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Are We Grasshoppers or Giants?#732

06/24/2022 05:17:21 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Shelach Lecha: "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” Numbers 13:33

Are We Grasshoppers or Giants?


During the days prior to my bar mitzvah, I received many gifts to commemorate the event.

Most of them have faded into time.

But perhaps the most enduring was a small book given to me by my mother titled “A Boy’s Handbook to Becoming to a Man.” 

As a young teen, I referred to it often. And although that small grey volume is buried somewhere in a memorabilia box, I recall one line from it which I often share with bar and mitzvah students. 

It quotes a famous poem by English writer Rudyard Kipling titled “If,” and it refers to (with gender apologies) what it takes to transition from a boy to a man. It reads:

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…then you’ll be a Man my son.”

I think about that quote often these days as I observe a society where the power of individuality seems to be fading.

Too many vote along party lines, rather than assess each issue for themselves. Remember when people used look in the newspaper to find out which movie was playing where? Nowadays, it seems the same eight movies are playing in every theatre.

Popular radio repeats the same playlist of 20 songs again and again. We are no longer referred to as citizens, but rather consumers.

I sometimes wonder, where have all the individuals gone? Long time passing.

But this week, the Torah inspires us to take aim at the term author George Orwell inspired known as “group think.” 

The Torah tells the story of how the Israelites, journeying from Egypt to Israel on a walk which should have taken weeks or months, eventually became 40 years.

God instructs Moses to send 12 spies to reconnoiter the land of Canaan. The name of the parashah is Shelach Lecha – “send for yourself.” In simple terms, God wanted a leader from each of the 12 tribes to travel to Israel and come back with a report.

Who lives there? Are the inhabitants friendly or hostile? Is the land fertile? In short, can we make a life there?

And the results are troubling. Ten of 12 return and declare that it is a difficult land inhabited by giants.

The Torah quotes them:

“The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are giants...and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

The people begin to cry, and as the Torah reports, “they wept all night.”

The fact that the 10 negative spies had such an impact on the Jewish people serves as a main Biblical reference to why we require 10 Jewish persons to form a minyan, or a Jewish prayer quorum today.

But there was a minority opinion, voiced by Joshua and Caleb.

“God will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against the Lord,” Joshua and Caleb implore. “Have no fear…”

The Torah then recounts that, as the whole community threatened to stone Joshua and Caleb, God appears, angry at the lack of confidence in God’s divine direction, and condemns the Israelites to an additional 39 years wandering in the desert.

God wants a new generation to enter the Promised Land, one which has not been tainted by the self-doubt caused by years of slavery, and the tendency to “group think.”

And as we know, the rest is history.

As we look at the condition of modern society, the story of the 12 spies has become more relevant than ever. How often is our world plagued by "group thought?"

Too often, rather than considering matters based on the balanced study of facts supported by credible sources, too many rely on a sliver from the Internet, a tweet, or something someone heard somewhere.

Yes, each of us can be in a hurry to reach our Promised Land, but really when you think of it, it doesn’t take much for us to begin weeping.

Many rabbis have posited over the years, as they examine the reaction of the 10 negative spies, that the word “grasshopper” was never directly used by the inhabitants of Canaan. Rather it was a function of the insecurity that existed within the minds of the spies.

As tradition teaches us, each one of us is a potential giant, loaded with skills and a mission which only we can complete. And yes, each of us is working on an imperfection, but that’s what makes life so challenging and ultimately rewarding.

Over time, we possess the capacity to transition from grasshoppers to giants.

Joshua and Caleb saw things in a different way. They did not stampede towards a few ill-conceived reports. They believed in the power of God, and the divine spark which resides individually and collectively within us.

Joshua and Caleb survived to enter the Promised Land, arguably because they had faith in themselves, and the destiny of the Jewish people, set in motion by God.

And yes, we will experience “wilderness” along the way, but as the kabbalistic tradition teaches, “We must descend before we can ascend.”

This week’s Torah portion poses a challenge to each of us. Will we blindly go along with the majority, will we stampede towards negativity, will we let others do our thinking for us – or will we examine every situation, every challenge based on its own merits?

This week’s Torah portion, inspired by the strength of Caleb and Joshua, teaches us to consider the power of individual consideration.

It required an additional 39 years for an emboldened, new generation of Israelites to the enter the land of Israel, and that strength and confidence resounds to this day, within Israel and within the heart of every Jew.

I do not claim to know how the issues facing this country will ultimately be resolved, but I am confident that this nation possesses the capacity to ascend above its current divisions.

As the two positive spies reported about the Promised Land, this country, the United States, is also an “exceedingly good land.”

It is a challenge which was laid down thousands of years ago in the Torah, and more than 55 years ago in that book my mother gave me.

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too:

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,

Or being hated don't give way to hating,

And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

Then, according to Rudyard Kipling, each of us can indeed thrive within this increasingly complex world.

The Torah inspires us this week to consider the power of resisting the inclination to follow the crowd.

Let each of us live within the inspired message voiced by Joshua and Caleb, that, even though challenging and uncertain times, there are no grasshoppers among us.

Rather, as our tradition teaches, when we draw upon God’s spark within, through individuality, patience and positivity, each of us possesses the capacity to move forward. 

It is perhaps one of the most profound requirements of faith the days within each of us.

Do we retract within the simplistic lure of “group think,” or do we follow the optimistic words of Jacob and Caleb: “God will bring us into that land…Have no fear.”

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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