Parshat Shelach (5771)

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We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and that’s how we were in their eyes – (Numbers 13:31-33)

Rabbi Goldman is recovering in hospital when he receives a visit from his shul executive. They tell him they are coming directly from a council meeting and wish to bring him Refuah Sheleima (get well) wishes from the council.

The Rabbi turns to the Chairman and thanks him: “You know,” he says with a smile, “I bet this is the first time the council were all in agreement on something!”. “Well,” replied the Chairman, “to tell the truth it did go to a vote, but don’t worry – it was passed 7/6.”

In this week’s Torah reading we also read of a split vote as the twelve spies return from a reconnaissance mission ahead of their journey to the Holy Land. But the vote here is not as even as the one for the rabbi’s recovery – here it is ten against two; of the twelve spies, good and holy men who were leading figures in their respective tribes, only two voted for “making Aliyah.”

Who were the two good guys? – Joshua (Moses’ loyal student) and Calev (Moses’ brother-in-law). The other ten, despite their good credentials, went wrong somewhere along the way, and instead of returning full of excitement and passion about the Land of Milk and Honey, they terrified the nation with their tales of a “land which devours its inhabitants” and of its vicious natives and unnaturally large produce.

What happened to them? What caused these elite public figures to let the side down and dash the hopes of the entire nation? Surely after all that the people had gone through, after all G-d’s miracles and salvation, they should have been ready for anything. Yet here after only forty days away from Moses the ten spies seem to have lost their faith and the people seem to have forgotten the evils of Egypt so quickly that they wish to flee back there, rather than enter Eretz Yisrael!

So were they “kesheirim” (kosher) or were they treyfe? If the spies were rotten to begin with – why send them on the mission at all? If they were good then what went so badly wrong?

The answer to this may lie in the description of the land they give Moses, Aaron and the people when they are debriefed. After a list of negatives about the land and its inhabitants they conclude: “We were like grasshoppers (chagavim) in our eyes, and that’s how we were in their eyes” (Numbers 13:31-33).

Were they bad people? Absolutely not – as Rashi describes them “kesheirim hayu” – they were fully “kosher.” Yet despite their inherent goodness there was a fatal flaw in their character: Despite their exodus from slavery and the subsequent miracles they still saw themselves as chagavim – as weak and insignificant in relation to the other nations living in Canaan. They thought that the miraculous intervention from Above would cease upon entering the Land and they would be on their own – and they felt insignificant.  As any psychologist or therapist will tell you (for a large fee) when your self confidence is low suddenly everything becomes a challenge, the struggles of daily life can tower above you like a giant over a grasshopper.

They were wrong of course. The struggles which lay ahead were manageable, albeit difficult, yet they were not to witness it. Due to their lack of confidence and loss of faith in G-d the entire nation was condemned to wander the desert for forty years, one year for each day they had spied in the Land. Only the next generation, one which was far removed from Egyptian subservience and one which was reared on Divine miracles (manna etc) would have the confidence and faith to follow Joshua across the Jordan river.

So, what about us? We too have survived oppression, slavery, pogrom and Shoah, and we too have lived through miraculous times, a return to the Land of Milk and Hummus and repeated survival in defensive wars against forces massively superior in number and firepower. Are we able to have the self-confidence and faith in G-d that the post-Pharaoh generation lacked? Are we able to stand tall and proud before the eyes of the world, or do we still feel like chagavim, like grasshoppers.

If we do not have confidence in our Judaism, in where we came from and where we are heading, then we too will be unable to deal with the challenges life throws at us. If we see ourselves as “grasshoppers at the feet of giants,” then we will be seen by those around us as grasshoppers – to be vilified and slandered. But if we are proud to stand in public as members of G-d’s chosen people, with a Divine mandate to make this world a better and holier place for all of mankind – then we will gain the respect we are due. When we can stand up and say with conviction that Eretz Yisrael was given to the Jewish people neither by League of Nations mandate nor by UN resolution: It was given to Abraham by the Creator as an everlasting homeland for his descendants – then we will gain the respect of people of truth.

Let us pray that we merit to the words of Calev and Joshua in this week’s parsha: “Aloh naaleh – we shall surely go up to the land” … because “Tovoh ha’aretz me’od me’od – the Land is very, very good!”

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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