“We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes!” (Bamidbar 13:33)
Rashi teaches us that the Meraglim overheard the giant Nefilim saying to each other, “There are ants in the vineyards [which have the appearance of] men.”
If they heard the locals comparing them to ants, why did the Meraglim choose to speak about grasshoppers in their report to Bnei Yisrael?
The Mizrachi quotes a version of Rashi that says “grasshoppers,” but most other versions, including the one commonly found in Chumashim today, all state “ants.”
(The source for the Rashi is a Gemara [Sotah 35a] which uses the term kamtzei, which can mean either ants or grasshoppers, although most meforshim translate it as ants.)
Harav Yisrael Isserlin, zt”l, the author of Trumas Hadeshen, quotes Moreinu Harav Aharon Hakadosh:
“Everything that grew in Eretz Yisrael at that time, as well as the creatures that crawled on the ground, were considerably larger than their counterparts outside Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, an ant in Eretz Yisrael was actually as large as a grasshopper elsewhere. The Meraglim spoke of grasshoppers since that was the equivalent of the ants mentioned by the giants.”
The Alshich explains that the Meraglim, while fully recognizing the enormous difference in size between themselves and the giants, still took into consideration that they knew themselves to be regular-sized humans and compared themselves to grasshoppers. The giants saw them only as tiny little creatures, and referred to them as ants.
The Chasam Sofer says that a person generally inflates his true worth in his own eyes, while others think even less of him than he really is. The Meraglim heard themselves being compared to ants, yet in their own eyes they considered themselves quite human. Reasoning that the truth was somewhere in the middle, they “compromised” by comparing themselves to grasshoppers.
The Kedushas Levi homiletically explains Rashi according to the Midrash that states that the giant Talmi told them, “Why do you wish to conquer the land? The entire world belongs to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and He gave it to us. Therefore, it would be robbery for you to take it!”
The Gemara (Eruvin 100b) teaches us that if Hashem had not given us the Torah, we would have learned the prohibition against robbery from the ant. The giants assured each other that the people in the vineyards were as distant from robbery as ants, and therefore would not conquer Eretz Yisrael. However, the Ribbono shel Olam clearly intended to give Eretz Yisrael to Bnei Yisrael, and therefore the transfer was of course not considered “stealing.”
Harav Dovid, the Kotzker Rebbe, zy”a, says that the sin of the Meraglim lay in the words “We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes.” This concern about how they are being perceived by others was the grievous fault of the Meraglim.
It is told that Hagaon Harav Yisrael Salanter, zt”l, founded the mussar movement in response to a specific incident. A shoemaker somehow managed to acquire great wealth, and as a result of his new status in the community he was able to marry his child to the child of his town’s Rav.
At the wedding, one fiercely jealous individual walked over to the former shoemaker with a pair of shoes and asked him if he could repair them. The shoemaker fainted away from embarrassment.
Harav Nota Zehnwirth, zt”l, is said to have commented that very few individuals would behave as viciously as that jealous troublemaker. It is unlikely that Harav Yisrael Salanter would be motivated to start a mussar movement to convince such people not to carry out their nefarious deeds. Rather, it was the reaction of the former shoemaker that so inspired Harav Yisrael Salanter. Here he was, at the pinnacle of success: not only had he gone from his simple background to great wealth, but he had even become a mechutan of the Rav. Yet a nasty comment and a pair of shoes sufficed to make him faint dead away. It was to train the coming generations not to react that way that Harav Yisrael established the mussar movement.
The Gemara (Taanis 22a) relates that the Amora Rabi Beroka of Bei Chozai met Eliyahu Hanavi in the marketplace of Bei Lefet and asked him if anyone in the marketplace was destined for the World to Come. Eliyahu Hanavi identified three individuals who merited this lofty distinction. Two of them were badchanim, who would cheer up those who were depressed.
Harav Noach, the Rebbe of Lechovitch, zt”l, once spoke about what these two badchanim symbolized.
“The whole world laughed at them, and they laughed at the whole world,” the Rebbe said.
May the Ribbono shel Olam give us the wisdom to know when to ignore what others say and think, and the courage to do so.