by Rabbi Shelton Donnell
You know, perception – especially self-perception – can mean everything when it comes to reaching your goals. Take, for example, the case of the Israelites and their quest to enter the Promised Land.
Two years after the Exodus from Egypt the Israelites were encamped in the wilderness of Paran, ready to enter the land of Canaan. The portion Shelach Lekha opens with God’s command to Moses, “Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders” (Num. 13:2). Moses sent these twelve tribal leaders, the “spies,” who traveled from the Negev in the south all the way up to the hill country in the northern part of the country. When the men returned they gave their report, “They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land. They gave Moses this account: ‘We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit’” (Num. 13:26-27). Yet, despite the bounty of the land, the final impression that they gave was not a positive one. They expressed fear rather than a sense of adventure, “But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan” (Num. 13:28-29). And more, “And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, ‘The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them’” (Num. 13:32-33).
As a result of the spies’ words, the Israelites retreated in fear and once again the old complaint was heard, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt?” The end result was, “And they said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt’” (Num. 14:4).
Almost all the commentators agree that the spies sinned with their misleading report. Yet there are some very interesting commentaries concerning the meaning and interpretation of their report and especially the words, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” For example, according to the Me’am Lo’ez, the spies told the people, “If you ask us how we got in and out of that den of lions in one piece, you should know that they didn’t touch us because they thought that we were like grasshoppers. And even if they figured out that we were spies, it didn’t seem to matter to them at all. They said ‘Look, ants have come to make war against us!’ Just as we were amazed to see them, in comparison to whom we felt like grasshoppers, they were also amazed. We even heard them say to each other, ‘Grasshoppers in human form have come into our vineyards!’”
Apparently, according to the Me’am Lo’ez, it is possible that the verse, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” was not completely negative in its implications. Because of this “fantastic delusion” (perhaps a kind of folie à deux) the spies survived in the land because the inhabitants underestimated the Israelites’ strength and ability to wage war against them.
Two more commentaries, quite different from each other: from the collection Ma’einah shel Torah we learn, “if a person’s spirit is down he becomes like nothing in his own eyes and then others see him the same way and his enemies walk all over him. And if ‘We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes’ then in any case it follows, ‘we looked the same to them’.” In contrast, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk argues, “We see here revealed one of the sins of the spies. When they said ‘We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes” – okay, we can accept that, but when they said, ‘we looked the same to them’ – what is with that? Why should it matter to the spies how they appeared to others?
As a result of the spies’ report and the Israelites stunning lack of confidence and faith in their mission and in their God that they inspired, it took another thirty-eight years before the People of Israel entered the Promised Land.
- What do you think of the opinions of Ma’einah shel Torah and Menachem Mendel of Kotzk? Do you agree with either one of them in particular? Why?
- Is there significance to the impression that we make upon others?
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