Great ironic grasshopper story in this week’s Torah reading! And with a choice of moral lessons, too!
Here’s how it appears in Parshat Shlach (Num 13:1-15:41).
Moses sends twelve scouts to tour the land of Canaan. When they return, they file their report before the people (Num 13:1—14:39).
“Look at this giant fruit that grows there!” the scouts say. “You need two people just to carry a cluster of grapes.”
“But,” they add, “the people who live there are gigantic. Next to them, we feel like grasshoppers. And that’s how we looked to them!”
One scout wants to go back to conquer the land. “We can do it!”
Ten scouts disagree. “The place will eat us.”
The Israelites wail and cry. They scream at Moses and Aaron for dragging them out of Egypt, and announce that they are going back. When Joshua tries to intervene, the mob picks up stones and prepares to attack.
So, God intervenes. The Divine presence appears to everyone. And God tells Moses that this generation is not fit to conquer the land. But, in forty years, their children and grandchildren will be ready.
So much irony here!
In ironic speech, a person uses words to mean their exact opposite.
Here, the scouts unwittingly use ironic speech when they say they look to the locals like tiny, weak grasshoppers. Because, it turns out, they don’t look like that at all! Quite the opposite, in fact!
Once the Israelites organize their army, locals see them as a powerful swarm of locusts. King Balak of Moab says, “They will lick up everything around us!” They will “hide the land from view” (Num 22:4-5), just as the plague of locusts in the Exodus story “hid the land from view” (Exod 10:15).
Those who receive the scouts’ report cannot imagine this possible future. They don’t see themselves as a fierce locust swarm. But, as they turn against Moses and Aaron, they act exactly like one.
Locusts swarm when desert droughts give way to spring floods. The Israelites, too, wander through desert droughts. Then, they hear about abundant harvests. So, they transmute into a mob, ready to swarm their leaders.
What a chilling story about human nature! We insist we are calm and peaceful. But, when we are upset, aggression overtakes us. And we get wild.
Or maybe it’s an inspiring story about human nature. In our own eyes, we seem small. But, together, we have tremendous power. And others know that well!
Which is it, grasshopper? You decide.