November 11, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Shelach

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

They spread an [evil] report about the land which they had scouted, telling the children of Israel, “The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of great size. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” –Numbers 13:32-33

Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu
Arevot Women’s Beit Midrash of the Sephardic Educational Center

The story of the spies is a story of perspectives. First, they see the giants, then they see themselves like grasshoppers, insignificant insects, and thirdly, they project their own self-image on the giants. That was their chief fault, says midrash Tanhuma: God says to them, “I can forgive you for saying, ‘we seemed like grasshoppers,’ but not for saying, ‘so we were in their eyes.’ Perhaps you seemed like angels?” 

The midrash criticizes the spies for letting their subjective fears lead to defeatism. They see the good and bad sides of the land, but what tips the scale for them is their own self-image projected onto the other. 

God suggests another perspective: By reframing their subjective partial view of the other, their whole outlook will become more positive. Perhaps the midrash is saying that the spies could have seen the “Nefilim” as “angels” (as in Genesis 6), and that would have enabled them to see themselves as angels also. 

As a sabra whose parents made aliyah from Morocco, I witnessed an entire generation lose its way by letting its own self-image be determined by the perspective of the established residents, who saw them as inferior. Israel is a land of milk and honey, but also a land that consumes its inhabitants, by trapping them into internalizing a self-image that deprives them of the richness of their own identity. By going beyond rigid views of ourselves and others, we can break down preconceptions and let the land become “exceedingly good.”

Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin
Rabbinic Director, Milken Community Schools

Let’s read these verses in a way that opens up interpretation and debate. Many commentaries see the sin of the spies like Camus’ definition of lying, namely, lying is saying more than one knows to be true. They may have felt like grasshoppers, but went too far when they said, “and so we were in their eyes” or “a land that consumes its inhabitants.” Rashi takes this catastrophizing even further: “We heard them say one to another, ‘There are ants in the vineyards that look like human beings.’ ” As leaders, they betrayed their responsibility and forgot the source of their deliverance. 

In their defense, consider another perspective. Compare the story of the spies to the story of the golden calf. Both Moses and the spies are away for 40 days. In both, God threatens to destroy the Israelites, promising to begin anew with Moshe. In both, Moses persuades God not to destroy the people by asking what will the Egyptians say. In both, Moses talks God off the ledge and God relents or repents. 

In both cases (the spies and the golden calf), we can ask: When are loyalty tests reasonable or just? What is the difference between radical trust and blind faith? What does it take to enable a child (or a people) to overcome previous traumas? To what extent can people maintain their core beliefs or commitments in the face of giant opposition? Finally, what kinds of reminders or tzitzit can bind us to our sacred purpose? 

Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell
Ahavat Torah Congregation

How often do we engage in a white lie or a stretch of the truth and justify it with, “everyone else does it!” The spies sent by Moses to Israel did that and more. They did not separate reality from fantasy, nor truth from lies.

In his book “Moses as Political Leader,” Aaron Wildavsky writes that the sin of the spies is more serious than slander, a white lie or even stretching the truth because they “discredit the entire enterprise.” When the People of Israel left Egypt, they knew they were going to “the Land of Milk and Honey.” They had tremendous hope and security that God promised and God would deliver! But the spies, like all good liars, used a bait-and-switch technique. They smooth-talked and baited the people with the magnificent cluster of grapes that needed two people to carry it as proof that the land is indeed a land of milk and honey. Then came the switch: The land consumes its inhabitants; the people are giants and we seemed like grasshoppers in their eyes and ours.

Sforno says the spies deliberately misled our people. Their exaggeration and white lies threw the hopes and dreams of our people out the window. Even more than that, the entire enterprise of our people’s relationship with God was at stake. Was it possible that God lied to them?

Lies create false reality. False reality crumbles every relationship.

May we never engage in such dreadful activities. Amen.

Rabbi Michael Berenbaum
Professor of Jewish Studies, director of Sigi Ziering Institute, American Jewish University

I have a special love for this parsha because many years ago, it was my bar-mitzvah sedra, one I never forget. 

The spies did not so much speak ill of the land; they praised its beauty, the quality of its fruit, the diversity of its landscape and then they looked at its inhabitants, “men of great size.” Even their depiction of the land as one that “devours its inhabitants” is not quite as negative as it seems, if — and the “if” is all important — the children of Israel behave differently, work the land differently. 

But then they reveal their sense of self. “Grasshoppers” in the eyes of the inhabitants but more importantly, grasshoppers in their own eyes. Internalizing their servility, they could not imagine their capabilities. These were not men who could conquer a land, not men who could realize such a noble — and difficult —  task. 

Caleb and Joshua dissented, not by offering a different assessment of the land or its inhabitants, but rather of their own capacities and of their trust in God, who had bidden them to inhabit the land. They felt empowered; men equal to the task, they were worthy to inhabit the land. 

Think ahead some 2,900 years to the statement of another Jewish visionary who set the Jews on a difficult and demanding task: “If you will it, it is no dream.” 

If we seek to accomplish great things in life, we must see ourselves as empowered, ready to grow equal to the task.

Dini Coopersmith
Trip coordinator and leader,

The who that Moshe chose to spy out the Land were anashim, important leaders. How could they err so terribly and spread an evil report? The Zohar explains (3,158) that the spies were afraid that in the land, they might lose their position of leadership and power. This caused a slight bias, which subconsciously led them to skew the results of their fact-finding mission and discourage the nation from entering the Land. 

Rabbi Avraham Twerski (“Let Us Make Man”), says that arrogant people generally have low self-esteem, and therefore are power-hungry and need the praise of others to compensate for their feelings of worthlessness. Counter-intuitively, humble people know their own worth and have no need for the approval and approbation of others. 

Look at how these great men thought about themselves: “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we were in their eyes”! The lower their self-esteem, the more desperate they were to hold onto power, and were consequently loath to enter the Land of Israel. 

Netivot Shalom says that the Land of Israel is unique in that “HaShem your God watches it always.” God is much more involved in the day-to-day life there, and in order to feel God running the show, you need to be humble. If you are arrogant, you will think you are the source of your blessings. This is why the great spies, who were slightly conceited and insecure, failed in their mission to report positively and encouragingly about the Land of Israel!