shout. It took the people unified in voice—loud, strong, and clear—to breach the walls of Jericho (see Joshua 6).

Now, in parallel, women in America are sending up a great shout of resistance to years of harassment and oppression in the workplace. We can be jaded about it—pooh-poohing the movement as self-serving witch-hunt. But, whatever your political feelings about the #MeToo movement, the voices of women who have been hired, fired, demoted and promoted based on their sexual appeal and willingness to “play ball” have now erupted in a choral tsunami, leading to the demise of scores of alleged perpetrators. And, it is an irony not lost on me that it was the temerity and savvy of Rahab, a sex worker, whose acts led to the demise of that walled city, Jericho.

It bears repeating that the word is often mightier than the sword in breaking down barriers, that a great and united voice can topple walls. And if that voice has grown to deafening proportions, it is because, finally, after too long a hushed silence, Time’s Up.