Shelach Lecha

By Dr Diana Lipton, June 20, 2008

“And we looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes”
Numbers 13: 33

This week’s parashah contains what may be the Bible’s only example of meta-empathy. The spies sent to scout out the land of Canaan do not merely put themselves into their enemies’ shoes and consider how the world must have looked from their perspective (empathy), but they imagine how they themselves must have appeared to their enemies (meta-empathy): “And we looked like grasshoppers in their eyes.”  

This act of imagination concludes a report designed to discourage military action: the land devours its settlers, the people are very large, and there are giants there. In that context, empathy in all its forms is problematic; the conquest of the land was the next stage of God’s plan for Israel, and the spies were jeopardising the operation. Yet the grasshopper analogy reveals a crucial attribute of the spies, and by extension Israel — their humanity. 

The phenomenon of dehumanising the enemy is well-known. Soldiers and civilians alike are encouraged to conceive their enemies as animals as a way of minimising any qualms they might have about killing them. The spies do the very opposite of this. First, they actively identify with their enemies by standing in their shoes and imagining how the world looked from their point of view (“and so we were in their eyes”). 

Second, far from diminishing the value of their enemies’ lives by characterising them as dogs or vermin, they describe themselves as mere insects in relation to their enemies (“and we looked like grasshoppers”). Is this a very early example of awareness that killing must remain complex in a humane society, even at times of war, and even when following a divine imperative? And is it coincidental that the most powerful recent example I can recall — the brilliant Israeli writer Haim Sabato’s novel about the Yom Kippur war — has an English title that involves a remarkably similar visual play, Adjusting Sights?

Last updated: 1:38pm, June 20 2008