How often do we notice our inadequacies and deficiencies, and dwell on them, instead of focusing on our talents and strengths? How often do we talk ourselves out of even trying to accomplish something by convincing ourselves we couldn’t possibly succeed?
It is human nature to doubt our abilities, to wonder if we are capable enough for the tasks life throws at us. And as we find out in this week’s Torah portion, we are in good company.
In Shelach Lecha, Moses sends 12 spies into the land that the people are about to enter. He wants to know the particulars of this Promised Land. Who resides there? Are the cities fortified? Is the land good? What does it produce?
The spies return with differing reports. They agree that the land is indeed good and fruitful, but they disagree as to their capabilities in defeating those peoples that already live there. Joshua and Caleb urge the people to move forward: “Let us by all means go up … for we shall surely overcome” (13:30). The others, however, describe a scenario that dissuades the people: “the country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers … we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes” (13:33). What might have been a joyous mood quickly turned to one of fear and despair when the people heard those words.
What changed? Joshua’s and Caleb’s positive message was lost in the wake of feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. The spies’ negative report confirmed what the Israelites believed about themselves — that they were small and powerless. Joshua and Caleb were realistic; they noted that there would be challenges to overcome. But they also believed that the people would persist and succeed. The others gave up before they even tried, assuming they were not up to the task of inhabiting the land that God had promised them. Perhaps they lacked faith in God, uncertain of God’s support in this endeavor; but most importantly, they lacked faith in themselves as well.
In our Torah portion, God is furious with the Israelites, and without Moses’ intervention, that might have been the end of our story. Fortunately, God relented; Joshua and Caleb would lead the way into the Promised Land, while the rest of the spies and those of their generation would not live to see it.
Despite this punishment, the rabbis imagine God responding to the Israelites misguided self-perception in a kind and sensitive way: “The Holy One said to the scouts: You don’t know what you have just let your mouth utter. I am ready to put up with your saying, ‘we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers’ but I do take offense at your asserting, ‘and so we were in their eyes.’ How could you possibly know how I made you appear in their eyes? How do you know but in their eyes you were angels?” (Sefer Ha-Aggadah, quoting Midrash Tanhuma)
We do not know how others perceive us — as grasshoppers or giants … or even angels. We can only realize how our own perceptions of ourselves can greatly limit our ability to succeed. If our ancestors had only listened to Caleb and Joshua, they might have felt empowered and capable. Instead, they chose to believe the naysayers. They gave into their fears and became what they perceived themselves to be — weak and inadequate, as powerless as grasshoppers among the feet of giants.
It is a matter of perspective. If we allow ourselves to feel like giants, we will be amazed at what we can accomplish. If we see ourselves as angels, we are certain to bring holiness into the world. PJC
Rabbi Jessica Locketz is a rabbi and director of education of Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.