Torah: Insect vs. giant – The key is confidence

Shelach Lecha

Numbers 13:1–15:41

Joshua 2:1–24

At the start of this week’s portion, God tells Moses, “Shelach lecha,” to send out representatives from each of the 12 tribes to scout out the land of Canaan, the land promised to the nascent Israelite nation.

The scouts complete their mission but return with a pessimistic report. They are terrified, relaying that the people of the land are much too powerful to overcome, adding that they are men of large stature, like giants. They continue, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33).

Only two of the 12 spies, Joshua and Caleb, return from this mission confident that they will be able to take over the land.

But returning to the minyan of frightened tribal heads, how could they have known what they looked like to these locals? The medieval commentator Rashi imagines that the way we know they looked so miniscule is that the spies overheard the locals saying, “There are ants in the vineyards which look like men.”

But in truth there is no way they could have known how someone else perceived them. Their admission that they looked like grasshoppers in their own eyes gives us a hint that they did not quiver because they were actually dwarfed by the people there. Rather, their fear stemmed from the feeling that they were small. They lacked confidence, the way we sometimes feel physically small when faced with a task we feel is out of our reach. The task is just that — a task. It is we who transform it into a giant.

Sometimes we feel like grasshoppers.

Our entire Jewish narrative relies on the trope that we are always the little guy defeating the giant against all odds. In truth, we all face moments in our lives when we feel like grasshoppers. The giant could be a real foe, but more often than not, it is a hurdle we don’t think we can overcome, a challenge we don’t think we’re up to facing, or a loss we worry we cannot survive. Sometimes we feel dwarfed when we walk into a room with people we perceive to be more important than ourselves. In our own eyes we become grasshoppers. How do we muster the courage to face our giants?

One key lies with one of the two spies who come back with a positive report. Before they go on their mission, Moses changes Hoshea’s name. Moses adds a yud to his name to stand for God’s name, and he becomes Yehoshua, or Joshua.

Moses believes in Joshua, and the show of confidence may have been just what this young tribal leader needed. Rather than seeing giants towering over him in this new land, he feels assured that he and the rest of the Israelites can meet any challenge. Joshua does not appear to himself like a grasshopper in the shadow of a giant.

It could be argued that God is his reassurance instead of Moses, since his new name is a reminder that God is with him. But it is significant that, unlike in Genesis where God renames Abram and Sarai, here in Numbers it is a person renaming another person: Moses renaming Joshua. Moses acts as a mentor to Joshua, seeing in him great potential. In fact, a few chapters later (Numbers 27), Moses will have Joshua stand before the entire community and will lay his hands upon him, commissioning him as the next leader of the Israelite nation. Moses invests him with his authority. He has opened up Joshua’s capacity for leadership.

If you are facing a challenge, close your eyes, and imagine someone standing behind you who has been there for you in the past. Who has transformed you from a grasshopper to a giant in your own eyes? A mentor, a parent, or if no one has been there for you, imagine one of your heroes or an ancestor, even Moses. Think about how that person’s confidence in you feels. Imagine that person placing a hand on your shoulder and telling you that he or she will walk with you through this challenge.

Open your eyes. If the people you imagine are living, tell them what their confidence in you has meant. Tell them they helped transform a grasshopper into a giant.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland
is a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. She can be reached at [email protected]

Rabbi Mychal Copeland

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is spiritual leader at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and author of "Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives."