Friday, June 13, 2014

Words in the Desert: Ants, Grasshoppers and the Torah Portion of Shelach

Thank you to Daniel Najman for thinking of this question in Rashi.

The Torah portion for this week includes the disgraceful account of the spies. All but two of them (Calev and Yehoshuah) went about exploring the Land of Israel in the wrong way, coming back with a negative report. Their report, and the people's reaction to it, caused the Jewish people to wander an additional 40 years, and that entire generation did not enter the Land.

A particularly puzzling part of the spies' report is a comment about how they looked in the eyes of the former inhabitants:

33. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes. 
It is one thing to state how they saw themselves compared to them (which is bad enough), but yet a whole other level of lack of emunah to think that the inhabitants themselves saw them in the same light. How could they know?

Rashi gives an answer to this inherent question by commenting as follows:

RASHI: and so we were in their eyes: We heard them telling each other,“There are ants in the vineyard who look like people.” - [Sotah 35a]

Rashi answers the above question but raises another. Why does the description change from "grasshoppers" to "ants."

Perhaps the answer is as follows: Depending on the context, being seen like an ant can also be a very great compliment. In Proverbs, King Solomon states, "Go to the ant and become wise." (Proverbs 6:6; Perek Shirah 6:6 also!)

Grasshoppers are generally considered pests and not good for the land. Ants are generally considered good and compatible with working the land. The spies, who actually wished to stay in the desert living a completely spiritual existence, were trying to say that we did not belong in the Land of Israel.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The spies had said, "The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants..." They were afraid of its physicality and did not wish to be consumed by it. They did not comprehend that this was Hashem's will. He wants us to engage with the physical and elevate it. That is how we know if our spirituality is real in the first place. 

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