Parashat Shlah

Seeing Beneath The Surface

Unable to see beyond their own fears and insecurities, 10 of the 12 spies despaired of conquering Canaan.

Print this page Print this page

"I take no objection to your saying: 'we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,' but I take offense when you say 'so we must have looked to them.' How do you know how I made you to look to them? Perhaps you appeared to them as angels!" (based on Numbers Rabbah 16:11).

On the other hand, Rashi says that the spies reported overhearing the giants talking to one another, saying, "there are ants in the vineyard that resemble human beings." (Rashi is also quoting an ancient midrash, this time from the Talmud.) Rashi answers our question directly, but doesn't address the feeling I get from the text that the spies were reacting out of panic and insecurity rather than objectively reporting what they saw. On the other hand, perhaps Rashi is trying to emphasize their lack of confidence; after all, an ant is even smaller and more easily crushed than a grasshopper!

The European commentator R. Yaakov ben Asher, (d. 1343; known as the Ba'al HaTurim) quotes a midrash which makes the spies seem almost delusional. In this version, the spies report that:

". . . One of the giants ate a pomegranate and tossed aside the husk, and all 12 spies entered it and sat down in it. . . we sat down in it like grasshoppers."

Now, that must have been one humongous pomegranate! If you're smiling and thinking to yourself, "what a silly story," I think you understand the force of this midrash. I think the very absurdity of this midrash is a clue as to its meaning: it's silly and ridiculous to project your own insecurities onto others, thinking you know what they think about you. As the earlier midrash said more explicitly, maybe the spies appeared as angels!

I think we can also hear in this midrash the fear the spies must have been feeling; desperate to avoid the challenge of going up to the land, perhaps they found themselves saying anything that came to mind, even if it was biased to the point of absurdity. Many of us have had those moments when our insecurities have overwhelmed our reason--we might even consider the possibility that the Ba'al HaTurim is portraying the spies as so fearful as to be pathetic, objects of sympathy rather than scorn.

On the other hand, consider the imagery of this midrash in more symbolic terms: the spies arrived at their self-assessment as grasshoppers by sitting down in the "husk" of the pomegranate. Perhaps the image of the outer shell or husk which surrounds the spies when they sit in it is a hint that their real problem is that they don't look any deeper into things, seeing only outward appearances. Based on the outward appearance of things, this rag-tag bunch of former slaves could never enter the Land; seen with the eyes of faith, even "giants" couldn't stop them.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.