I think this week’s Torah portion is about a fundamental question: are Jews grasshoppers or trees? Learn more below!
Welcome back to the Joseph Cox show. This is the episode for the parsha (Torah portion) of Shelach. It is the story of the spies. I thought this would be a quick and easy episode, where I might just add a little something or two to my prior understanding. In fact, as I pulled at threads a new and far more complex (and beautiful) reality emerged. I’m really looking forward to sharing it with you.
It is a bit long – in part because when an idea is first being explored I haven’t yet had chance to compress it to its essence. Just bear with me 😊
For me, the central challenge of the story of the spies comes in a single pasuk (verse).
וַיֹּצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר תָּרוּ אֹתָהּ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר: הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ, אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא, וְכָל-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ, אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת.
“And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of stature.”
My questions are threefold:
- How can the land eat up its inhabitants and be a land in which the men have stature?
- How is this report supposed to convince the people not to go up to the land?
- Why do the other spies not want to go up to the land? What’s holding them back?
The answers to these questions begin and end with an understanding of the land. When I was at Nike, my manager was a member of a multi-generational farming family. He explained that three things determined who a person was: family, faith and land.
As a religious Diaspora Jew with a strong family, I understood faith and family. But the concept of land being critical to identity was utterly foreign to me. As the saying goes, Jews learn the violin because you can’t take your piano with you when you flee.
For his part, my manager could barely understand where I was coming from.
His perspective is important though. Land, for those who remain in it for generations, is a critical part of identity. The rivers, the irrigation, the hills, grazing, the rainfall – these all define people. They even define cities. Can they trade? What produce can they offer? Can they serve as a port?
We tend to ignore it today, but it even impact manufacturing and distribution and computing. Waterfalls offer hydroelectric power which is wonderful for aluminum manufacturing and data centers. Water supplies are necessary for fracking or microchip manufacturing. Significant flat areas serve large airports, warehouses or industrial areas. Mountains offer mining, tourism and recreation. And so on.
And in all of these cases, cultures form. The people are defined by the land.
I’m fond of defining male and female concepts in the Torah around land. Adam – man – plants. Adama – the feminine form of the same word – yields crops.
Will and actualization are in this one word’s two forms.
But it is more complex than that. A relationship is more than the biological production of the next generation. The land influences mankind just as mankind works with the land.
At the beginning of Shemot (the book of Exodus) the Torah says about the Jewish people in Egypt that “the land filled itself with them.” The people didn’t fill the land, the land filled itself with them. The land was the actor, they were passive.
Land is not just there to be used. It defines what mankind can do and can ultimately define who we are. And in the Torah at least, the land can expel those who do not comply with it.
What does it mean when the land eats you? To me it suggests that you become wholly a part of it.
It defines you completely. It can go beyond just defining your culture.
The Torah itself actually describes a way in which this process can unfold. The great, magnificent, fruit the spies bring back is a grape vine.
In Parshat Vaetchanan, right near the end of the Chumash, we see a parallel. The Torah is describing all of the mysterious blessings the people will enjoy. My favorite is the promise that the people will draw oil from a flinty rock – which sounds a lot like fracking. But the very next verse – in the very last statement before the rich and successful Jewish people will rebel against G-d, the Torah says:
“And the blood of grape, you will drink (clay or plaster)”
Blood, in the Torah, is defined as that which animates the body. It directs us. If you drink the blood of grapes, the grapes replace your own will. And it becomes like plaster, it stops you up.
It sets you in place.
It immobilizes you.
In a way, it consumes you.
The land has these magnificent grapes. They consume those who settle it. They eat them up. The desire to remain a part of it – to keep those grapes – can change who you are. It can strengthen you, in very particular ways. Like filling you with clay.
This is how those who live in the land have stature. The word is actually used to refer to character. They have great character – because the land has eaten them. They and the land are one and the same. The land is great, so great that the people it has consumed are themselves great.
They are intricately intertwined.
But the Jewish people aren’t like this. The very next verse says they see themselves as grasshoppers. We can think of that as small, but it is something else as well. It is a very specific reference. Grasshoppers have no territory and no nest. They belong nowhere. Just like we see in this parsha, they can form mobs and frenzies (grasshoppers turn into locusts).But even then, they don’t belong anywhere. They are far from being tied to a land. In a way, they have no clay within them.
