This is my D'var Torah from last Shabbat, June 20, Parashat Shlach L'cha.
This week in the book of Numbers, there is a beautiful project that Moshe is getting impatient to launch. In a nutshell: it’s about becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, in a land flowing with milk and honey. Moshe is impatient in a good way, and his instinct about the moment is that the people have been sitting still for too long. A lot of study groups working on the laws and the institutions, the beginnings of complaining because the people are in limbo in the desert... So Moshe decides it’s time to move closer to moving by sending out the scouts, the m’raglim. From the Hebrew regel, the leg – there’s going to be movement, shoe leather. Not everyone at first, but while the people are sitting still there is going to be activity by some. Sounds a bit like us now, yes?
So how did this step go?
The land flowing with milk and honey, eretz zavat chalav ud’vash, is now also a land that devours its inhabitants, eretz ochelet yoshveha. And the kingdom of priests and the holy nation? Now it’s we saw giants, and we looked to them like grasshoppers, and that is how we came to look even to ourselves.
And as a result, the people went nowhere. For a whole generation.
What happened, and what can we learn from for our own moment?
I summarized Moshe’s big project in two parts -- there’s the land and there’s the group itself. The most important thing we can learn from the m’raglim is not their report about the land but their report about themselves. Read carefully – the ten negative scouts said good and bad things about the future ahead. Bounteous, but also impossible. What they said about themselves though was very clear: We are grasshoppers, not giants.
I want us to look at this so we can learn how we can be giants and not grasshoppers, across the many landscapes we are looking at now and looking ahead to right away and over the next six months.
When Moshe set up the mission for the twelve m’raglim, he structured it for them around a set of questions, and most of them were good, clipboard kind of questions. Observe and report what’s out there – what’s the soil like, the trees, the fruit, the cities? But he threw in one question that wasn’t like that. Tell about about the land, hatova hi im ra-ah – is the land good or is it bad?
What kind of question is that? God had already given promises about a good land over and over. Opening up that question opened up the possibility of coming back and saying the land is bad. And that colored everything. The ten m’raglim had the opening to say the land was bad because they were really reporting on a different issue: Are we good or are we bad.
Calev and Yehoshua were able to say the land is good, because they could also say: We are good. Calev said: Yachol nuchal la. We are capable, we are up to this.
The others said: the land is good, the land is bad, see it both ways -- but we are definitely grasshoppers, looking at giants.
Why grasshoppers? Why not ants or locusts? There’s almost no traditional commentary on the metaphor.
I think last year I asked my daughter Sarinah about this, who is of course the bug expert in my household. Between her teaching and some other research, here are some things I’ve learned about grasshoppers:
- Grasshoppers aren’t discriminating about what they eat. They’ll eat pretty much everything, whether it’s nutritious or not for them.
- Grasshoppers use up what’s right there and they have no relationship to what’s right nearby in the field. They hop – they flit from one place to another. They’ll go any distance from where they are and then eat whatever happens to be there.
- They are obviously at home in the grass – they exist where the roots are shallow, they don’t try to be near anything whose stature is much more than their own. In fact they have evolved to basically look like grass.
- On its own a single grasshopper behaves fine, but in groups they devour, they destroy.
So why did the ten m’raglim compare themselves to grasshoppers? It wasn’t just about size and strength, small grasshoppers compared to giant humans.
They were saying about themselves, and they were saying about all of Am Yisrael:
- Like grasshoppers, we can’t focus – we’ll try anything whether it’s useful for us or not. We hop from one thing to another, one focus or mission or cause to the next.
- Like grasshoppers, we don’t lift our eyes up enough – we’re content to be in a field where everything is small like us, where nothing reaches to the heavens. In the psalms grass is compared to the wicked, who are widespread and fast growing but shallow, while the righteous are like a palm tree – tall, not so many, but deeply rooted. They were saying: We’re grassy, not palmy.
- Like grasshoppers, we don’t sink roots. Our commitments are not deep, we don’t take the time to make them deep or to trust one another to be deeply rooted.
- Like grasshoppers, we don’t trust ourselves as a group to be capable of great things – we think if we try to act collectively we will be destructive.
What the ten m’raglim were saying is that they didn’t see themselves or the people as wise enough or capable enough to try big things without destroying in the process.
Giants, they thought – that would be someone else. Those huge Canaanites who look they had fallen out of the heavens, godlike in strength and stature. Pharoah was a giant. Giants are Avraham and Sarah, in our past but not our present. You Moshe aren’t a giant, and neither is anyone else we know or could even imagine right now.
But Calev knew different. The Torah says he had ruach acheret, a different spirit. Rabbi Zohar Atkins says actually he had two spirits. One spirit understood what the ten grasshopper-scouts experienced, he got it entirely. And one spirit that said no, the giants are us. A kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
And I know different too. I know that we are giants, we Jews of this time and place. And if we are not giants, it’s just that we aren’t giants yet.
The justice issues of our day – we can be giants.
The grasshopper view is that we will lack focus, we will approach them shallowly like the roots of grass, and we will destroy our own community in the process. There were giants of justice in the past, not in our current generation. But we do not have to be those grasshoppers. We can focus, we can learn and act with depth, and we will in fact strengthen our own Jewish community in the process as we also strengthen America. I know this, because the people in our congregation who have already organized a prayer service and a resource list and a thoughtful committee and are grappling with how to talk within our Jewish community, they are acting like giants.
This pandemic, and how we will live through it by taking care of each other even though we don’t know if we have to do this for weeks or months still – we can be giants. The grasshopper view is that we lack focus. We do creative things for a bit and soon we’ll run out steam, or we will do it shallowly with e-mails only and just appear to be active. But we do not have to be those grasshoppers. We can focus, on making sure every person in our community gets a phone call with regularity, and we can act with depth as we discover what people need in concrete ways or in emotional support.
And I know this, because there are people who are stepping up to make calls even though they have other commitments and are tired, and there are mental health professionals who are making their wisdom available to me and our leadership, and there are people generous in all kinds of ways, and these people are acting like giants.
The future of Jewish community and the synagogue, here and across America – we can be giants. The grasshopper view is that we lack focus, we try to do one thing that might appeal superficially and then another, and we don’t take the time to really root ourselves in a mission that we repeat over and over. The grasshopper view is that communities will just eat up an ever-diminishing set of resources and burn out our own leaders.
But we do not have to be those grasshoppers. We can focus, because rabbis in the hundreds around the country have been organizing ourselves with focus on how not just to survive but how to innovate during the pandemic. Talking to each other and creating new networks out of nothing. Look at us, you here this Shabbat morning, recreating community on the fly every single day and week. Wait till you meet Sarit, our newest team member, a thoughtful educator and a social entrepreneur - she is already starting to guide us and focus us. And in the months leading into and out of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I will show you how deep and how giant is Judaism as a response to this time we are in, and how many incredible teachers there are for you around this country.
We are not grasshoppers. If we are not yet giants, morally and spiritually, I am here to tell you we can be, if we decide to go into the new lands together. I’m going. The lands ahead of us, whether it’s the landscape of justice in America or the landscape of the pandemic or the landscape of synagogues – they are good lands. They are flowing with milk and honey. It’s no question whether they are good or bad – they are good. But if you don’t believe that yet, the lands are what they just are. Our job is to go into them now. Even when we have to do that while staying physically inside our homes. As Calev said: yachol nuchal lo – we are capable. Because, us -- we are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.