Elli Schwarcz – Of Men and Grasshoppers

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Parashat Shelach tells the famous yet tragic story of the Meraglim, the men sent to scout out Israel. The 12 men selected were truly great people- yet 10 of them somehow returned to Bne Israel with a negative report about the perfect Land that Hashem Himself had promised them. Various explanations are offered concerning what exactly the spies misunderstood about their mission, and how they may have been biased in their judgment. Although we won’t be focusing on these details right now, suffice it to say that the people’s mourning upon believing the report resulted in that entire generation being barred from entering the Holy Land.

The spies sought to convey that living in Israel would be difficult. At one point, they recounted how big the natives were- showing, the spies thought, how dangerous the land was. Again, without going into their mistakes, let’s simply examine the wording of their account:

And there we saw the Nephilim (Giants)… and we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyest.’
-Shelach, 13:33

Commentators note that the spies’ description seems superfluous. After making clear just how small the spies were in comparison to the giants- “we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers“, why did the spies then associate the size differential with the manner in which they were viewed by the giants– “and so we were in their eyes”? 

The inimitable Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, 1787–1859) answers this question with a classic insight into human nature: a person projects his self-perception onto others. That is, if David assumes that those around him view him in a certain way, this is because David actually views himself in that way. The spies unwittingly let their own feelings of vulnerability slip into their tale; they described the giants’ view of them although they could never know it. Thus, the spies themselves felt like grasshoppers in the giants’ presence, but only ‘allowed themselves’ to attribute this perspective to the giants.

My father-in-law, Rabbi Efryim Dovid Gruskin (in ‘Chaim Shel Shlomo’) cites a different lesson in the name of his father, Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Gruskin zt”l. Many of us are willing to do the right thing- if only others around us do so first. Whether hesitating to follow the strict letter of the law in an intimidating environment or to fulfill a Mitzvah optimally in a way that may be viewed as excessive, we often look over our shoulder when we should instead be acting on our beliefs. Rather than waiting for friends and neighbors to take the first step in Mitzvah observance, we must be willing to take the leap- even if we are not totally comfortable doing so. The inclusion in their story of how the giants viewed them was indicative of a flaw in the spies’ character. They were guilty of caring too much about others’ opinions- and so this tendency expressed itself even in their encounter with crude, nameless strangers.

Both of these observations are important reminders of human frailty. Even great men were somewhat lacking in self-awareness, and susceptible to projection and unhealthy self-consciousness.

It is probably no coincidence that these lessons are imparted through the story of the spies. We mentioned earlier that much has been written regarding the motive and error behind the spies’ slanderous report. The Mesilat Yesharim (Chapter 11) quotes the Zohar in explaining: the spies were afraid of losing their status as ‘Nesi’im’, tribal leaders, with the nation’s entry into Israel. Whereas their positions were necessary in maintaining order during Bne Israel’s desert travels, they would no longer be necessary in a new existence in the Holy Land. Thus, they presented their report in a way that caused Bne Israel to reject Hashem’s gift to them. We might not be able to use such words if they weren’t already uttered by the Zohar- and even this motive was probably only subconscious. The spies, like other good people who sin, probably had an entire calculation of which they convinced themselves, leading to their extreme ‘solution’. But recognizing this fine dynamic also serves as a powerful teaching: we must be honest with ourselves, or else our deep-seated biases will bring about our undoing. 

Circling back to the explanations we’ve seen of the spies’ ‘mind reading’ of the giants, we now appreciate another layer to their problematic me mindset. It seems that specifically those people who clung to prestige and desired honor that were prone to confused thoughts and perceptions. Specifically those who cared too much about others’ opinions were unable to untangle reality from projection, and to differentiate between caution and self-conscious, uncommitted attitudes. The 10 men who spied the land with a negative mindset were the same people that had always been guilty of a distorted perspective.

May we learn to clarify our true thoughts and motives, and accustom ourselves to seeking advice from unbiased people. In the merit of this real approach to serving Hashem, may we merit to enter the Holy Land together, for eternity, with the arrival of the Mashiach speedily in our days.

Have a great Shabbat!

Elli Schwarcz
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.

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