I grew up half-way in hillbilly culture and halfway in Jewish culture. Becoming civilized was not seen as a particularly good thing. I’ve known people from other cultures who didn’t want to send their children to college because they’d lose them. They’d no longer be the same people. Hillbillies aren’t the only people to think this way. On the grand historical scale, the Mongols adopted Chinese culture, and the Shaka adopted Indian culture. They were eaten by the lands they conquered. They acquired great Middot (check out Kublai Khan’s beautiful alphabet), but they were no longer the same people. They were no longer grasshoppers.
Jews think this way as well – at least the Torah observant tend to. We may live in America or Europe or India but we don’t really belong there. Many of us also don’t send our children to college.
We are grasshoppers. We resist being anything else.
We take it so far that we actively resist what other people consider success.
I think this is why the evil report of the land is phrased the way it is. Just before, Yohoshua (Joshua) settled the people down. He has successfully reassured them that they can fight the natives of the land.
They accept that.
But then the other spies put another idea into the people’s heads.
This idea is that the land itself is the enemy. It is a perfect lose-lose situation. The people probably won’t be successful because they aren’t fighting the people but the land. They are reaching beyond their proper place. And even if they are successful, they will lose themselves.
Fundamentally, the people do not belong.
Why do the spies care so much? Why not let the people try? I think this reveals another reason the spies want to stop Yohoshua. They are heads of the people of Israel – in the desert. Their position, and their very self-definition, would change in the land. They are afraid of success because it would undermine who they are.
In recent weeks, I’ve written a few op-eds about the conflict with Gaza. I just tried my hand at writing one from a Palestinian perspective (I haven’t shared it). But the leaders in Hamas and Fatah are resistant to peace for this same reason. Their reality will change and their position would be compromised.
Lower down the food chain, I believe a related fear of success exists among the Palestinian population itself. Palestinians, as a people, were defined in opposition to Israel. There was no Palestinian nation before. It exists now, but it is defined by opposition to something else.
If you no longer have that opposition, what remains?
For the Jews in the desert, failure is about more than dying. It is about reaching beyond their place and being ridiculed because of it. Failure is shame.
While the people are building up their plan to replace Moshe, they say that it would have been better to have died in Egypt or in the desert. Died! Why? Because now they will go to the land and be killed by the sword and their women and dependents will be “Lavaz”. This word is translated many ways, from ‘carried away’ to ‘prey.’ But the root Buz means scorned or despised or shamed.
Their families will be shamed. Because they were grasshoppers, and they were not meant to be anything else.
This parallel fear of both success and failure shows up very early in the story of the spies. When the spies are listed, the mat’e (or tribe) of Yosef is mentioned. This is the only time there is a mat’e of Yosef in the Chumash. Yohoshua, despite being from the tribe of Ephraim (one of Yosef’s sons) is not connected to this mat’e Yosef.
I think Yosef is mentioned here because of what he represents. On the one hand, he was an outsider, a shepherd among the cosmopolitan Egyptians. He had to ask permission to leave the land to bury his father. He ruled over all of Egypt yet he was still a slave. He never quite belonged.
But Yosef was more than an outsider. He was also, almost, one of the Egyptians. His own brothers didn’t recognize he was a kinsman. He integrated. He almost lost who he really was. But also never quite made it. We can see it in his sons’ names. Menashe is named because: ‘God has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.’ Ephraim is named because: ‘God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’
Yosef both integrated and failed to integrate. He embodies failure and success all in one.
He never quite fit in and he fit in far too well.
This idea is reinforced the one other time the Torah comes close to the mat’e of Yosef. The mat’e of the ‘children of Yosef’ is mentioned later. This is in a reference only to Menashe; half of whom made themselves outsiders by living across the Jordan. They made themselves outsiders, reinforcing the concept that Yosef never quite belonged.
