Parashat Shelach-Lecha – How we see ourselves
By: Rabbi Danny Burkeman
Whenever I look in the mirror, I’m always a little bit surprised at the face looking back at me. It’s not that I don’t know what I look like, it’s just that in my mind I think I still look the same way that I did when I was in my early twenties. In this way I’m always a little bit shocked at how little hair there really is on my head and how many lines have started to develop on my face. I don’t mind either of these things, but it’s not the way that I see myself in my imagination.
I approach life with my younger set of eyes, and therefore, sometimes it’s my body that can’t keep up with my expectations for what I should be able to do. We know that our self-image is important. When we’ve had a shave, when we’re wearing nice clothes, or when we’ve just had a haircut, we approach situations in a different way to when we’re feeling that bit out of sorts, not looking our best, or unwell.
In this week’s Torah portion, we see just how important self-image can be as we read the account of the spies sent to scout out the Promised Land. When the spies return, they say
בָּאנוּ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלַחְתָּנוּ וְגַם זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ הִוא
We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey
” (Num 13:27). But the ten spies then follow this with the information that:
כִּי־עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶֽעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד
he people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large
” (Num 13:28), sharing their view that there is no way to conquer it, especially not with Anakites (a giant-like people) and various other peoples settled there.
In the midst of this assessment, Caleb stands apart from the rest of the spies, and with confidence asserts:
עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּי־יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ
Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it
” (Num 13:30). Despite his assertions the spies return to their earlier claims that the people are stronger than we are, and they disheartened the Israelites, spreading fear amongst them.
In the crucial passage these ten spies say:
וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם
e looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them
” (Num 13:33).
We cannot know exactly how the Israelites looked to the residents of the land. But, what we do know is that because they saw themselves as grasshoppers, this self-image was therefore applied to the people whom they encountered. In viewing themselves in this way, there was absolutely no chance that the people were ready, or able, to conquer this land. And as such, it is unsurprising when a few verses later they are dealt a shattering blow by the Amalekites and Canaanites when they approached the hill country.
Our own self-image is the beginning of how we are seen, and perceived, by others. It is no accident, that in Judaism, the commandment of the golden rule
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ
ove your neighbor as yourself
” (Lev 19:18) begins with the instruction that we must love ourselves, because if we do not love ourselves it is impossible for us to love anyone else. In a similar way, because the spies, and by extension that generation of the wilderness, saw themselves as grasshoppers, there was no way that they could conceive of conquering the land, let alone actually achieve it. The way that we see ourselves, our self-image, can either elevate us or it can bring us down.
In the story of the spies, we see how dangerous it is when we have a low self-image, when we have low self-esteem, and what that can do, not just for the individual, but for a collective people. We have to find ways to be happy in our selves, to like the face looking back at us in the mirror, and therefore to have a self-image that exudes positivity. When we can do that we can find ways to reach towards and conquer our own personal promised land.
Rabbi Danny grew up in the British Jewish community, but found his way to America, where he is now a Rabbi at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York. He is currently a member of the inaugural cohort of the UJA Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders, a former member of the WUPJ Board, and a regular podcaster with his
Two Minutes of Torah podcast
now in its fourth year. He is married to Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, a Jewish educator, and is the very proud father of Gabriella.