Today's Torah portion is Shlach Lecha. In this portion, Moses has finally reached the edge of the land of Israel. He sends 12 spies, one from each tribe, to scout out the land. They go there and after scouting, all of the spies report that the land is flowing with milk and honey. But 10 spies say that to the land's inhabitants the Israelites are just like grasshoppers. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, say that if the Israelites trust in God they will overcome the inhabitants of the land and take the land. But, even with this reassurance, the Israelites are too scared and don't trust in God. God punishes them by forcing them to wander the desert for forty years.
Although my Torah portion is a great story, what is most interesting to me is my haftorah portion.
The haftorah portion is Chapter 2 in Joshua.
My haftorah is about the same Joshua who said that the Israelites should trust God and take the land. Because after Moses died, Joshua became his successor.
Joshua led the Israelites into Israel, and found himself outside of Jericho. So he sent two spies into the city.
As they come into the city, they come to the house of a woman named Rachav. The king of Jericho tells his guards that two men have gotten into the city. They search the city looking for them.
When they come to Rachav's house, she hides them from the guards, up on her roof, under piles of flax. She tells the guards that two men did come to her house, but she says that they came and left. She tells the guards that they went to the Jordan River, so the guards start chasing the men off in that direction. When the guards are out of sight, she makes a deal with the spies.
She tells them that she knows that God has given the land to the Israelites.
She says that everyone has heard about God splitting the Sea of Reeds when they left Egypt.
She says "the Lord your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below."
She asks them to spare her and her family when the Jews come into the city to attack Jericho.
The spies agree to this and ask her to mark her house with a red thread so they'll know which house to spare.
Then, they sneak out of the city and back to Joshua and report what happened.
Though Rachav is a critical part of this story, there is not much written about her. Her name, Rachav, comes from the root reish, chet, vet which means wide open, space, or expanse, and in the story she is very open and lets the spies into her house and into her land.
It also is not clear who exactly she was:
But nobody really knows.
She does seem to be in a place of authority or respect in regard to the king.
Also, the Talmud's description of her as the most beautiful woman, and her description of the scouts, sounds like they may have come to her house as customers.
But what is most interesting to me is: why did she do what she did? Why did she hide them? Why did she lie to the king's guards and save the lives of these strangers?
These people were going to come back and attack her city and burn it to the ground.
Did she do it out the goodness of her heart?
Was she ultimately trying to protect herself and her family from the wrath of God?
She seems to believe in the god of the Israelites and the strength of the Israelites.
In short, was she really trying to help them or to help herself?
Altruism is defined as "the selfless concern for the welfare of others." It is doing something for someone else without any thought of it helping you at all.
Does altruism really exist?
Many cultures and religions consider altruism to be a virtue. And many societies and religions depend on people doing nice things for each other. We couldn't have civil society without it.
But altruism is more than just doing nice things for each other.
In Judaism, we have the concept of the mitzvot, literally meaning “commandment”, and tzedakah, which is often thought of as charity, but actually comes from a root word that means justice.
According to Maimonides, there are 8 levels of tzedakah:
Bahya ben Joseph ibn Paquda was a Jewish philosopher and rabbi who lived in Zaragoza, Spain, in the first half of the eleventh century. He was the author of one of the first Jewish systems of ethics, written in 1040, Guide to the Duties of the Heart. He wrote that the wisdom of the Torah is divided into two parts: visible and invisible. The visible wisdom is the physical things you have to do. The INvisible wisdom is the duties of the heart and mind.
These invisible duties are more important than the visible ones.
Even if you perform a physical duty correctly, but with the wrong intention, you are not performing it correctly.
He also wrote that you can't just take beliefs on faith; you need to question what is written and figure out the reason why you believe things.
And he wrote that if you have a good intellect, there is no excuse for not delving into the wisdom of the Torah.
So let's think about altruism in relation to the Torah.
Doing an altruistic act with an ultimate goal of helping yourself is technically not an altruistic act.
But if you do a mitzvah so that you are making yourself into a better Jew, is it still considered a mitzvah?
And is God "watching" you and looking into your heart as you do mitzvot?
If you do them grudgingly, do they "count?" Bahya thought the answer was no.
I am not so sure that an ulterior motive necessarily cancels out a good act.
During the Holocaust, some people, like Oscar Schindler, did things like hiding Jews, or saving them from going to the concentration camps. He may have been doing that with the ultimate goal of helping himself, like helping his own factory make money during the war. But he still saved many lives and I don't think it matters what was in his heart.
Rachav can be thought of like one of these Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save others.
We will never know what her motivations were, but because of her, the spies were saved.
Then again, she and her family were also saved.
On the other hand, Jericho was attacked and all the other inhabitants of the city were killed and the city was burned.
So it’s really not at all clear what was “good” or “right.”
An amazing thing to notice about Rachav is that she seems to have more faith in the Hebrew god than the ten spies in my Torah portion.
Maybe she was sent by God to help the spies and therefore she has faith in God because she serves Him.
Or maybe Rachav was just being practical.
She knew the Israelites were stronger than her city and was trying to preserve her life.
So, who are we to judge whether or not an act is ultimately good?
We can never see into someone else’s heart. And we can’t judge other people.
In Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2, Mishna 5, Hillel says, “And don’t judge your friend until you are in his place” or literally “until you arrive in their place” which suggests that others may be farther along in their moral journey than we are, even though it might not look like it from our perspective.
I think that since we have only our own, limited experience from which to see the world, we do well to be humble, and appreciate good deeds for what they are: someone’s attempt -- however small or imperfect -- to make the world a better place.