When I was a girl growing up in Queens, in NY, my mother often took my two sisters and me to Broadway musicals: we saw Fiddler, Man of La Mancha, 1776, revivals of Annie Get Your Gun, with Ethel Merman, and South Pacific, and many more. All the women dancers were small, petite, capable of being lifted easily by the male dancers. When I was a teen, my sister took me for the first time to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, where I was astonished and amazed by Judith Jamison, the larger than life – or at least larger than any woman dancer – I had ever seen. She was noted for power, grace, regal bearing and emotional interpretation. But how did someone of her exceptional size – she reached at 5’10” – make it to the dance stage in the first place? Her parents sent her to ballet lessons when she was 6, to help imbue her already noticeable height with grace… She was already a giant among grasshoppers, who believed in herself enough to develop her technique and let the music flow through her, so that she could reach the heights of an art form usually reserved for the petite body.
Grasshoppers and giants: those images come from this week’s torah portion: Shelakh Lecha – the fourth portion of the fourth book of the torah, Bemidbar, or Numbers. God tells Moses Shelakh Lecha – send for yourself… men to scout the land I have promised to give you. It is a story of such profound heart ache, such terror, such bad behavior and such heroes. It is such a modern story, and such an ancient one…
The leaders of each tribe, brave men and true, are given six specific tasks by Moses:
- “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is.
- Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?
- Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?
- Are the towns they live in open or fortified?
- Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?
- And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” (Num. 13:17-20)
It was a military, strategic task, to do the planning they needed to claim their inheritance…
So off they went to explore the land, returning 40 days later. Here’s what they reported to Moses, Aaron, and the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. (Num. 13:26)
Note that they spoke to the entire people, rather than just to Moses and Aaron…
“We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.
So far, so good…
However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negev region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.” (Num. 13:27-29)
It all sounds like the instructions Moses gave them. Is the country good or bad? Are the cities fortified? What kinds of people? What’s the problem?
In Hebrew, after they show the giant grapes, the next word is efes… However… Did you notice it? That one little word. It means so much. Efes is often used to say, “it will all come to naught.” The land may flow with milk and honey, efes – it will all come to naught—because of the Anakites and Amalekites and the giants… we seemed like grasshoppers ourselves and so we must have seemed to them… (Num. 13:33)
You can almost hear it as a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you see yourself as small and weak, it is entirely possible that others will as well—and treat you accordingly. Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Spanish commentator, noted that this whole scene was another episode of us not being ready to rid ourselves of the slave mentality, the ability to embrace the opportunity for change and growth.
The rabbis associate this story with the disastrous day of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the day that witnessed the destruction of both the first and second temples as well as a number of other collective Jewish disasters. We read the Book of Lamentations – or Eicha, in Hebrew. We fast. We mourn… We experience the pain of loss. And this torah portion is associated with all that?
10 of the 12 scouts, excepting Caleb and Joshua, came back with a report that sent us, the children of Israel, into yet another dither of hysteria: better we should return to familiar slavery, or die in the wilderness than face a beautiful land where we would be seen as the small, scared, insecure people we were…
Our leadership failed us that day, and we became a frightened horde who threatened to pelt Caleb and Joshua with stones rather than listen to their message of hope. And this became the archetype for every disaster that struck us until the Holocaust.
How did this happen? What was so terrible?
One of my teachers explains that the tragedy of this story is in the nature of the sin we committed that day. Our leaders – with a tiny word – efes – however —allowed their own anxiety in the face of insecurity to overwhelm all that had been given to them already. And we – the people of Israel, we ran amok again, just as we had at the Golden Calf. One way of looking at sin – a word laden with heavy connotations, one that could be explored at length, another time – is that it is the actions that stem, unmediated, from our fears and anxieties. Of course we will be scared when faced with giants, or the sea before us and our enemies behind us, or when we are asked to do something far outside our comfort zone, that asks us to stretch, maybe too far… But how do we deal with that anxiety? Have you ever lost it at someone you love because of your own fears? Of course, many of us have… and it’s that sort of behavior that the torah so often shows us is both the norm and something we can struggle with, to learn to be better people…
It is what we do with our fears and anxiety that is a key to Jewish spirituality. The tradition offers us better ways of looking at our behavior, different models for handling the stress, and for looking at ourselves honestly and realistically – to assess with open eyes whether we really are grasshoppers, or whether we are projecting our fears onto others.
Joshua and Caleb were able to be visionaries, while their compatriots, fellow communal leaders, could not harness their imaginations to see a world in which the miracles they had already lived through could continue: as a friend of mine wrote, they revisioned the possible into the impossible because of their fears. Joshua and Caleb were able to rise above their slave mentality to picture themselves – and the rest of the children of Israel – living in the land of milk and honey. While they might have seen themselves as grasshoppers, they did not assume that others did, nor did they imagine grasshoppers as helpless creatures without a friend in the world. They took stock of their situation, and with faith in the Holy One, each other and themselves, knew that the children of Israel could achieve what had been promised them. Just as Judith Jamison was not cowed by the normal expectations of the dance world and honed her craft despite her unusual frame, so did Caleb and Joshua trust their circumstances.
Redemption is found when we can see ourselves realistically and recognize we are made b’tzelem elohim – in the divine image, born with the divine spark; sometimes we might be grasshoppers, but we can defeat giants. I pray that we all explore the ways we see ourselves as grasshoppers, and begin to transform that view to one of strength, and value, ready to meet the challenges of our own lives.