Parshat Shelach Lecha

By Rabbi Meredith Cahn, ’11

Grasshoppers and Giants: Who Are You?

Growing up, my mother often took my sisters and me to Broadway musicals. All the women dancers were petite, to be lifted easily by the male dancers. Later, we went to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, where I encountered Judith Jamison, the larger than life – or larger than any woman – dancer. She exhibited power, grace and emotional interpretation. But how did she make it to the dance stage in the first place? Her parents sent her to ballet lessons at age six, to imbue her already noticeable height with grace. She was 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 petite bodies.

Grasshoppers and giants permeate this week’s torah portion: Shelach Lecha. Moses assigned the leaders from each tribe six specific, strategic tasks to prepare for claiming our inheritance. Off they went to scout the land. Upon returning, they reported to Moses and the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. (Num. 13:26)

“We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…” (Num. 13:27)

After they showed the giant grapes, the next word is efes: However… That one little word means so much. Efes often means, “it will all come to naught.” The land may flow with abundance, efes – it will all come to naught—because we seemed like grasshoppers ourselves and so we must have seemed to them… (Num. 13:33)

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. Ten of the 12 scouts came back with a report that sent us into a dither of hysteria.

Rabbi Finley 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. And we–the people of Israel, ran amok. One way of defining sin is the unmediated actions that stem from our fears and anxieties. Of course we will be scared when faced with giants, or when we are asked to do something far outside our comfort zone, that asks us to stretch.

It is what we do with our fears and anxiety that is a key to Jewish spirituality. Our teachings offer us better ways of looking at our behavior and at ourselves realistically – to assess with open eyes whether we really are grasshoppers, or whether we are projecting our fears onto others.

Joshua and Caleb rose above their slave mentality. 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. With faith in the Holy One, each other and themselves, they knew that the children of Israel could achieve what had been promised them.

We find redemption when we can see ourselves realistically and recognize we are made b’tzelem Elohim – in the divine image; sometimes we might be grasshoppers, but we can defeat giants. May we all explore the ways we view ourselves as grasshoppers, and transform that image to one of strength, and value, ready to meet the challenges of our lives.