Upon returning to the Israelite camp after their forty-day sojourn in Canaan, ten of the twelve scouts reported on the frightening size and military strength of the Canaanite people, concluding, “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and this is how we were in their eyes” (13:33).
The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (35a) suggests proving from this remark that the scouts spoke untruthfully. Even if they justifiably felt like “grasshoppers” in relation to the giants they saw in Canaan, the Gemara reasons, they could not possibly have known how they were viewed by the Canaanites. The confident assertion that “this is how we were in their eyes” thus seemingly proves that the scouts were dishonest, presenting their speculations as verified facts. But the Gemara then refutes this proof, claiming that in truth, the scouts had good reason to believe that they were viewed as “grasshoppers” by the Canaanites. During the scouts’ sojourn, the Gemara tells, God brought a plague that killed large numbers of Canaanites, so that the natives would be preoccupied with funerals and thus not pay attention to the strangers traveling through the country. At one point, some Canaanites came to eat their meal after a funeral, and the scouts quickly climbed up trees to hide from their view. The Canaanites heard the rustling, and remarked to one another how they hear the sound of grasshoppers coming from the trees. Thus, technically speaking, the scouts did not lie, since the Canaanites did, in fact, refer to them as “grasshoppers.”
It emerges from the Gemara’s discussion that although the scouts did not technically lie, they were nevertheless incorrect. The Canaanites did not actually regard the scouts as “grasshoppers.” Rather, they mistook them for grasshoppers because they were preoccupied with their personal grief and did not care to investigate the source of the noises they heard. Their reference to the scouts as “grasshoppers” stemmed from a misunderstanding, which was itself a product of lack of knowledge.
Symbolically, the Gemara’s discussion perhaps provides instruction for dealing with other people’s insults and denigrating remarks about us. Very often, this results from a simple lack of knowledge. Few people truly know who we really are. They, like the Canaanites observed by the scouts, are too preoccupied with their own affairs to pay close attention to our true essence. As such, we needn’t pay much attention to their scorn and insults. Even when people treat and speak of us as “grasshoppers,” this is likely because they do not, and will not, truly understand us. While in some instances there will be some validity to negative comments made about us, many other times they are the result of misinformation and are not worthy of our attention.
The Kotzker Rebbe famously remarked that the crux of the scouts’ sin lay in this verse. It is when we pay too much attention to what others think and say about us that we lose our moral fortitude and confidence to do what we know is right. The Gemara’s account reminds us that as long as we are honest and objective in our self-assessment, nobody knows us better than ourselves, and therefore, only we have the final word on who and what we are and what we are capable of.