We Were Like Grasshoppers To Ourselves
After forty days of waiting, wondering what the future might hold, the scouts finally returned to the Israelites camped in the wilderness of Paran. Moses had sent twelve scouts to survey the land of Canaan, not too much further from their camp, to determine what lay ahead and whether or not it was, in fact, a “Promised Land.” At first, their report seemed to indicate a land of true promise and possibility: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit,” at which point they displayed a cluster of enormous grapes they had collected, so big it had to be carried on a frame by two men. But then, their report takes an abrupt turn: “However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large...” (Num. 13:27-29).
Despite the bleak report coming from ten of the spies, Caleb and Joshua try to encourage the Israelites that the task ahead of them is not impossible. Caleb says to them, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, ki yachol nuchal lah, for we shall surely overcome it” (Num. 13:30). But still the other ten scouts persist in their pessimism - they insist that the inhabitants of the land are stronger, giants even, that the country they scouted “devours its settlers,” and finally, that “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Num. 13:31-33). With that, the entire community erupts into protest. They cry out that they would have rather died in Egypt than in the middle of the wilderness, they even implore Moses to bring them back to Egypt.
Still, Joshua and Caleb persist in their assertion that the land is good and plentiful, that God is with them and will surely protect them as they make their way into Canaan. That it is indeed still a land full of promise. They don’t dispute that things might be challenging, but they are optimistic; hopeful and faithful, both in the abilities of their fellow Israelites and in their relationship with God.
But the damage was already done. The Israelites, compelled by the report of the ten scouts, lost hope in forging a path forward -- we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. How can they continue when they perceive themselves as so miniscule and insignificant that they are like bugs; when they lack any sense of self-worth?
Rabbi Kenneth Weiss, of blessed memory, in writing about Parashat Sh’lach L’cha, which we read this week, explains, “How we see ourselves determines how we see others. If I am a grasshopper to myself, then others will appear as giants to me. Too often,” says Rabbi Weiss, “we encounter people who exhibit the ‘grasshopper syndrome’ -- a sense of low self-esteem and an [accompanying] belief in ‘the other’s’ exaggerated size and influence.” There are moments in all of our lives when we may have felt like grasshoppers to ourselves, felt less-than, or under-appreciated, perhaps we’ve even doubted our own self-worth. Rabbi Barton Lee explains it this way:
When people view themselves as grasshoppers, they become passive, resigned to their lot. Without a grander vision of themselves, they cannot muster the energy to change the social evils in which they are mired...Struggles for freedom and justice, for improvement of society, and for national greatness are difficult. They cannot be won by people who view themselves as grasshoppers.
We are like grasshoppers to ourselves when we tell ourselves that we are incapable or unqualified or insufficient.
We are like grasshoppers to ourselves when we live in fear of setting out on our own, going after a new job, or pursuing a new opportunity.
We are like grasshoppers to ourselves when we hesitate to tell someone that we love them (or maybe no longer love them), out of fear for what might happen once we have spoken our truth.
We are like grasshoppers when we repeat a narrative to ourselves that we are not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough, not whatever enough. This week, as we mourn the tragic suicide of designer Kate Spade, who lost her battle with depression, we are more acutely aware of the dangers of low self-esteem and a loss of self-worth, and the darkness and loneliness they bring. Statistically speaking, there are at least 6 people here tonight who have suffered or are currently suffering from depression. Which, though striking, also means that you are not alone.
Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explains that recent research has found that there is a direct correlation between low self-esteem and depression, called the “vulnerability effect,” in which the lower your self-esteem, the more vulnerable you are to suffering from depression. She explains this correlation using the example of a cancelled date:
Someone cancels a date with you, and [if you have low-self esteem,] you conclude that they did so because they don’t want to be with you. Your low self-esteem causes you to twist your interpretation of this event in such a way as to confirm your already unfavorable sense of self. A non-depressive interpretation of this event would take into account the many possible reasons that people cancel dates with other people (i.e. they’re busy or something unexpected came up). A non-depressed person would accept the cancellation and go ahead to make another date. A depressed person, in contrast, would figure that the relationship is over and not even try to reschedule, or even refuse to talk to that individual again.
Whitbourne offers three tools for dealing with low self-esteem. First, she says, “Don’t try too hard to boost your self-esteem. Focusing on why you feel bad about yourself may actually make you feel worse.” Second, she suggests that we should “Avoid social comparisons. Although downward social comparison, in which you see yourself as better off than someone else, may work for a while, it also opens you up to situations in which you find others who are doing much better than you are.” And finally, Whitbourne asserts the importance of, “Tak[ing] the long view. You may have messed up at the moment or be going through a slump. You don’t have to feel this way forever. Although low self-esteem was shown here to be a cause of depression, people can change in their self-esteem over time if they take a more positive view of their experiences.” Indeed, at Beth Am, the clergy are always here to lend a friendly ear. We have our Tikvah Peer Support program for those experiencing difficulty in their lives, and throughout our campus (including in our restrooms), we have posted the hotline numbers for local and national crisis resources, including the Suicide Prevention Hotline, (650) 494-8420. (We also have a wonderful support group for individuals with mental health challenges and their families called Beit R'fuah.)
Returning to the the Israelites, this grasshopper mentality rendered that generation unfit to settle the Promised Land. As punishment, or perhaps in recognizing that they were so accustomed to the mindset of slavery that they could not fully embrace the possibility of freedom, God decrees that no one from that generation, with the exceptions of Caleb and Joshua, the only two who sought a path of optimism, would enter the Promised Land.
We must refuse to let ourselves or those in our lives whom we care about get lost in seeing ourselves as grasshoppers, as less-than. We have to remind us and them of our self-worth, the gifts we bring, the invaluable contributions we make to our communities, that, as Martin Buber once said,
Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique. It is the duty of every person in Israel to know and consider that he [or she] is unique in the world in his [or her] particular character and that there has never been anyone like him [or her] in the world, for if there had been someone like him, there would be no need for him to be in the world. Every single person is a new thing in the world and is called upon to fulfill his individuality in the world.
We are each unique and precious. And despite moments - or sustained periods - of feeling like we may be small and insignificant, or powerless to change our circumstances, we must heed the words of Caleb, ki yachol nuchal lah, for we shall surely overcome it. Caleb’s charge is stated in the first-person plural - we shall surely overcome it. This is a reminder that the bigger challenges in our lives require that we seek help and support to make it through. When we become frustrated by the challenges in our lives, we can repeat this phrase to ourselves - ki yachol nuchal lah, for we shall surely overcome it, together.