“We Were like Grasshoppers in Our Eyes”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, Moses sends twelve representatives, one from each tribe, to scout the land of Canaan, the land that the Al-mighty promised to give to the Jewish people as an inheritance. Although all 12 scouts were distinguished people, ten of the scouts lose faith while in Canaan and return with a negative report about the land.

Upon their return, ten of the scouts report to Moses, saying, “We arrived at the land to which you sent us and indeed, it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.” According to tradition, they then show the people samples of the land’s giant fruit, underscoring the size and overwhelming power of the Canaanite inhabitants. They report that the cities they saw in Canaan were powerfully fortified, that they had encountered the offspring of the giants, and that the fierce nation of Amalek dwells in the area of the south together with other Canaanite nations. Of the 12 scouts, only Joshua and Caleb are optimistic about the land and urge the people to maintain their faith in G-d.

Despite Caleb’s efforts to silence and calm the people, the ten scouts declare: “We cannot ascend to that people for they are too strong for us! The land through which we have passed to spy it out is a land that devours its inhabitants! All the people that we saw in it were huge. There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giant from among the Nephilim!”

The scouts conclude their report with their memorable statement (Numbers 13:33), “Vah’n’hee v’ay’nay’noo ka’cha’ga’vim, v’chayn ha’yee’noo b’ay’nay’hem,” We were like grasshoppers in our eyes and so we were in their eyes!

Upon hearing the scouts intimidating report, the entire assembly of Israel raise their voices and weep all night. They ask why G-d brought them into this land to die by the sword; after all, it would have been better to return to Egypt. They then demand that a new leader be appointed to lead them back to Egypt.

Despite G-d’s loving-kindness, and notwithstanding the fact that He had forgiven them for the egregious sin of the Golden Calf, G-d’s patience with the people had now worn thin and this time He refuses to forgive the people. G-d decrees that all men who were 20 years old and above shall not enter the land of Canaan and must die in the wilderness. Although G-d wanted to kill them instantly, Moses once again prevails and the sinful people are slowly punished over the next 40 years as they wander in the wilderness.

How could it be that ten highly regarded leaders of Israel had so little faith, and that they truly believed that Canaan was a land that devoured its inhabitants? How could it be that the people of Israel had so little faith and were so quicky intimidated by the negative report of the ten scouts? After all, these were the people who saw the miraculous plagues in Egypt and the destruction of the Egyptians at the Red Sea. They had seen the Revelation at Sinai and G-d had spoken to them face to face. Perhaps a clue can be found in the statement of the ten scouts (Numbers 13:33), “Vah’n’hee v’ay’nay’noo ka’cha’ga’vim, v’chayn ha’yee’noo b’ay’nay’hem,” We were in our own eyes like grasshoppers and so we were in their eyes.

A story is told of four doctors’ wives from York, PA, who came to New York City on a shopping spree. Of course, this was before Mayor Giuliani made the city safe, and their perception of a crime-ridden New York instilled great fear in them. They checked into the luxurious Plaza Hotel. The night before their first shopping expedition they were quite desperate. Out of fear, they bolted the door to their room and propped up a chair against the door handle to make themselves more secure. The women tossed and turned the entire night in dread anticipation of what lay in store for them the next day.

When they awoke in the morning and prepared to go down to the lobby for breakfast, they were literally petrified, and sheepishly gathered courage to simply open the door. They listened through the door to make certain that the hallway was clear, then tipped-toed down the corridor and pressed the elevator button. The elevator arrived, the doors opened, and standing in the elevator was a huge, black man with a huge white dog. The black man said, “Sit, Whitie!” and the four women proceeded to sit down on the floor.

Like the fearful women, the scouts, who saw themselves as grasshoppers, were perceived as pygmies by the Canaanites. The scouts were obviously men of great talent, but possessed rather low self-esteem. Not only did they not at all appreciate the fact that they had G-d at their side, they saw themselves as impotent and weak and were consequently unable to muster the courage that was necessary to inspire the people of Israel to march courageously into the land and assume their rightful patrimony. Despite the numerous miracles that the people of Israel had personally witnessed, when it came to capturing the land of Canaan, they deemed themselves unworthy of G-d’s intervention on their behalf. Perhaps their self-esteem had been beaten out of them by the Egyptian slavery. Perhaps they had become so reliant on G-d’s intervention that they saw themselves as impotent and helpless.

Surely, G-d could have simply steam-rolled them into the Promised Land, doing away with any opposition that they might encounter. But that too would have left the people feeling as if they were powerless without “Big Daddy” taking care of them. Such a people could not survive, and certainly could not flourish in the new homeland. The People of Israel needed leadership that was bold, creative, ready to dig in, prepared to build and accomplish. The current generation, unfortunately, was composed of people who saw themselves as helpless and felt that even G-d couldn’t sufficiently defend them.

The lesson that we must learn from the episode of the failed scouts is a message that should reverberate in our generation. Unless the people of Israel assume the initiative, there can be little hope of Divine intervention. The spark of Divine intervention must be ignited by the people themselves, otherwise there is little hope for salvation or redemption.

Despite the immense challenges faced by our people today, we must gird our loins and gather our strength so that we may prove worthy of Divine assistance. If we perceive ourselves as grasshoppers, others will perceive us likewise. We are giants, and we have every reason to feel confident, knowing that the future is indeed ours.

May you be blessed.