Gleaned from the Sfas Emes

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Parshas Sh’lach

Giants or Grasshoppers

The spies who were sent to report on the Land fail in their mission. They speak slanderously, saying, "And there we saw the Nephilim (giants). And we saw ourselves as grasshoppers. And so we were, in their eyes. " (13:33)

Various explanations are offered as to how the spies knew that the giants perceived them as insects, and how they knew that " we were, in their eyes." Rashi comments that the spies overheard the giants saying, "There are ants in the vineyards."The Yalkut Shimoni implies that the spies assumed that the giants saw them as insects. The Yalkut writes: "(The fact that the spies said) ‘And we saw ourselves as grasshoppers’ - G-d forgave. But (the fact that they said) ‘And so we were, in their eyes’, G-d charges ‘Maybe they viewed them (the spies) as angels?’" (Sh'lach, 13). That is, the spies' sin was a lack of trust in G-d, as shown by their assumption that such giants must see them as insects.

These two comments appear contradictory. However, with our following analysis of the evil inclination, we see that these two commentaries are in fact, complementary.

A basic requirement for improvement is training against a worthy opponent. A chess player develops when playing against his equal, not when pitted against an opponent of lesser skill. A boxer needs a good sparring partner in order to keep in shape. And even the best-trained army is disadvantaged before it has become battle-proven.

The same is true of character building. Those who have never been faced with life's trials will have less strength of character than those who have successfully dealt with difficult situationsIndeed, it is for this reason that G-d created the evil inclination - as an opposing force to be overcome (see our comment on parshas B’chukosai). Its holy mission is to be the catalyst for our advancement.

Understanding the evil inclination (and difficult and trying situations) in this light, leads us to the following two conclusions: First, as we overcome and grow, so must our evil inclination grow. For if it were to remain stagnant, so would we. (Thus we understand "kol hagodol m’chavero, yitzro godol hamanu" - "The greater the person, the greater his evil inclination" - Succa 52a.) Second, because the mission of the evil inclination is not to win, but to lose, therefore we will always only be tested with what we are able to overcome.

Returning to our parsha, we now understand that the giants of the Land only reflected the gigantic spiritual stature of the spies, themselves. They were so awesome only because the high spiritual level of the spies required being challenged by such opponents. Had the spies maintained their trust in G-d, they surely would have been victorious, and grown to even higher spiritual levels. But (except for Yehoshua and Calev) they faltered and momentarily lost faith in G-d, and saw themselves as being inferior to their opponents. At that moment, they shrank in spiritual stature and became small as insects.

Accordingly, the Yalkut Shimoni and Rashi agree. The Yalkut says that their sin was the momentary slip in their trust of G-d, their assumption that they were inferior like insects. Rashi adds that after they faltered, after they saw themselves inferior to evil forces, they indeed became inferior. And it was then that they heard the giants speaking of them as insects.

This theme is clear from the verse itself. The verse first records the spies saying, "And we saw ourselves as grasshoppers". Then the verse records their saying, "And so we were, in their eyes." Because they felt inferior, they indeed became so. (Sfas Emes, Sh’lach 5640)


In spite of the above theme that evil is a catalyst for our spiritual growth, it must be made clear that it is a grave mistake to willingly enter a situation which might present us with temptation - even if we are positive of our own strength, and even for the purpose of spiritual advancement. Our sole concern must be not our own spiritual growth, but avoidance, as much as possible, of any situation which may cause a transgression of G-d's Will. On the other hand, if we are unavoidably confronted with a trying situation, we should not falter in our trust. Trials, tribulations and temptations should be seen for what they are: reflections of our own strength and opportunities to overcome, conquer and grow

About hard and difficult times, Rav Chaim Zanzer, zt"l, would often use the following parable: "We often think that there is someone behind us, pushing a knife into our backs. But if we would look, we would find our best friend, giving us a loving shoulder pat."

“Gleaned From the Sfas Emes” - excerpts adapted from a soon to published book, G-d Willing, by Simcha Leib Grossbard.Rabbi Grossbard is author of “The Sfas Emes Haggadah” (Targum Press) and “Kasheleg Yalbinu”, a two volume (Hebrew) work based on Sfas Emes.

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