The idea of success and failure being embodied in the land comes up at the end of the story. After being told they cannot enter the land, the people ascend the mountain. Then, the people in the mountain attack them. The phrase “in the mountain” isn’t simply a linguistic prepositional switch. Lot fled and lived with his daughters “in the mountain” and the Torah says they lived in a cave. In a way, the people climbed the mountain and the mountain attacked them. The people eaten by the land attacked the Jewish people.
And where did they drive the people to? To Charama – from the same shoresh as Cherem.
They are chased to ostracism.
They suffered exactly the fate they feared.
They were reminded that they did not belong.
They were but grasshoppers.
Of course, that is not the end of the story.
Yohoshua, is from the tribe of Ephraim. Yosef gives him that name because: ‘God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’
And that is the key to unlocking the rest of the story.
Hashem’s response to all of this comes in two waves.
First, he promises to replace the people. He forgives, but He still replaces the people – one generation with the next. The slaves can’t escape the slave mentality. All the wonders in the world cannot change them. But He also fundamentally changes the paradigm.
וְיִמָּלֵא כְבוֹד-יְקוָק, אֶת-כָּל-הָאָרֶץ
“All the earth shall be filled with the glory of Hashem.”
At the beginning of Shemot, the land fills itself with the people. Again and again the land is seen as the actor. The Jewish people fear they do not belong in the land – and win or lose, they will be erased.
But here is a new paradigm. Hashem is the one filling. Hashem is the one in control of the land.
The land will not eat the people because in this paradigm, the land is just a tool filled with the glory of Hashem. The land has a proper place and it is in glorifying Hashem.
When Yohoshua is trying to stop the panic he says: “Do not rebel against the LORD, and do not fear the people of the land (Am Haaretz); for they are bread for us.”
The Am Haaretz literally means the land-people. Those consumed by the land can be consumed by the Jewish people. They are simply fuel for the children of Israel.
Ultimately, Hashem is in control.
But these are only hints of a response. They are phrases and warnings. Hashem’s true, long-term, reaction is in the laws that follow the story of the spies.
Prior to this parsha, the laws have been about civil/religious conflicts, about supporting the priestly classes and about living a Holy life. They aimed to direct the people, but they did not focus directly on the character of individuals.
They didn’t focus on middot.
Remember middot, or character traits, is what the spies saw in the people of the land.
The Jewish people lacked the middot of a settled people and they don’t seem to want them and if this continues, they will never be ready to inherit the land.
But Hashem’s paradigm is different.
The character these mitzvot build is not defined by a relationship with the land.
It is defined by a relationship with G-d that uses the land.
The first command given to the people applies only to their children. The people who will die in the desert are tasked with teaching their children a new reality.
What is this command? When they are in the land, they must bring supplements of grain, oil and wine with their offerings. Grain, oil and wine are the produce of a settled nation.
In essence, the people have to teach their children that they will have grain, wine and oil. They should internalize that reality. But these things should not be seen as an end unto themselves. Instead, they are but a tool in the service of glorifying Hashem.
This law specifically applies to every ezrach – every natural citizen. An ezrach is at the greatest risk of being an Am Haaretz – of being consumed by the land. This law lets the people know their children will be protected from this fate.
Again, the land is not there to dominate them, but to serve the relationship with G-d.
The second command – coming right on the tail of the command that seems to apply only to the natural-born citizen – is to treat the Ger (the convert) the same as the citizen. The lesson here is clear: we might think the natural born citizen is special, but belonging, in any human sense, is less important than the connection to Hashem.
The third command again applies upon entry to the land. It is to take Challah. We set aside some of our dough as a gift to Hashem when we make bread. Once again, the produce of the land is dedicated to the relationship with G-d. The Land is a tool. Only before, we remembered that with every offering. Now we remember it with every meal.
We then learn that Hashem will forgive us, so long as the sin is not high-handed. So long as we only commit errors, there is a way to repair the damage. In a way, Hashem is explaining the sentencing of the people to death in the desert. They did not simply err. In plotting to return to Egypt and stone Yohoshua, Moshe and Aaron, they actively acted against Hashem and so forgiveness is not available to them.
The land, whether it supports or despises them, isn’t even in the equation. It never has a chance to be.
Following immediately on the heels of this command is a case study.
A situation that further explains Hashem’s decision.
