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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Sh'lach - Grasshoppers or Giants?

Updated: Jul 12

This week's portion, Shelach, contains one of the best known stories in the Torah, the saga of the 12 spies. God commands Moses to send 12 people, one from each tribe into the Land of Israel and bring back information about the nation’s future home. 10 come back with warning of danger and destruction, 2 come back with hope and belief in the future as promised by God. 

There has been much written about this chapter. It is such a loyal reflection of human behavior, the precarious balance we all hold between hope and despair, comfort in our present and the discomforting unclarity of what will come next. I would like to share with you my favorite piece of rabbinical response to this portion, one of the foundational midrashim that teaches an incredibly important lesson about life. 

As the midrash goes, when the 10 spies returned with a message of warning and said to the nation that they had come into contact with giants, beings of terrifying size in the Promised Land, they shared that “We were as grasshoppers in our eyes”. (Numbers 13:33) In response, God responded: ‘I forgive them for this.’ 

But the 10 did not stop there. They continued and added “and likewise we were in their eyes”. (Numbers 13:33) To this second claim God responded much differently. God asked, “Do you know what I rendered you in their eyes? Who is to say that you were not as angels in their eyes? What have you caused yourselves?”

God’s response reminds us that we have no idea how we are perceived by others. We have a tendency to catastrophize, to exaggerate, to assume that others see us as nothing more than, well, grasshoppers. But this tendency says a great deal more about us than it does about others. We see ourselves as small, as incapable of meeting the challenge and we project that image into the eyes of others. The midrash reminds us that we really have no idea how others perceive us. That we may be, in fact, angels in their eyes. 

What it comes down to is how we perceive ourselves. Most significantly, we have the ability to choose. Whether we are grasshoppers, or angels, depends on what we see when we close our eyes. 

This lesson, this power of self-perception becoming reality, is, in my mind, one of the secrets of success of the Jewish People. We have, in nearly all chapters of our history, been a minority. Our communities and societies have survived due to the whims of leaders or political movements of the time. Numerically, by the strength of arms, we were like grasshoppers. In spite of this, call it chutzpah or call it faith, we have lived according to this midrash and seen ourselves as something far greater than what our numbers would suggest. Our sense of purpose as a nation, our institutions and customs that helped us build community wherever the winds of fate blew us, helped us to see us as the giants that we are. 

That spirit, that belief, has trickled down into the ethos of the modern State of Israel. In a nation of only eight million, surrounded by what can feel at times like hundreds of millions of enemies, Jewish life and civilization - as has life for all Israel’s citizens - has taken root and thrived in an incredible way. There is an incredible hunger for and celebration of life in Israel. There is no practical explanation for how Israel managed to both make the desert bloom and also to create one of the world’s leading hi-tech sectors. It is pure chutzpah to think that either of these achievements could be reached. But they were, and in no small part due to the strength that belonging to the Jewish people, the Jewish nation provides. Our numbers may be like grasshoppers, but our belief is like that of giants. 

There are many reasons as a Jew to despair these days. Around the world, Jew-hatred has been unleashed on a scale we have not seen in decades. In Israel, a floundering leadership seems more interested in forwarding its petty political interests rather than in returning our sisters and brothers sitting in captivity or for providing a vision for what comes next for Israel. Even so, our history and our tradition show us that we are a stiff necked people, full of chutzpah. While we might be grasshoppers, we will never cease to see ourselves as giants. 

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