Lessons From the Spies

Written by Rabbi Hyim Shafner on . Posted in Torah

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, the Jewish people have completed the short trek from Mount Sinai to the Land of Israel. G-d tells them to send the heads of each tribe to scope out the land. After 40 days, the spies return. Ten of the spies bring back a bad report, and though two spies assure the people that with G-d’s help they will be able to go into the Promised Land, the Jewish people, in their cowardice, follow the 10. As a result, they are doomed to spend 40 years in the desert until a new generation of Jews, born in the desert, comes to Israel.

The 10 spies who give a bad report about the land actually say both positive and negative things. For instance, they report that the land has great produce and they also say the inhabitants are strong and well-fortified. The verse that acts as the straw that breaks the camel’s back, though, is this: “There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giant from among the Nephilim; we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we were in their eyes.” (Bamidbar 13:33)

The verse’s phrasing contains an obvious lesson — how we are seen by others is very much a product of our vision of ourselves; our own fears, anxieties, and self-image.

In contrast, 38 years later, when the Jewish people approach the Land of Israel and wish to cross over the land of Midian, they are compared not to grasshoppers but to a very strong animal, the ox: “And Moab said to the elders of Midian, ‘Now this horde [the Jewish people] will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.’” (Bamidbar 22:4)

Forty years later, the Jewish people are a new nation, born in the desert, no longer the product of a slave mentality and, consequently, less fearful. They are no longer grasshoppers in their own eyes.

Why does it take the Jewish people so long to see themselves as G-d’s capable nation? The answer is that change is scary; moving forward to a new land, a new era, with new leadership, is hard. The past impacts us. A nation born in Egypt cannot just transform itself into an independent people in one year.

The Torah is teaching us something else also: How we see ourselves and our own capabilities, as a nation or a community, is everything. If we are unified with each other, if we believe our leaders to be trustworthy, and if we have the faith that G-d can bring us to a brighter time, then we will not be grasshoppers in our own eyes, but rather oxen, fortified and courageous to become a nation and community that can do G-d’s will in a new land.

This week, I am honored to be installed as the new rabbi of Kesher Israel. For 107 years, Kesher has served the Jews of Georgetown and downtown Washington, D.C. Through the thousands of visitors Kesher hosts each year, the hundreds of young professionals and long-time members who call it home, and its many alumni across the nation, Kesher Israel plays a transformative role in the Jewish community here and abroad.

Installing a new rabbi is always a turning point and I am thrilled to be ushering Kesher Israel into a new chapter of its venerable history. I know it will be one in which it continues to partner with all of Washington’s Jewish institutions and with each of you in building and inspiring Jewish life.

By Rabbi Hyim Shafner


Rabbi Hyim Shafner is the rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C. Previously, he served as rabbi of Bais Abraham Congregation and as campus rabbi of St. Louis Hillel at Washington University, both in St. Louis, Missouri. He is the author of the "Everything Jewish Wedding Book" (2nd edition), as well as many articles in the area of Talmudic narrative, Jewish law and thought, and community building and vision.