Tonight, I want you to imagine that you are the Biblical figure of Shammua ben Zaccur. What, you never heard of him? Okay, so he’s not the most memorable of characters from our ancient stories. But Shammua ben Zaccur, of the tribe of Reuben, is the first of the twelve men selected by Moses to act as an advance party and scout out the Land of Canaan. As we begin this week’s Torah portion, Shammua ben Zaccur and eleven others – each a leader of one of the twelve tribes – are sent off by Moses, as the rest of the Israelites wait for their report on the east bank of the Jordan River.
“Shelach lecha!” – God tells Moses. Go ahead, send them off. Or, maybe, send for yourself, for your own peace of mind. I (God) already know what’s there. I already told you what’s there. But if you need to, fine, make your choices and send them out.
The fact that God may be insinuating a lack of trust or faith on the part of even Moses may give us a hint as to how the rest of this story will go. Joshua son of Nun from the tribe of Ephraim, and Caleb son of Yephunneh of the tribe of Judah, will both return with vivid descriptions of a beautiful land, flowing with milk and honey, verdant and productive and ready for the Israelites’ arrival.
Shammua ben Zaccur and nine other tribal leaders will come back with a slightly darker perspective. “The people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and large,” they report.
“All the people that we saw are men of great size. We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”
Well, that’s all it takes for the Israelites to fall into howling and weeping and lamenting their fate. “Why is God taking us that land to fall by the sword,” the people cry out. “How much better it would be if we go back to Egypt!”
An angered God chastises them, calling them “wicked” and threatening to strike them all down for their faithlessness. Only Moses’ plea on their behalf saves them from death.
This scene from our Torah portion is often used to explain why Joshua and Caleb inherit the mantle of leadership from Moses, and why we never hear from the likes of Shammua ben Zaccur again.
So tonight, I want you to image that you are the Biblical figure of Shammua ben Zaccur. What would you have said and done in his place?
Shammua, like the other nine tribal leaders with whom he agreed, is chosen by Moses for what is, for all they know, a suicide mission. They know nothing about the so-called Promised Land on the other side of the Jordan River. And what they see is only a small area on the west bank. “It does indeed flow with milk and honey,” they report back, as they share the fruit of the land with their fellow Israelites.
But…for them, the benefits of nature seem to be far outweighed by the challenge of humanity. Are they just supposed to show up — hundreds of thousands of men, women and children – and think they’ll be welcomed? Or that they can somehow displace the powerful peoples who already live there?
Sure, God gave them some successes on their trek through the nations to the east. But they know that God is setting them up to handle things for themselves when they cross that river.
For Shammua ben Zaccur, the future of his family, his clan, and his tribe are at stake. The same goes for all the rest of his band of brothers. Are they willing to risk their lives and their futures?
For some, the answer is simply: No. Shammua’s own people, the tribe of Reuben, vote to stay on the land to the east, which they already know is good for grazing their livestock. And the tribe of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh stay with them.
The men agree to cross over to the west and fight, if necessary, to help the other nine and a half tribes settle in. But their families and households stay behind, where they’ll be safe.
Here’s the thing about Shammua ben Zaccur. And Igal son of Joseph from the tribe of Issachar. And Palti son of Rafu from the tribe of Benjamin – and all the rest. They have spent their entire lives walking, day by day, into the unknown.
They’re tired. They’re perpetually afraid. They have known only isolation from anything that resembles normalcy. They are ready to settle down on their little plot of land, raise their children and earn their living — like the free human beings they are supposed to be.
Encountering the native peoples of Cana’an – their numbers, their wealth, their fortifications, even their physical size – is more than they can bear after forty exhausting years.
The Jewish tradition does not treat the ten spies kindly and never has. Nachmanides, writing in 13th-century Spain, says that, when Caleb and Joshua try to encourage the Israelites, the other ten start making stuff up – giants and grasshoppers – to keep the people in fear. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, in 19th Poland, teaches that, while the spies may have told the people exactly what they saw, that was not the whole truth. “Truth and faith go hand in hand,” he wrote. “They preferred their limited and deceptive vision to God’s promise, which is the absolute truth – and that was their great sin.”
I don’t think they sinned. I think they were just scared. And so of course they thought of themselves as grasshoppers compared to what they saw around them.
Fear and fatigue sometimes get the best of us – any of us. Tribal leaders who are supposed to be brave and strong, even after forty years on their feet isolated in the wilderness. And the rest of us, who are supposed to be able to handle life with aplomb, after fifteen months of isolation that have interrupted and permanently changed our daily routines, our relationships, and everything else in our lives.
Shelach, lecha! – we tell ourselves. Get out there! The mandates have been lifted. Shops and restaurants and ballparks are opening up. And Temple sanctuaries. Get out there! Start living again!
It’s what we want, right? What we’ve wanted all along.
And yet we pause. Fatigue, isolation, and all the rest have taken their toll. We want to be the people we thought we were – but we’ve kind of forgotten how. Our timing is off. Our memory is fuzzy. Even our driving skills are a little rusty.
The pandemic has made us feel a little bit small – like those grasshoppers, those little pesky insects that could easily be devoured or stepped on – intimidated by everything around them that is bigger and stronger and more powerful.
But there happens to be a lot about grasshoppers that our Israelite ancestors did not know.
Did you know that grasshoppers have been around for about 250 million years? Those big, strong dinosaurs have come and gone, but the grasshoppers are still here.
Did you know that grasshoppers are actually really strong for their size? They’re hind legs are so powerful that they can leap away from danger.
Did you know that grasshoppers protect themselves from predators with natural camouflage? That some can change not only their color but also their behavior? Did you know that they can protect each other by forming swarms and just decimating any plant life around them?
That actually happened just two years ago: a huge grasshopper invasion in Las Vegas. There were as many as 46 million of them on any given night, drawn by an abundance of vegetation due to unusually wet weather, and the bright neon lights of the Vegas Strip. Some experts say that’s not a once-in-a-lifetime event. The right natural conditions and the right human conditions could cause it again.
So let’s not sell ourselves short, like our ancestors did at the banks of the Jordan River so long ago. Beyond the individual strength we each possess, there’s also power in numbers. Whether it’s parents helping parents get their children through the end of this school year; or remote workers using new technology to the fullest to collaborate with their peers; or members of our congregational family checking up on each other and offering time and attention and an occasional homecooked meal – we grasshoppers can get a whole lot accomplished.
Are we afraid? Of course we are. We could sell ourselves short, like Shammua ben Zaccur and his mates did. Or we can acknowledge our fear and face it down, like Joshua and Caleb – overcoming tall obstacles and embracing life once again. Like the small but mighty grasshopper, we can prevail. And, like them, we will be most successful by doing it together.
Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.
©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Num. 14:6-8
 Num. 13:32-33
 Num. 14:2-3
 Num. 13:27
 Michael Carasik, The Commentators’ Bible: The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Numbers (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2011), p. 97.
 Torah Gems Volume III, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House Ltd., 1992), p. 64.