Surprising Insights from the Grasshopper

Sh'lach L'cha, Numbers 13:1−15:41

D'Var Torah By: Dr. Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D.

grasshopper 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.)

Dr. Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D., is the director of the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.

The Only One Who Controls My Yoke Is Me

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Danny Moss

a man sitting aloneI am my own worst enemy.

I say this with neither hyperbole nor histrionics. I enjoy the love of my family and friends; and the support of my colleagues. No one “has it in” for me. So, when I experience conflict, I must first examine my own feelings and assumptions in order to understand what went awry. At my most honest, I am able to admit my role in the conflict. I have no enemies, save for my imperfectly realized self.

As Dr. Ruhama Weiss observes about Parashat Sh’lach L’cha, our knowledge of self does not develop in a vacuum. That understanding is shaped by — and sometimes in defiance of — others. It matters not how outwardly successful or confident we are. We all crave validation. We all yearn to be loved. We all want other people to like and respect us.

Those of us in the rabbinic profession often speak of  “imposter syndrome.” It’s the fear that we will wake up one day and people will suddenly realize how unworthy we are to carry such an esteemed honorific; that we don’t know all the answers; that we, too, are vulnerable and imperfect beings.

I think the scouts must have felt like imposters, too. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them!” (Num. 13.33). These were notable and important men: each scout the appointed leader of his tribe. Nevertheless, 10 of the 12 ostensibly fail to display the leadership expected of them, dooming hundreds of thousands of their fellow Israelites to die in the wilderness. Aside from Joshua and Caleb, none will enter the Promised Land, not even Moses. The ancestral hope for a life of prosperity in our land drives much of the Torah’s narrative and law. This severe punishment casts doubt upon that hope. It also casts doubt upon God’s own covenantal promise, first articulated to Abraham perhaps half a millennium earlier (Gen. 12.1-2).

As for the scouts’ report itself, it is ambiguous at worst. It first (Num.13:26-30) praises the Land’s fertility and describes its inhabitants in fairly neutral geopolitical terms. Only afterward do the scouts warn, trembling with fear: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers [!!] All the people that we saw in it are of great size ... and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Num. 13:32-33).

Wait a minute! The scouts have no way to know what the inhabitants of Canaan think of them. The Torah preserves no record of interaction of any kind. The translation correctly conveys their presumptuousness: “so we must have looked to them.” The scouts assume that because they feel tiny, weak, and scared next to these fortified city dwellers, that (1) the city dwellers want to stomp them into oblivion; and (2) the Israelites would never prevail. But didn’t God free them from Egypt with miraculous plagues? Didn’t God give them the Torah amid dazzling pyrotechnics? How easily they forget; how readily they doubt.

The scouts feel themselves to be imposters, losing their faith in themselves and in God. These locals, they, assert, are “stronger than we” (Num. 13:31). The Talmud (Sotah 35a) interprets: “The text does not really intend ‘stronger than we’ [mimenu]; rather, read it to say, ‘stronger than God [mimeno]!”

Like so many of us, these newly freed, freshly minted leaders unwittingly sabotage their own future, allowing faith to acquiesce to fear. Like all of us, they assume. They panic. They fail to imagine another way, a less likely but ultimately transformative way.

Of course, this is how life often goes: we pass one test, but fail the next. We learn something of value about ourselves and then fall into precisely the same routines we fought to overcome. We struggle mightily to throw off the yoke of whatever it is that enslaves us. But soon we each realize: the only one who controls my yoke is me.

Rabbi Danny Moss is the assistant rabbi at Temple Israel in Westport, CT.

Reference Materials

Sh’lach L’cha, Numbers 13:1−15:41
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,107−1,122; Revised Edition, pp. 977−997
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 869–892
Haftarah, Joshua 2:1−24
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,262−1,264; Revised Edition, pp. 998−1,000

Originally published: