Parashat Shelah Lekha 5779

Grasshoppers and Giants
A D’var Torah for Parashat Shelah Lekha
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

Parashat Shelah Lekha recounts the episode of the twelve spies who travel ahead to scout out the Promised Land. Ten of the spies return to the people with a report of the wonderful fruit of the land coupled with the overwhelming danger of its inhabitants. Not only do these ten spies describe the people of this place as gigantic (אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת), but these scouts convey their own depiction of how these people perceived the intruders – “And we looked like grasshoppers (חֲגָבִים) to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Num. 13:33). Their report strikes fear into the hearts of the Israelites who regret leaving Egypt and God gets angry.

Readers often assume that the sin of the ten spies, and the reason for God’s anger, is that they suggest that the people of the land are too powerful and the Israelites would not be able to defeat them. But what if the real sin of the spies is something deeper? Baruch Levine in the Anchor Bible Commentary on Numbers suggests that, “By attributing to the Canaanites their perception of their own insignificance, the spies reveal their own feelings of inadequacy.” The spies project their feelings onto the inhabitants. What if the sin of the spies is really assuming that others view the world in the same way that they do? The sin of imposing one’s worldview on another – “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” As Rav Mesharshiyya says in the Talmud (Sotah 35a), “It makes sense that ‘we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,’ but how would they know that ‘and so we must have looked to them?’”

Like the spies, too many people today assume everyone else views the world the same way they do, imposing their own views on other people. Monolithic assumptions about how everyone must view reality can easily lead to breakdowns in communication and tension or even violence. So how do we go about overturning this tendency? A subversive reading of some key Hebrew terms in our parasha perhaps paves a way.

The Hebrew term employed by Numbers 13:33 is חֲגָבִים, typically translated as “grasshoppers.” A quick glance at the entry for חגב in the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon reveals two different possible translations – “grasshoppers,” or “locusts.” Although locusts are technically a species of grasshopper, this particular animal comes with a different set of associations. Locusts are best known in the Torah not only for being one of the edible species of animals (Lev. 11:22), but as one of the ten plagues (Exod. 10:13-15). Swarms of locusts could easily devour fields of crops leaving famine and devastation in their wake. In contrast to grasshoppers that are generally innocuous, locusts represent a real threat. So did the people of the land see the Israelites as menacing locusts, or as harmless grasshoppers?

Many commentators assume that the spies’ intent was to convey how small and insignificant they were in the eyes of the people of the land. Indeed, the use of grasshoppers to represent tiny, marginal creatures appears elsewhere in the Bible – in Isaiah 40:22 we find that “[God] is enthroned above the vault of the earth, so that its inhabitants seem as grasshoppers” (וְיֹשְׁבֶיהָ כַּחֲגָבִים). If from this great height the “inhabitants seem as grasshoppers,” and the land into which the spies traveled is one that “consumes its inhabitants” (אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ; Num. 13:32), then perhaps the people of the land saw the spies as a non-threatening crunchy snack. On the other hand, locusts are feared for their consumption of peoples’ food, and the Torah tells us explicitly that the spies brought a sample of the land’s produce back to the Israelite camp (Num. 13:23). Did the people of the land see them take this food? Perhaps the language of חֲגָבִים (grasshoppers) hints at a lurking threat – if the people of the land observed us taking produce then maybe they see us not as innocuous grasshoppers, but as that dangerous species, locusts. Maybe they are actually more afraid of us than we are of them. So perhaps there could be more ambiguity in how they saw us than we initially assumed. Will they consume us as grasshoppers, or might we pose a threat to them as locusts that will ravage their land?

The latent ambiguity underlying the language of “grasshoppers” is not the only word that opens up a possibility for subversion. In Numbers 13:32 the spies describe the people of the land as “men of gigantic size” – אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת. Like the view of the world that the spies impose on the people of the land, the spies’ own view contains room for creative interpretation. The word מידה has the sense of measure, the spies measure themselves against the extreme measure of the inhabitants. But in contemporary usage, מידות also carries another meaning – “good qualities.” What if the people of the land are not huge scary giants, but people of such high moral standing that we have no right to attack them? To extend this subversive reading further, what if the spies could recognize the value in the moral height of these people for improving the Israelites?

Rabbi Isaiah di Trani of Italy, in one of his responsa discussing how later generations of rabbis build upon and even contradict the words of their predecessors, notes the metaphor of a person of small stature standing on the shoulders of a giant (ענק) in order to see a greater distance. Later rabbis are able to see more clearly because they have the teachings of earlier rabbis, like a person of small stature on the shoulders of a giant. Our parasha also uses the language of giant(s) (ענק) when referring to the people of the land. Perhaps, if the tiny grasshoppers were able to stand upon the shoulders of these moral giants they would be able to see the world more clearly. Indeed, Rabbi Isaiah di Trani himself introduces this metaphor as wisdom that he heard from others, from the philosophers (שמעתי מחכמי הפילוסופים).

At first blush our parasha is straightforward: The spies sinned because they gave a negative report. But when we open ourselves up to alternative perspectives we encounter the possibility that their sin may be the imposition of their monolithic worldview on others around them. This reading offers a more prevalent sin that still resonates with us today. So how do we overcome this tendency to assume our perspective is shared by everyone else? As with our parasha, when we scratch below the surface we find points that are ripe for subversion. Perhaps the people of the land feared us as detrimental locusts. Perhaps these people were of high moral caliber. When we open our ears to learn from those around us (like R. Isaiah di Trani from the philosophers), we find that the world, and others’ views of it, can be something altogether different. May we be blessed not only to see clearly with our own eyes, but with the openness to see the world as others see it for themselves.
Rabbi Matthew Goldstone is currently Faculty and Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator at the Academy for Jewish Religion.