Tuesday, June 12, 2012

They Might Be Giants...

In this week’s Parsha of Shelach, we encounter the tragic incident of the spies. Sent by Moshe at the request of the people, ten of these twelve men of stature return from their 40-day sojourn in the land of Canaan with a negative, discouraging report that greatly frightens Bnei Yisrael, thereby inducing a mass hysteria.  This terrified reaction leads to Hashem’s proclamation that the entire generation that unjustly bemoaned why they ever left Egypt will not merit inheriting the land promised to their forefathers.

What was the main problem in the spies report? Some commentators focus on the fact that they incorrectly gave an assessment of Bnei  Yisrael’s capability to fight the Canaanites instead of assessing the goodness of the land, thereby ignoring Moshe’s instructions; they were sent to survey the territory, not formulate a strategy for the forthcoming battles.  

I would like to offer a different approach that emphasizes the perspective and message that was delivered, which will hopefully demonstrate the problematic nature of the spies’ report.

After their initial remarks, and the encouraging but failed counter-protest by Calev, the spies conclude their dismal presentation by saying “…And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight'” (Bamidbar 13:33).

The word “Nephilim” is typically translated as giants, and these residents of Canaan indeed were physically large as well as experienced warriors. It is also true that by this point in time, Bnei Yisrael had not fought in many battles. However, they had seen the powerful outstretched arm of Hashem miraculously wipe out the Egyptian people and its army and had heard Hashem promise that He would again intervene in their forthcoming campaign to conquer Canaan.

Yet, what exactly did the spies say? They claimed that “we were in our own sight as grasshoppers,” a remark spoken from their own perspective, which minimized their personal significance and talents. They then went further to conjecture from the viewpoint of the giants, placing unexpressed thoughts into their minds and words into their mouths. Regardless of what the Nephilim did or didn’t say (see the tractate of Sotah 3A where this is discussed), the central issue at hand is the spies’ self-abnegation. The spies perceived themselves as grasshoppers – and because they conceived themselves as such, they became what they feared. Only after they declare “we were in our own sight as grasshoppers” then they concluded “and so we were in their sight.’”

It is interesting to note that the spies chose the image of a “chagav” or “grasshopper” to demonstrate their misperceived weakness. This exact phraseology is used again in a similar deprecating fashion later in Tanach in the book of Yeshaya, where the verse says, “The One Who sits above the circle of the earth, and those who inhabit it are as grasshoppers” (40:22). Clearly, being compared to a grasshopper is not a favorable metaphor.

A grasshopper
However, I think this is where the spies missed the point. True, the giants were physically larger and mightier than Bnei Yisrael, and had fought in countless wars that honed the skills of their army while we spent centuries in slavery. Indeed, this mere fact could make us feel like insects in their sight. But, there is another, related creature that the spies, and in reality, all of Bnei Yisrael had recently witnessed that wrought tremendous destructive power despite its small size: the locust.
An Egyptian locust
A giant locust swarm
A swarm of locusts ravaged the Egyptian countryside as the seventh of the ten plagues Hashem brought upon Pharaoh and his nation as punishment for their mistreatment of Bnei Yisrael. Individually, a locust is nothing more than a buzzing pest, and for some a food item. Yet, when combined into an organized mass, they are a force to be reckoned with. In fact, they cannot be reckoned with, and the only thing anyone can do in the face of a locust swarm is pray that the locusts veer away from their crops.

A swarm of locusts devouring vegetation in the
Mexican State of Yucatan
                                                                 Locusts are actually a subtype of grasshopper, distinct for their swarming behavioral pattern. In this light, the spies should have seen themselves, and the entirety of the Jewish people, as a swarm of locusts, each individual seemingly minute and unimportant, but together, they form an almost unstoppable wave of awe-inspiring, coordinated power. Guided by the Hand of Hashem, as the locusts were in Egypt (and elsewhere in Tanach, see the second chapter of Joel), they would be victorious as they overwhelmed the Canaanites and successfully conquered the land promised to their forefathers.

Alas, this was not to be.

However, we can learn from this entomology lesson (entomology is the study of insects) and strive to avoid making the same mistake the spies made. We should recognize the harmful properties of projecting a negative, self-deprecating image of ourselves; it can become an unfortunate, self-destructive reality.  We should also take to heart the concept presented in Mishlei 14:28, “B’rov Am Hadras Melech” or “In the multitudes there is glorification of the King.” We are not comparable to lone grasshoppers, but to locusts, who join together for a purpose larger and more significant than we may realize. A minyan of ten men can accomplish more than a single man praying alone, and the totality of the Jewish People gathered together, joining our unique individualities in the service of Hashem, can accomplish miraculous feats the likes of which the world cannot begin to imagine. Together, and only together, with the light of the Torah as our guide, can we achieve what may otherwise seem impossible.

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