A man is found gathering sticks on Shabbat. This is an odd activity living in a desert where all your food is provided for. Yes, it is a breaking of Shabbat, but it doesn’t seem that bad. The people don’t know what to do so they lock this person up. It is Hashem Himself who commands that the man be executed. He commands the man be stoned – exactly as the people had planned to do to Yohoshua.
Is this sin so great?
The word for used here for gathering is ‘Kashash.’ It is used in only two contexts in Torah: here and when the Jewish people are made to gather straw for making bricks in Egypt. The man, on Shabbat, is doing the work of a slave in Egypt. It was pointless labor, he didn’t need sticks. Instead, he was symbolically demonstrating a desire to return to Egypt, slavery and all.
The word “dafkanik” would certainly apply.
This is very nearly the definition of a high hand.
Error can be atoned for, but intentional – and even creative – blasphemy cannot. The man serves as both an example and an explanation.
But the Torah potion doesn’t end here. No, it ends on one final remarkable note. The commandment of Tzitzit. It is this commandment that ties everything that came before together. No pun intended.
On one level, Tzittzit is simple. It has Tchelet – the color of the sky in which there is no death. This represents divine purity. We wear it. Our entire lives we are rarely more than a meter from clothing. So Tzittzit can serve as the most constant reminder of our connection to Hashem.
Going back a bit, the supplemental offerings only apply when we bring offerings. The Challah only applies when we eat. But the Tzitzit apply constantly.
The Tzitzit also recalls the Tzitz of the Kohen Gadol. The gold band across his forehead. The Torah says that this gold headband serves as a constant reminder that Aaron bears the Avon – the weight of sin – related to the Holies.
The Tzitzit serve as a reminder that we bear our sins. It is like a constant reintroduction to the fate of the people and the fate of the man who gathered sticks.
But it doesn’t stop there. After Korach’s rebellion (the very next parsha), Aaron’s staff blossoms and bears almonds. The word used for blossom is tzitz. What is a blossom? The blossom represents the future of the plant. It is the first step in carrying itself forward. Remembering that we are meant to be a people of divine purity is critical to our continuation. We teach it to our children.
But we can take this even further.
You see, if the Tzittzit are a blossom, then we are the tree.
We aren’t grasshoppers, belonging nowhere.
No, we are spiritual trees meant to be planted and to flower in the garden of the Lord.
In this context, the people’s concerns about success and failure no longer really apply.
On the one hand, failure will not undermine us because – so long as we bear spiritual fruit – we will not fail.
And what of success?
This command does not apply only when the people enter the land. It applies immediately.
With Tzitzit, there is no fundamental change upon entry to the land.
There is only continuation and growth.
We are like saplings being nurtured prior to planting. We do not change when we are placed in the soil the Lord has chosen for us – we simply flourish.
This connection between Tzitzit and the Jewish people as spiritual trees is woven into Chassidut. The upsharn – the cutting of hair at the age of three (which is also the age of Tzitzit) compares a Jewish child to a tree whose harvest can be gathered.
By redefining what really matters, it serves as the ultimate answer to the fear that we do not belong.
What of today?
Are we grasshoppers, having no home, or are we trees?
Do we fear both success and failure or are we firmly rooted and yielding our spiritual fruit?
The answer is unclear.
Many Jews feel far more comfortable as outsiders, as people who are meant to drift. As people able to take a moral high road because we are not tied down by the considerations of normal men. To invert a saying of Kahane – it is better to die than to be hated and live. This has been our identity for thousands of years. We fear failure in the land of Israel. But we fear success even more. We fear the decisions a people of the land must make and we fear our desire to hold the land will redefine us as a people.
We fear the land will remake us.
These fears are valid. We can’t allow our desire for the land to redefine our character. Nonetheless, we do not need to remain grasshoppers. We need to shift our axis – away from ourselves in respect to the land and towards ourselves in respect to Hashem.
Ultimately, the land is only there to sustain our relationship with Hashem. It is only a tool for us to glorify Hashem. So long as we dedicate its produce to that relationship, the land will not change us. It will not erase our past. Instead, it will serve and nourish us as we are.
It is through the land that we will finally blossom and bear the spiritual fruit of HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
Thank you for reading and Shabbat Shalom,