As a young child attending day camp at the local JCC, I had a counsellor who used to spend hours entertaining us with her ability to catch grasshoppers mid-jump. She would scoop them up by two of their legs and hold them up, showing off their stomachs. Hands quick enough to catch the hoppers were certainly noteworthy, but what fascinated me even more was the long springboard-like bounce of the jumping grasshoppers whose ability to keep jumping would certainly have surpassed the commercial energizer bunny. And of course, growing up in Texas, the overwhelming number of grasshoppers made this a daily summer activity.
As I think about that experience and of the bit of thrill and fear (the latter being much easier to admit now than it was so many years ago), I remember thinking that the grasshoppers were so powerful, so much bigger because of their ability to leap into the air and reach heights that no other creature its size could do. And, I also remember the annoying sense that no matter what we did to try to get rid of them - there were often dozens - and sometimes even hundreds - of hoppers jumping in the yard and occasionally even in the house.
As I think of this today, I am reminded of a brief exchange from It's a Bug's Life, the Disney blockbuster movie in which a misfit ant, looking for warriors to save his colony from grasshoppers, recruits a group of bugs that turn out to be an inept circus troupe. In an exchange between two of the characters, Hopper says to Molt: "It's a bug-eat-bug world out there, princess. One of those Circle of Life kind of things. This is the way things are supposed to work: The sun grows the food, the ants pick the food, the grasshoppers eat the food ..."
Mort then responds: "And the birds eat the grasshoppers. Like the time that bird who almost ate you, remember?"
So, why is all this on my mind this week?
In this week's Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, Moses sends twelve spies to scout out the land of Israel in advance of the rest of the people's arrival. After exploring for forty days, they returned with epic reports of a land filled with people of great fertility and size, a land abundant in the fruit, indicating that the inhabitants of the land were powerful and invincible. There is but one conclusion, they inferred. One must be a giant in order to live in the Holy Land. We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes, they reported and there is no place for us, little grasshoppers, in a land that demands stature and nobility. Better that we stay in the wilderness living our quiet, secure lives as small grasshoppers than ever aspire to reach greater physical or moral heights.
In other words - "We saw ourselves as being nothing ... and that is how they perceived us." It is human nature to fear the unknown, yet the report of the spies contains a very simple yet powerful psychological insight.
Our self-image and self-confidence - or lack of - does affect the way others perceive us and we are influenced by what others perceive us to be. If we exude confidence, others perceive us a 'somebody', a force to be reckoned with. If we see ourselves as tiny and insignificant, as mere grasshoppers, can we blame another person for seeing us the same way? The ten spies had no real way of knowing the inhabitants of land or what those inhabitants may have thought. In fact, in looking elsewhere in the Torah, it seems that there were other peoples who, in fact, feared the Israelites (see Numbers 22 and Joshua 2 for two examples). Yet, because they saw themselves as weak they assumed that others would see them in the same light.
I don't think that the spies were bad; nor do I believe that their report was a 'sin'. Rather, I think it was truth - as they saw it in that moment. It was the self-truth and self-perception that they lived with about themselves and about our people. As the Spanish commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, reminds us as great as the spies may have been, the years in slavery took their toll on all the people's self- esteem. With that in mind, it is not so surprising that they did not have the confidence and self-perception that allowed them to see their own greatness.
The real lesson, then, is in the second half of the psychological insight - each of us is influenced and, when offered correctly, can be strengthened by what others see in us. There is a remarkable power we have to help others re-discover truth, to help them turn insecurity into self-confidence. In the end, no one can change how a person sees him or herself except that person. But, knowing that people are indeed influenced by how others see them, positive reinforcement, love, acceptance, and pointing out the gifts a person brings to the world can all be powerful conduits to reshaping a person's self-perception, in turning grasshoppers into giants. As the prophet Samuel reminded King Saul of this when he told him: "Do you perceive yourself as small, you are the head of the tribes of Israel!" (Samuel I 15:17)
So, as we go into Shabbat, I pray that each of us can see the grasshopper within us (and within others) grow to be a giant, watching in fascination as we spring to greater heights and that like Hopper we will see the grasshopper eat from the land.