“And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” (Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are)
And ten of the spies sent by Moses to scout the land report: “The land that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the giants and the children of giants, and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:32-33)
Max, the hero of Sendak’s book, overcomes his fears, and in particular his anger, by imagining that he is their ruler, that he is their master. Imagination is a powerful tool. Within it we discover the secret of our success. Within it are the sparks of creativity. This is exactly the wisdom of Judaism’s insights about the yetzer hara, often translated as the evil inclination. Within this we discover, for example, desire and drive. These traits can lead us toward passion, commitment and love, or lust. They can move us toward invention and achievement on the one hand, or jealousy and vengeance on the other. The creative spirit hovers between these extremes.
We learn as well that imagination can conspire against us, creating fear in our hearts. That is part of the lesson of Maurice Sendak’s brilliant book. The line between fear and hope is thin. It is also the lesson of this week’s portion. It is hard to believe that there were in fact giants who ruled the land of Israel. The evidence of this truth are the Torah’s words: we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves. Faith is about how we perceive ourselves. Ten of the spies lacked faith in their assigned task and in their ability to achieve their destined goal. This is why the people are condemned to wander for forty years before returning to this crossroad once again.
Only Joshua and Caleb believed that the people would succeed. They scouted the same land and saw the same sights and yet they returned with a message of hope. Curiously the details of their report are not found in the Torah. We only read: “Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, ‘Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.’” (Numbers 13: 30) Perhaps they, like Max, mastered their emotions, summoned their faith and overcame their fears. Perhaps the men of the land were indeed giants, but Joshua and Caleb nonetheless did not see themselves as grasshoppers.
Although Hebrew offers the term emunah for faith, the tradition more often uses yirah and in particular yirat hashamayim. This phrase can be translated as fear of heaven or as I prefer, awe. Yet the lesson remains. Fear and awe are near to one another. Faith is a matter of how we regard heaven, of what we believe our relationship is to God, of how we imagine ourselves in regard to the Almighty.
It is true God is a giant by comparison. And yet this does not mean we must see ourselves as puny grasshoppers.
Fear, and faith, are a matter of how we see ourselves.