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When Perception Becomes Reality

Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )

by Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy

How does one assess oneself? Do we look at ourselves in the mirror or try project an appraisal through the eyes of another? The answer to this question may be found in parashat Shelach’s episode of the scouts.

The scouts were ‘all distinguished men; heads of the children of Israel were they’ (Num. 13:3) – the most honourable of leaders – and thus the obvious question is where did they go wrong in speaking badly about the land? Perhaps their error was that they speculated as to how others observed them rather than carrying on with their reconnaissance mission. This is apparent in a strange verse when the scouts describe the great size of the Canaanites and say, ‘we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes!’ (13:33) Their insecurity lay in and was revealed through their imagined self-assessment via the eyes of the Canaanites. Since they saw themselves as but puny insects, much smaller and weaker than the inhabitants of Canaan, they presumed that the locals perceived them as such, and they allowed this perception to transform their reality. Perhaps this was the source of their negative review of the land as their specific timidity clouded their general judgement.

When beginning any venture, the psyche in which one approaches the task, can frame its execution. When one is competing in a sport for example, a team will have lost the game from the outset if it does not believe it can beat the opposition, because its self-esteem defines its attitude and direction. The same was true of the scouts whereby they had convinced themselves that they were incapable from the beginning. Many explain this fear as a lack of faith in God but as a corollary or at its source, it may have showed a lack of self-esteem, that is a lack of faith in themselves. From this vantage point the scouts doubt themselves with regard to the people, ‘we cannot ascend to that people for it is too strong for us!’ (13:31) and mistake God’s promised ‘land of milk and honey’ (13:27) for ‘a land that devours its inhabitants’ (13:32). Thus, the Torah’s peculiar wording is simply a cause and effect, that is, it was because they saw themselves as worthless, (‘we were like grasshoppers in our eyes’) that they became worthless in their eyes (‘and so we were in theirs’).

Later in the Book of Numbers Moshe declares, ‘you shall appear clean before Hashem and the Israelites’ (32:22). The Talmud learns from this that one should not only have a clear conscience but also act in a way that does not elicit suspicion from the general observer (Yoma 38a). However, if one only worries about the way in which one presumes others perceive one, whether from a positive or negative level of self-esteem, one is being dishonest. As a generation whose parents and grandparents only knew slavery and were constantly assessed by their slave masters, psychologically it makes sense that they were unfit to enter into the Land of Israel as is evident by their psyche. This generation therefore had to die out entirely before their descendants could become the masters of their own destiny. When one tries to guess what others think of him and acts based on that, they become slaves to an unfortunate fate, but when one allows themself to master their own course, they are able to forge their own destiny.

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