Much of how we come to know ourselves is the result of human encounters. If the people around me will not tell me, for better or for worse, who I am, it is very unlikely that I will have any idea.
Sh’lach L’cha, the weekly Torah portion, begins with the story of the spies sent to scout out the Land of Canaan. The spies learn to value the power and capability of the Israelites through encountering local inhabitants. Ten of the spies are scared by what their eyes see and they express their fear in powerful images.
One of the descriptions deals with the compelling reflection and self-discovery that has originated in the encounter with the other: "we saw the Nephilim there — the Anakites are part of the Nephilim — and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (Num. 13:33).
The spies felt as small as grasshoppers and had no doubt that that is how their future enemies viewed them. Was it possible that the opposite is true? Is it conceivable that the enemy told them that they were "grasshoppers," and as a result the spies begin to perceive themselves as such? Perhaps it didn’t really matter who started the labeling, as at some point the experience became mutual — the self-image and the response of others became one.
Numerous biblical commentators exploit this verse to judge the spies harshly:
"The spies were liars. The determination that 'we were like grasshoppers in our eyes' is possible to accept, but 'and also in their eyes' — from where would they know how the Canaanites viewed them?" (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 35a)
The Talmudic Sages resolve the problem of the spies’ negative self-image and offer a situation in which spies were briefly seen by the local Canaanite inhabitants and immediately hid within hearing distance, and so came to know how they were perceived.
Alongside this concrete interpretation, I want to adopt as a commentator the author of Proverbs 27:19 who says, "As in water face reflects face, so the heart of a person reflects the person;" and Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508–1593, Safed) observes: "Because the hearts are as mirrors."
The Israelite spies know that they feel as small as grasshoppers, because self-image is the result of interaction. If I feel like a grasshopper, then it is reasonable to assume that there is someone in my surroundings who makes it possible for me to feel this way.
The spies may not necessarily have heard the local inhabitants speaking about them, but they did not necessarily lie. They felt there was a "grasshopper atmosphere" that did not just originate of its own accord in their hearts.
The grasshopper is a popular insect in biblical and Rabbinic literature; people fear its damages, eat it (in a variety of recipes), and use it as an analogy for life's experiences.
One of the most chilling uses of the grasshopper is a description of the death process in Ecclesiastes:
"In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out shall be darkened in the windows. And the doors shall be shut in the street, when the sound of the grinding is low; and one shall start up at the voice of a bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low. Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and terrors shall be in the way; and the almond-tree shall blossom, and the grasshopper shall drag itself along, and the caper berry shall fail; because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets." (Kohelet 12:3-5)
Despite the puzzling imagery, the description of the decomposing body and departure of the soul is powerfully shocking. The two final stages of the declining body are as a grasshopper that drags itself along and a failing caper berry. The Sages of the Talmud interpret these two descriptions as the loss of the sexual desire (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 152a): "'And the grasshopper shall drag itself along' — these are love, 'and the caper berry shall fail' — these are desire." And so it is that the grasshopper is also the pursuer.
Interestingly, according to these biblical commentators, the last thing the living lose in the aging and dying process is sexual desire. These commentaries stand in sharp contrast to the commonly held perception that sexuality belongs to the young, and therefore the thought of geriatric desire is "unaesthetic" and even illegitimate.
Try to remember, for example, the last time you saw senior citizens in a movie or in an advertisement, especially older women, engaged in a sexual act or even projecting eroticism or sexuality. How cruel, damaging, and superfluous is the modern, polarizing worldview of seniors and sex. A very different understanding is the commentary on the verse from Ecclesiastes, as seen in a touching aggadah in the Talmud about the senior years of one of the earliest and greatest Sages of the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Abba bar Aybo (175-247 CE), usually referred to simply as "Rav."
"Rav Kahana read from the Scripture to Rav. When he arrived at the verse, 'And the grasshopper shall drag itself along, and the caper berry shall fail' (Ecclesiastes 12:5), Rav moaned and groaned. Rav Kahana said, 'He learned from this that Rav's desire was cancelled.' " (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 15:2)
The Sages, who do not typically speak about their feelings, create sophisticated tunnels of learning, sometimes incredibly deep and concealed, to express emotion in the space of the beit midrash. Rav does not speak with his disciples and peers about the pains of aging, but he is also unable not to say something. In fact, he does not need to say a lot as we have already seen that "the hearts are as mirrors," and that the people that love Rav, and know from their own experience the difficulties of aging, know how to correctly read Rav's facial expressions.
All that was needed was for Rav Kahana to read the right verses, for Rav to sigh, for the personal and painful revelation to be put out there between friends at the beit midrash: Rav has lost his sexual desire, Rav's death is very near.
We are used to thinking that in old age there is no sexual desire, while the Sages of the Talmud seek to teach us that when there is no such desire there is death. So much insight and so much sadness are focused together in four short Talmudic sentences.
(This article was translated with the help of Uzi Bar Pinchas.)