Shabbat Shelach Lecha: Grasshoppers

June 23, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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Moses was instructed by God to send men to go on a tour of the Land of Canaan.

He did not call them spies as Joshua did forty years later when he sent men secretly to Jericho. Moses simply told the twelve men, each man representing a tribe, to go and see what the land was like, who the inhabitants were and how they lived. It might even have been a diplomatic mission rather than espionage.

It was certainly designed to gather information. To get a sense of what the mood of the land was, its features, its resources, and its population. It was the first stage in the campaign to take Canaan. They were not asked whether to invade but rather to give advice as to how to invade.

They returned from exploring the land and their reports were divided  ( like Supreme Courts today) into two very different opinions. They all agreed it was fertile and rich, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” But ten of them said that the people were too strong, too powerful and they felt inadequate, overpowered, and in modern psychological terms, inferior and insecure. They described themselves as feeling like grasshoppers Chagavim, and they said that that that was precisely what the Canaanites thought too “and so we were in their eyes.” How did they know? They overheard them talking, said Rashi.

The word Chagav, grasshopper, is often used as a synonym for locusts. They are related and very similar. Calling them grasshoppers could indeed mean that they thought the Israelites were very small and insignificant.  But it could just as well mean that like locusts, that come in swarms, brought by the winds, and then moved on by the winds, the Israelites too were only a passing threat, and they were nomads who would soon move on. The  Middle East then was awash with nomadic invaders who came stayed a while and then disappeared, the Apiru and the Hyksos most notably. The Canaanites might have been too comfortable or confident to care or thought the Israelites might be in transit for greener pastures along the Euphrates.

But when you compare the pessimism of the ten men who claimed it was a mission impossible to the optimism of Joshua and Caleb, you can see that it was not a matter of the facts. It was a mental, psychological issue. A distinction between men with confidence in themselves and men insecure and psychologically fearful.

All challenges can be seen as opportunities or excuses for giving up. The message that Moses drew from the reaction of the people was not just that they were lacking in the confidence to face the challenge and that most of their leaders were not yet ready either. It was that they were willing to resort to violence and turn back altogether. Nothing could make it clearer that they were not yet ready. Sometimes even God has to accept the reality of the situation on the ground! And we can learn the lesson of life to be positive rather than negative.

Rosh Hodesh Tammuz next Wednesday and Thursday
Numbers 13-16

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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