Author’s Note: I’d like to dedicate this series to the memory of my father, David Berkowitz, who was always an early and eagle-eyed reader. I like to imagine he is reading this in the heavenly beit midrash, and I hope that he’ll figure out a way to reach me with his follow-up questions.
“Patience, grasshopper.” My dad said this so often when I was growing up, I didn’t realize it was a quote from a 1970s television show, “Kung Fu,” until I was in my thirties. From what I can gather, these words served as a warning from master to student: think things through, have faith in the process, and wait for the right moment.
I always think of these words when we reach this week’s Torah portion.
God told Moses to send 12 spies into the Promised Land. After 40 days, the spies brought back a bunch of grapes so large that it needed to be carried by two people. Ten of the spies confirmed that the land “indeed flow[ed] with milk and honey,” but added that the cities were fortified and filled with enemy combatants (Numbers 13:27).
The two remaining spies, Joshua and Caleb, encouraged the people to focus on the positive. Caleb said: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it” (Numbers 13:30).
The first 10 spies then escalated the negativity of their report, calling the people of the land anshei middot, “people of great size,” b’nei Anak, “giants,” and Nephilim, referring to giant creatures who existed in the days before the flood (Genesis 6:5). In a final blow to the Israelites’ psyche, they said, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33).
We’ve established that the Israelites didn’t handle uncertainty very well. Faced with the question of what to focus on—the giant grapes or the giant people—the Israelites chose the latter, even though the grapes were right in front of them. They broke into weeping and wailing. Their begging to return to Egypt reached a fever pitch.
The Israelites were plagued by what Dr. Aviva Zornberg calls a “grasshopper sense of self” (Bewilderments pp. xxii). Suddenly, they felt small and insignificant. Their certainty that they would be unable to conquer the land became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Joshua and Caleb attempted to assuage the Israelites’ fears, highlighting the land’s good qualities and reminding the Israelites that God is with them. Rather than embrace this cautious optimism, the Israelites threatened to stone the pair. God was prepared to destroy the Israelites and start over until Moses intervened on their behalf (Numbers 14:10-20).
This parashah marks a significant turning point in the story. Previously, even when God threatened to destroy the entire people when they sin, only a subset of the population ultimately faced consequences. This—not after the sin of the Golden Calf—was when God decided that the people would wander until their entire generation dies out. Their children, who had not experienced slavery, would inherit the Promised Land. But of this generation, only Joshua and Caleb would live to see it.
Why was this the moment that the first generation lost their chance to enter the Promised Land? After all, God instructed Moses to send spies into the Promised Land. The spies were responding to questions posed by Moses himself: “Are the people strong or weak, few or many? Is the country good or bad? Are the towns open or fortified?” (Numbers 13:17-20).
The spies did exactly as Moses had asked. However, their message sowed panic amongst the Israelites.
Recently, a bar mitzvah student looked at the spies’ reports and asked, “Why did the 10 spies lie?” Looking at the context, with its hyperbolic talk of giants and grasshoppers, a better word might be “exaggerated.” The Hebrew word used for the scouts’ report is dibah, meaning, “whispering, defamation, evil report,” meaning that while the tone of the report was negative, it wasn’t necessarily untrue.
The scouts weren’t making things up to discourage the Israelites. Rather, they drew the worst possible conclusion from the facts on the ground.
One midrash suggests that it is understandable that the Israelites looked like grasshoppers to themselves. What is unforgiveable, in God’s eyes, was their addition of, “and so we must have looked to them.” The Rabbis imagine God asking, “How do you know what I made you look like in their eyes? How did you know that you didn’t look like angels to them?” (Midrash Tanhuma Sh’lach 7).
It would have been forgivable if the Israelites felt small and afraid. It was their lack of faith in God, and in themselves, to overcome this feeling that ultimately sealed their fate.
It is equally important that Caleb and Joshua weren’t unrealistic about the challenges of the Promised Land. Rather, they told the Israelites that it was possible to move forward anyway. They did not say it would be easy, but that it would be worth it.
In any situation, it is important to see both the possibilities and the challenges that lay ahead. Had the 12 spies worked together to relay their findings, they might have been able to address the tactical challenges of conquering the land while acknowledging the concerns of the people they were trying to push forward.
Cantor Josée Wolff writes, “As long as we see ourselves merely as grasshoppers up against giants, we will set ourselves up for failure. If we want to create anything new and enter into the Promised Land, then we have no choice but to leap into the unknown, to believe in ourselves, and to trust in God’s faith in us” (“The Torah: A Women’s Commentary”).
Caleb begins his charge to the people with aloh na’aleh, “Let us surely go up!” Those of us in positions of communal leadership today might ask: What does it mean for us to go up? It means moving confidently, but patiently, toward our destination, acknowledging that we carry with us our vision for the future, our memories of the past, and the varied emotions that occupy our present: fear, anxiety, curiosity, excitement, and hope.