Seeing Beneath The Surface

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

Commentary on Parashat Sh'lach, Numbers 13:1 - 15:41

As the Israelites approach the Land of Israel, spies are sent ahead to scout out the Land. They return with a discouraging report, and the people believe that it will be too difficult to possess the Promised Land. They long to return to Egypt; God wants to destroy the faithless people, but Moshe persuades God to relent. Instead, God lengthens their wanderings to 40 years, so that none of the generation of the Exodus will enter the Land. The parsha ends with various laws of sacrifice which will take effect when they are settled in the Land; the final paragraph contains the commandment to attach fringes [tzitzit] to the corners of their clothing.

In Focus

“And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, ‘The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.'” (Numbers 13:32-33)


The story of the spies is one of the dramatic highlights of the book of Numbers; it contrasts the fearful majority of the reconnaissance team, with Caleb and Joshua, who urge the people not to be afraid — these heroes of faith believe that God will protect the people and bring them into the land. In the verses quoted above, the fearful spies are telling the people that the land of Israel is filled with giants, or semi-divine beings, who will surely defeat the Israelites if they attempt to settle there.


One of the greatest teachers of Torah of our age, Nehama Leibowitz, z’l (may her memory be a blessing), in one of her essays on this Torah portion, asks an important question: How did the spies know what the “giants” thought of them? They don’t report any interaction with these bizarre “Nephilim”; if they really were giant beings, then one could understand the feeling that “we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes,” but how did they know if the “giants” even noticed them?

Unfortunately, although Nehama Leibowitz posed this great question, she didn’t give any hint as to an answer. Not only that, but it seems that this question has been around for a very long time. The contemporary Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom, in the Jewish Publication Society commentary, quotes a midrash from the ancient rabbis, in which God rebukes the spies:

“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 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 that 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.

Again, the spies present themselves as more tragically flawed than deliberately disruptive; paralyzed by fear, thinking of themselves as weak and ineffectual, they could see only the surface reality of physical strength, not the spiritual truth of their destiny as dwellers in the Promised Land. Seeing only the outer husk of things keeps us from moving forward; having faith in ourselves and faith in the Holy One enables us to grow, evolve, and become what we’re meant to be.

Reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.

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