The events are as follows: G-d commands Moses to appoint men to explore the land they will be settling — a reasonable request. And so Moses appoints 12 princes to survey the land. After 40 days, they return with their report. As it turns out, the report is phrased in a way that sours the spirit of the people, and instead of being excited about the prospects of the new land, they let out a great cry. As a result of this wail, the midrash tells us that G-d decides that if they think they have something to cry about now, let them wait. And so this date, the 9th of Av, becomes fixed in the Jewish calendar, reserved for mourning major national tragedies such as the destruction of both Temples and the exile of the Jews from Spain 500 years ago.
To understand the nature of their sin, we have to look more closely at the events recorded in the portion of Shlach. The report’s opening phrase evokes the splendor of the Promised Land: “Indeed it’s a land of milk and honey,” an expression that has virtually become synonymous with the land of Israel. Displaying the enormous fruits of the land, we can safely conclude from their opening words that the spies had no doubts about the land’s fertility. One would be hard-pressed to find in their entire report something against the land itself. True, “the people living in the land are aggressive and the cities are large and well-fortified. We also saw the giants there” is what they say, but are these words against the land?
If the sin of the people wasn’t against the land, perhaps it was against G-d? But they never actually say that G-d is wrong nor do they deny that this is the land promised to them by G-d. In fact, using the expression “milk and honey” reaffirms G-d’s promise to Moses at the Burning Bush: “I will bring you to a land of milk and honey.”
If we cannot pin their rebellion against G-d or against the land, what are we left with?
Tragedy erupts not so much when others take a sudden dislike to us, but when we dislike ourselves and become paralyzed and passive as a result.
A clue can be found if we take a look at the verse which speaks of the land consuming its inhabitants: “They began to speak badly about the land that they had explored. They told the Israelites, ‘The land that we crossed to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants. All the men we saw there were huge. While we were there we saw Nephilim. … We felt like tiny grasshoppers. That’s all that we were in their eyes.”
But if the land consumes its inhabitants, how is it possible that the people are huge? There should be no one alive, let alone giants and sons of the Nephillim?! As Nachmanides points out (13:32), a poor, weak land cannot produce people strong in stature. Implicit in Nachnanides’ words is that the land is not for average people. And this is the heart of the problem.
Notice the sequence. “There we saw the giants. We felt like grasshoppers” is followed by “that’s all we were in their eyes.” What this points to is a common phenomenon — how we see ourselves determines how others end up seeing us. If you’re a grasshopper in someone else’s eyes, obviously he’ll crush you without a second thought, and once you think of yourself as a grasshopper, the rest of the world seconds the motion.
The image of a grasshopper is striking, capturing the essence of exile: a tiny creature at the mercy of all. “We were like grasshoppers” means that the scouts still think like slaves in Egypt, seeing themselves as despised, dependent creatures. How could they have possibly believed in themselves? And if one doesn’t believe in oneself, one usually assimilates, gives oneself over to a higher power, decides either to return to Egypt — which Datan and Aviram always wanted to do — or to remain paralyzed and inactive in the desert. In accepting defeat rather than displaying defiance, the Jew is meekly surrendering to fate as it “hops” all over him.
Now we see how in the scouts’ sin lies the seed of the destruction of both Temples. Tragedy erupts not so much when others take a sudden dislike to us, but when we dislike ourselves and become paralyzed and passive as a result. The sin of the scouts is not in the terrible report they bring but in their vision of themselves, a perception that becomes contagious and that ends up as a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. As James Baldwin said so aptly, he could forgive America for enslaving black people, but he could never forgive America for making the blacks feel that they were worthless, that they deserved to be slaves. And that’s precisely what Egypt did to the Hebrews!
In this century, we’ve taken giant steps toward rectifying this distorted vision; but apparently more work needs to be done before the self-image of the grasshopper is gone. Then, even if we live “in a land that consumes” its inhabitants, it only acts as a curse for those who live passive grasshopper-y lives. But for the ex-grasshoppers, ready to take responsibility for the road to redemption, this land can really be a blessing.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.