THE SELF-ESTEEM OF THE SPIES
Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski has published over sixty books. When someone once asked him how he could possibly write so many different books, he responded that he hasn’t written sixty different books, he has written the same book in sixty different ways. The unifying topic of his works is the significance of self-esteem. This includes delineating the destructive effects of low self-esteem and strategies to strengthen it when it is low. The origin of his writings and emphasis on self-esteem, he writes, is sourced in Parshat Shelach.
The central story of Parshat Shelach is that of the spies that Moshe sent to survey the land. Ten of the spies return to report that the land has some benefits to it but that they are not confident in their ability to conquer the land. The people respond by yearning to go back to Egypt. Consequently, that generation was forced to wander in the desert for forty years and not enter the land of Israel. It is not entirely clear within the narrative to the spies did wrong. They were asked to scout the land and report back, and that is what they did. Several answers are suggested within the commentators. We will focus on the one that inspired the entirety of Rabbi Twerski’s writings.
The spies report that they observed the Nefilim, the children of giants. They disclosed to the nation their own feelings of inadequacy, saying “We were in our own eyes as grasshoppers” and then added “and so we were in their eyes” (Bemidbar 13:33). What is unclear within the verse is how they knew what the Nefilim thought of them. One approach, taken by the Midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 16), is to assume that they had no way of actually knowing what the others thought of them. Speaking from G-d’s perspective, the Midrash says, “That you think you look like grasshoppers, I can overlook that – but that they think you look like grasshoppers - how do you know what they think? Who says that they did not see you as angels?”
This, Rabbi Twerski argues, is exactly what low self-esteem does to our thinking: “The way you feel about yourself is how you think others perceive you.” Because they thought so lowly of themselves (“like grasshoppers”), they assumed that’s how everyone else perceived them as well. For feeling like a grasshopper, G-d says, you are wrong – but I can overlook that. But to assume that other people also see you as grasshoppers? To project your low self-image onto others and let that stunt your abilities and responsibilities? How do you know they think you are grasshoppers, maybe they think you are angels?
Yet, the conclusion of the Talmud (Sotah 35a) is that the spies actually did hear the Nefilim call them grasshoppers. It was not a projection of low self-esteem - it was reality. The others did think lowly of them! If this is the case, the message shifts from not having your low self-image distort how you think others perceive you, to not letting what others think of you distort your own self-perception. Even if the Nefilim thought of them as grasshoppers, this should not have stopped them from having the trust in G-d and internal courage to proceed.
Both messages are essential. When we don’t know what people think of us, we should be careful not to mindread and project our own inadequacies onto what we think they are thinking. But even in cases where we do know that others may not think highly of us, if we are following the right path and proceeding towards the real or proverbial promised land, we should not let their low opinion of us derail us from our goals.