Grasshoppers and Giants

Parashat Shelach Drash from visiting Rabbi Norman Levin

 I want to thank you for inviting me to give the dvar Torah this Shabbat. This is my first time in Hawaiʻi and I am very pleased to be here. Feel free to give me your recommendations about where my brother and I should visit in our limited time here. Contradictory recommendations are welcome.

Today’s parashat Sh’lah L’kha is actually all about contradictory recommendations. It relates the well-known episode of the 12 scouts sent to Canaan by Moses. The Israelites are approaching their destination, and representatives from each of the twelve tribes are sent to reconnoiter the land. 

Moses instructs them as follows: “Go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many. And look to see if the land they dwell in is good or bad, whether the cities they dwell in are camps and strongholds, whether the land is rich or poor, whether there is wood in it or not.  (Num. 13: 17-20)

וַֽיַּעֲל֖וּ וַיָּתֻ֣רוּ אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ     

                  They went up and scouted the land.

Forty days later, they return. (Forty daysinteresting; we’ve encountered something special happen over forty days before.) Of the twelve spies, ten are quite apprehensive about what they’ve seen. The Torah reading tells us that they acknowledge that the land is good and fruitful “but it is a land that devours its inhabitants, all the people that we saw there are men of tremendous size. There we saw the Nephilim, the Fallen Ones, and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we must have seemed to them.” (Num. 13: 32-33)

But two spies, Caleb and Joshua, repudiate that report and step forward to placate the Israelites’ fears, reminding the people of God’s promise to bring them to a land of Milk and Honey : 

“Listen up,” they say, “we can do this.”  

 הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָבַ֤רְנוּ בָהּ֙ לָת֣וּר אֹתָ֔הּ טוֹבָ֥ה הָאָ֖רֶץ מְאֹ֥ד מְאֹֽד׃ 

“The land that we scouted and explored is “tov m’od, m’od” – very very good.”

But, as we read, upon hearing those fearful reports, the Israelites panic!

 They kvetch to Moses and Aaron, The place is filled with giants! We don’t stand a chance against them! 

 “If only we had died in the land of Egypt!” they confront Moshe. “Or if only we might die in this wilderness! Why is the Lord taking us to that land to die by the sword?  Our wives and children will be carried off! We would have been better off back to Egypt!” (Num. 14:2-3) 

A rejection of freedom is, after all, a rejection of God and of His promise, and God is legitimately enraged. “Despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst, they still do not have faith in Me, they spurn me? I will strike them down and start over. I’ll start a new nation with you, Moses.” 

And so we have an existential crisis. One year into their wilderness journey, the Israelites are close to being obliterated. So it takes a certain incredible chutzpah, for Moses to start debating God. But Moses speaks up and says, “ if You destroy this entire nation, the Egyptians will hear the news, and the other nations will say, ‘It must be because ’ה was impotent, powerless, unable to bring these people into the land, and so You slaughtered them in the wilderness.” 

What’s Moshe’s argument? A shande fun deGoyim, Don’t do this terrible thing because What will the Gentiles think? “God, you’re reputation is on the line.” 

And then, Moshe reverts to a holier strategy: He appeals for mercy.  

“Let my Lord’s patience be great, as You Yourself declared, saying, 

יְהֹוָ֗ה אֶ֤רֶךְ אַפַּ֙יִם֙ וְרַב־חֶ֔סֶד נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֖ן וָפָ֑שַׁע וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֞ד עֲוֺ֤ן  יְהֹוָ֗ה  

“…slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment.. (Exod. 34.6–7).”  This is the verse we chant every Yom Kippur when we ask Adona-ai to forgive us for our failings.

God finally relents from destroying the entire People of Israel and declares, “I pardon, as you have asked,” but God recognizes, as do we, that Bnai Yisroel simply cannot escape the slave mentality. Adon-ai exacts a strict penalty: They said that they would prefer to die in the wilderness? OK then, they will die in the wilderness.

 The Israelites have had to survive an arduous life traipsing in the wilderness to a place unknown. The people that Moses had brought out of bondage had no stomach for adversity. They were always on the brink of turning back. 

So here we have this critical, phenomenal destiny-deciding saga.  It is about challenge, about fear, about anger. 

But there is one overriding theme in our parshah: Courage. This is a story about courage: courage on Moshe’s part; to argue, to say to God, what you are proposing is morally wrong. And courage on Caleb and Joshua’s part, to stand up against the masses. You can imagine the anxiety and tension that Joshua and Caleb felt, but they stuck to their convictions and said, We can do this. It is difficult but not impossible. 

 This is not just a story about an ancient tribe. It is our story. It is the very situation in which every one of us have found ourselves over and over again.

Each of us has had to face times when we needed to stand up for beliefs which we hold important, but which were unpopular or controversial. Think of an experience you had, where in the face of a crowd, or a boss, or a parent, you had the guts to stand up for a truth maybe someone being bullied, or for a belief that might be ridiculed, or a word of bigotry that you refused to tolerate. Or think of a situation where you were too timid, too bashful, too sheepish, to stand up I know I have had many of those moments. Too often, I joined the naysayers when I should have been Caleb, or Joshua. 

So many of the problems we encounter in the world seem overwhelming, complicated and insolvable. Often, social conditions and structures of power seem too deeply entrenched to change. We live as explorers, and we journey through the wilderness of distortions and fabrications; and when we encounter the Nephilim spewing falsehoods and lies, we hope we will have the courage to confront and defeat. 

Rabbi Melissa Crespy of Jewish Theological Seminary once said of this parashah, that we are 

ultimately immensely powerful, with the ability to bring to bear not only the power of ourselves, our community and our nation, but the promise of a God who compels us to seek justice. 

We may indeed be confronting giants, but we are not grasshoppers.

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