Spies, grasshoppers and the power of positive thinking

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss serves Bais Abraham Congregation.

By Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

It seems curious that after all of the promises God made to our ancestors – the covenants with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the future foretold to Moses; the great miracles and wonder in which the Israelites were taken out of their slavery in Egypt; the constant references to the land that would one day be given to the people – that God would command Moses to send spies to scout out the land in advance of the fulfillment of the promise.

Indeed, Rashi, a famous medieval French commentator, notes that the Torah portion begins with the words from God, “Shelakh lekha, Send forth for yourself.” The word lekha, for yourself, is extraneous. God could simply have commanded Moses to send forth people to scout out the land. What is the significance of the words “for yourself”? Precisely because the spies were not sent to scout out the land for God; they were sent to scout out the land for the people. 

“Send forth for yourself,” God states. 

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“By your discretion,” Rashi adds, “I do not command you, but if you wish, send forth.”

In this story, we are witnessing an element of the fundamental nature of people: the need to see things for oneself. Despite the countless miracles witnessed by the people – the plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the sustenance in the desert, the receiving of the Torah — God recognizes that there is only so much that words alone can do. Promises, no matter how trustworthy and loving the source, can sustain a person only so much.

And so God offers the people a small piece of fulfillment, the allowance that they may send spies ahead to scout the land and report back on their findings.

Unfortunately, along with giving the people a taste of the beauty that would greet them in the land that would become their homeland, the spies report back also of a land that is filled with giants. A land that is powerful. A land of fortified cities. A land, put simply, incapable of conquering by the small nation only recently escaped of grueling slavery.

One of the spies, Caleb, stepped forward to attempt to calm the people. He assured them that they would be successful in conquering the land. It is in his colleagues’ response that we find the most telling statement. His fellow spies reiterate that they would surely fail. They say, “We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33).

Rav Mesharshiya, a sage in Babylonia recorded in the Talmud, used this text as proof that the spies were liars. He pointed out that they could say that they saw themselves as grasshoppers as compared with the people, but they could not know what the people of the land were thinking. Thus, their entire report was constructed from fabrications.

However, one need not see this statement as false. In fact, this proclamation is true, and it may be the very core of the sin of the spies.

“We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes.” 

First we saw ourselves as small, meek creatures compared with them. And once we saw ourselves in that way, then others saw ourselves in the same light.

Here we witness a second element of the fundamental nature of people: We project onto others our views of ourselves. As soon as the spies saw themselves as weak, they became weak.

So, too, with the people who heard their report and cried out. When they believed that they would be incapable of successfully conquering and inhabiting the land, they became incapable of conquering and inhabiting the land.

That the people then had to wander in the desert for 40 years until that generation died out and a new one emerged was not merely a punishment, but a natural consequence of a reality that the people had created for themselves.

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is Director of Programming, Education and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation.