Parashat Shelach-L’cha Shabbat sermon at Stephen S Wise Temple
Some of you might remember the old 1970s television show, Kung Fu which aired from 1972-1975 on ABC. I remember it from re-runs.
The main character of the series, Kwai Chang Caine, is played by David Carradine. Kwai Chang is the orphaned son of an American man and a Chinese woman As a boy, he comes to study martial arts and wisdom at a Shaolin Temple. His master is blind.
“You cannot see,” the boy says when he meets the master for the first time.
“You think I cannot see,” says the master.
“Of all things,” says the boy, “to live in darkness must be the worst.”
“Fear,” says the master, “is the only darkness.”
Later in the scene, the master instructs the boy:
“Close your eyes – what do you hear?”
“I hear the water. I hear the birds.” – says the boy.
“Do you hear your own heartbeat?” asks the master.
“Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?”
The boy looks down and sees the grasshopper. He is amazed.
“Old man, how is it that you hear these things?” asks the boy.
“Young man,” says the master, “how is it that you do not?”
From then on, the master calls the boy “Grasshopper” as a term of affection.
This week’s Torah portion offers us several “grasshopper” lessons.
Here’s the context: God tells Moses to send scouts to spy out the land of Canaan, to see what the land is like, what types of agriculture it supports, what the people who inhabit it are like, are they strong or weak, are their cities fortified or not?
Twelve spies are sent out – one from each tribe.
Ten spies bring a negative report. Agriculturally speaking, they say, the land indeed flows with milk and honey. It’s a good land. However, the inhabitants are fierce, their cities are well-fortified, and there are even giants there.
Caleb, one of two spies who bring a more hopeful account of the land, tries to calm the people and tells them: “We should go up at once and possess the land for surely we are able to do so! We can do it”
עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ–כִּי-יָכוֹל נוּכַל, לָהּ.
But the spies retort: “We cannot win – לֹא נוּכַל. For they are stronger than we – כִּי-חָזָק הוּא, מִמֶּנּוּ.”
And then, after just praising the land for its bounty, they now spread lies about it, calling it a land devours its inhabitants – אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא.
And then, perhaps the most devastating part of all, the ten spies say that when they scouted out the land they came across the Nephilim, the “fallen ones”, the sons of Anak, the giant. “And in our own eyes, we were like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes as well –
וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים, וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם.
Three lessons of the grasshopper:
The first lesson I’ve already shared and it comes, ultimately, not from the Torah of the ABC series “Kung Fu” – but is actually based on the teachings of Lao-Tze, the great Chinese philosopher who taught approximately 2500 years ago. There are many kinds of darkness. The master may be blind but he can see many things that the student cannot. The spies who go out into the land “see” many things but what, ultimately, do they understand? Lesson number one, young grasshoppers: there are many ways of knowing, many ways of seeing, many ways of apprehending and sensing.
Lesson number two comes from the Midrash. Our Torah portion says: “In our own eyes, we were like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes as well!” – Says the Midrash: “I take no objection to your saying “In our own eyes, we were like grasshoppers,’ but I take offense when you say, ‘and so we were in their eyes as well!’ How do you know how I made you look to them? Perhaps you appeared to them as angels?”
אמרו: “וַנּהִי בְעֵינ֨ינוּ כּחֲגָב֔ים”. אמר הקב”ה: “ויתרתי עליהם.” אלא, “וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בּעֵינֵיהֶם.” יודעים הייתם מה עשיתי אתכם לעיניהם? מי יאמר שלא הייתם בעיניהם כמלאכים?
Here’s the lesson – we mustn’t allow our fears to paralyze us. It’s natural for the scouts to be afraid – they are a group of former slaves who must imagine what it would mean to conquer a land populated by other nations with armies and fortified cities and men of great stature. Sometimes we feel like grasshoppers, small and insignificant. But we mustn’t let our fears get the better of us. The spies are certain that the Canaanites see them as but grasshoppers. How could they know this? Maybe, as the Midrash suggests, the Canaanites saw them as angels? As holy men? Or, perhaps, as fierce and clever warriors. It’s OK to be afraid, young grasshoppers, but as the Midrash suggests fear is a type of darkness that must be managed.
Lesson number three comes from the great Hassidic master, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. He turns the Midrash on its head. The midrash asks how the spies could have known how they were seen to others. The Kotzker is upset that the spies should care how they looked to others. When the spies say, “and so we were in their eyes as well,” the Kotzker replies: “What’s with this?!?!? What do you care how you appear in the eyes of others.” (Itturey Torah, 5, p. 83)
They see you as grasshoppers, they see you as angels – what difference does it make? asks the Kotzker Rebbe. The important question is not how do others see us but WHO ARE WE? What kind of people are we? Are we good? Are we kind? Are we generous? If others see us as those things but we are not really those things, what have we accomplished? Will we have fooled God? Will we have fooled ourselves?
As Rabbi Steven Kushner puts it: “…their sin wasn’t simply that they lost faith or that the scouts had misrepresented what they had seen… Their failure wasn’t even that they had low self-esteem, that they saw themselves as grasshoppers. For this they could be forgiven. Rather it was their preoccupation with how others saw them that was their sin.”
Lesson number three, young grasshoppers: Worry less about how others see you and more about who you are and about who you are capable of becoming.
One last lesson that’s really about right now, this place and this moment: There is in this world much of which to be afraid. Escaped felons, dwindling water supplies, nuclear proliferation, rising antisemitism around the world and on college campuses, racism, this past month’s report that the number of homeless people in our city – right here in Los Angeles – went up 12% over the past two years– the list goes on and on.
But there is an even bigger list, a list so big that it makes this first list look puny and small like a little tiny grasshopper – it’s a list of the things in this world which give us hope and strength.
Our 3000+ year-old tradition of wisdom and learning
Our community right here and communities like it across the Jewish world
Our Jewish belief that better days are ahead of us, not behind us
These doctors, these nurses who brought healing with their hands and their hearts their intellect
Our tikvah – our hope – that our world can be perfected, that it will be perfected and that WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE in our world today, we can make things better, more just, more loving, more peaceful…
This list goes on and on and on and on.
And so, when we are afraid, let it be Caleb’s voice we hear when we close our eyes, telling us:
עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ–כִּי-יָכוֹל נוּכַל, לָהּ.
We can do it. We can be more. We can sense more. We can know more. We can love more. We can…