June 17, 2017
When we read this week of the spies who returned from scouting the land of Canaan and spread negative reports, one of the remarkable things is that most of their report was an accurate representation. They spoke of the remarkable productivity of the land, and the powerful peoples who lived there. So what was so terrible about what they did? They were sent to scout the land and bring back a report, and that is exactly what they did. Where they erred is in their assessment that, “we cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” It was true the land was filled with large, strong people in fortified cities, but the spies inferred incorrectly that this meant the Israelites were doomed to lose a conflict with them. The spies continued, describing the gigantic size of the inhabitants of the land. They said, “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so must we have looked to them.” Here again, they report accurately that they felt like tiny grasshoppers compared to the large inhabitants of the land, but they erred in assuming that the inhabitants of the land saw the spies way the spies saw themselves. They were projecting their own insecurities onto the inhabitants of the land, saying, “since we felt tiny and vulnerable, they must have seen us as tiny and vulnerable.”
This error, I think is the root of the whole trouble, which culminated in the Israelites’ refusal to enter the land, and resulted in that entire generation dying in the wilderness. They let their own fear and insecurity cloud their perceptions, assuming that others saw them the way they saw themselves. I think we are all occasionally ensnared by this way of thinking—if we feel like we’re unlovable, we perceive our loved ones behavior as evidence that they do not love us enough. If we feel guilty, we perceive accusations and recriminations where there are none intended. If someone’s actions or words hurt my feelings, I will assume their intent was to hurt.
And yet, our subjective feelings are a very poor guide to other people’s subjective perceptions. Just because I feel hurt by you, doesn’t mean you wanted to hurt me. Just because I feel inferior, doesn’t mean that I am. Just because I am afraid, that doesn’t mean I’m in danger. As individuals, when we can learn to experience own our feelings without letting them cloud our judgment about what is really going on, we will be able to cultivate healthier relationships and live up to our potential in a way that the generation of the wilderness was tragically unable to do.
Rabbi Garth Silberstein