The ten spies concluded their frightening report about their impressions of Eretz Yisrael by describing the intimidating sight of the tall giants living there, and said, “We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so were we in their eyes” (13:33). The simple meaning of this verse is that the spies felt small, frail and helpless in the presence of the imposing giants of Eretz Yisrael, underscoring the point that they had little chance of conquering the land. There may, however, be a deeper meaning to this metaphor.
The “chagav” (generally translated as “grasshopper”) is a species of locust, a destructive insect that consumes produce. This is evidenced by the verse in Sefer Divrei Hayamim II (7:13) in which God describes unleashing a plague of locusts with the phrase, “atzaveh al chagav le-ekhol et ha-aretz” (“I command the ‘chagav’ to consume the land”). Indeed, the Gemara in Masekhet Sota (35a) comments that the spies knew that the Canaanites perceived them as “chagavim” because the Canaanites heard them bristling in the shrubs and remarked to one another that there were “kamtzi” – locusts – in the trees. On a deeper level, this might mean that the spies took note of the way the Canaanites spoke about Benei Yisrael. In the wake of the destruction brought upon Egypt at the time of the Exodus, the Canaanites saw Benei Yisrael as “locusts,” a large swarm of thieves who seek to use wanton force to plunder, rob and sow destruction. We find this perception some thirty-eight years later, when, after Benei Yisrael’s extraordinary conquest of the territory of Sichon and Og, Balak, who ruled over the neighboring kingdom of Moav, expressed his fear of Benei Yisrael, whom he described as “covering the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 22:5), a phrase used in Sefer Shemot (10:5,15) in reference to the locusts that destroyed the crops in Egypt. This is perhaps what the spies heard the Canaanites saying about Benei Yisrael. They felt not just small, but also morally insecure. They heard the people calling Benei Yisrael “locusts,” greedy and violent pillagers, and began wondering whether perhaps there was some truth to this charge. The scouts felt uncertain about both Benei Yisrael’s ability to capture the land, and also the justification for doing so. They were affected by the accusation that Benei Yisrael were like locusts, a foreign people plundering a land to which they had no rights or connection, and where they did not belong.
The Gemara there in Sota initially suggests that the scouts’ claim, “and so were we in their eyes” demonstrates that they were liars. They had no way of knowing what the people of Canaan thought about them, and thus their confident assertion that they were perceived as “grasshoppers” shows that they were not truthful. The Gemara then dismisses this contention, noting the tradition that the spies heard the Canaanites describe them as locusts. This discussion in the Gemara essentially highlights two different mistakes that we often make regarding our perception in the eyes of others: wrongly assuming that others think negatively of us, and wrongly assuming that other people’s negative characterization of us is correct. The Gemara initially asserted that the spies were guilty of the first, but ultimately concluded that they were guilty of the second. Regardless, the message conveyed is that we must avoid both natural tendencies. People do not always view us as negatively as we tend to think, and even when they do, their view is not necessarily correct. We must live according to our beliefs and convictions, and not pay inordinate attention to the jeers and baseless accusations made by the people around us.
(Based on an article by Rabbi Ori Einhorn)