top of page
  • Writer's pictureRabbi Amy Eilberg

We Are Not Grasshoppers!

I have long been fascinated by a verse in our parasha, one of the most psychologically penetrating verses in the Torah. When the spies return from scouting out the land, they begin on a positive note, before voicing their concerns.

At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land. They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community . . . and they made their report to them and to the whole community . . . This is what they told him: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey . . . However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. . .” (Numbers 13:25-28)

In fact, they have given a balanced perspective on the land they have seen, acknowledging both its beauty (as promised by God), and the dangers present there.

Instead of hearing and recognizing the scouts’ fears, Caleb “hushed the people” (Numbers 13:30), in an unsuccessful attempt to encourage them, and he urged them to push through their fears and go up to the land nonetheless. According to some commentaries, the fact that the scouts even mentioned the threats in the land represented a failure of faith on their part.

As I read this passage, Caleb is unable to acknowledge their justifiable concerns, and it is only then that the ten spies escalate their negative rhetoric, saying, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we. . . The country that we traveled and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size . . . and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:31-33) Their fear spikes, and they spin out irrational images of how terrifying it would be to enter the land, spreading fear throughout the community.

What is most striking to me is the vivid simile, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” As their dread spirals out of control, they imagine the inhabitants of the land to be superhuman in size and strength, and they experience themselves as insects by comparison.

This self-description may seem ridiculous, until we remember times when we ourselves have felt small by comparison to another, such as a parent, an employer, or an authority figure. In such moments of intense self-doubt, we can lose our realistic perspective on who we are. We exaggerate our own limitations and inflate the abilities and the power of the other.

This is what a teacher of mine calls a “self-doubt attack.” I know it well, and perhaps you do too.

One of the Mussar sources I regularly turn to for wisdom on self-doubt, oddly enough, is in the teachings on humility from Rav Kook. At times, even with much Mussar study under our belts, many of us may still think of humility as a quality of being small, as we focus on our own limits and lack of capacity. We may find we are thinking of ourselves as “nothing.”

But Rav Kook brings a profound and deeply helpful perspective on humility. He brings this startling description:

"When humility engenders sadness, it is flawed; when it is genuine, it contributes to joy, courage, and inner dignity." (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, “Moral Principles,” p. 176)

I hear him saying that when you find yourself stuck in self-criticism, questioning your own capacities, or assuming that another is more worthy or capable than you, this is not real anavah/humility. It is low self-esteem, which can sometimes be triggered in a stressful situation (like contemplating a military campaign in a heavily fortified land!). Perhaps, once you have given yourself some care, you may be able to perceive your environment and yourself in a realistic way again, remembering who you really are.

Or take this stunning statement:

"At times it is unnecessary to be afraid of greatness, which can elevate the person to do great things, and humility is entirely based on this kind of holy greatness." (ibid.)

Yes, in his teaching on humility, Rav Kook is talking about “holy greatness.” Thinking that you cannot do “great things” is not anavah. On the contrary, humility gives you a realistic perspective on what you, as one person, can do and be — no more and no less. You can do great things — this is why God created you.

"When a thought of pride or a feeling of self-exaltation arises in the person, they should apply the good aspect of their sensibilities to reinforce the will to holiness . . . Then they will add to their feeling of humility, and will always be in joy and in gladness of heart." (ibid., p. 177)

By contrast, in a moment when you may have a “pride attack,” a spike of an exaggerated sense of your own worth, soak in the positive dimension of that pride. Let go of the negative dimension of the pride (arrogance, self-importance, condescension), but savor its positive dimension (self-efficacy, clarity of purpose, pride in your own growth) in what he later calls pride’s “enlightened” form, to fuel your work in the world.

The next time you realize that you are locked in a distorted image of yourself, imagining yourself with little worth or wisdom, think of the spies seeing themselves as grasshoppers. Let the image make you laugh, and let it help you restore the truth of your own life as well.

Focus Questions:

· Do you recognize the “we look like grasshoppers” state of mind -- in yourself or in the life of a loved one?

· What spiritual resources help you to restore clarity in such moments?

· How do you understand Rav Kook’s surprising suggestion that anavah includes belief in our own capacity for greatness?

This piece was written for and posted by The Mussar Institute.

18 views0 comments


bottom of page