Shelach: Monster Grapes!

Symbols can be dangerous things.
Was the giant cluster of grapes meant to inspire or terrify the Children of Israel?

Table for Five: Shelach

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

They came to the Valley of Eshkol and they cut a branch with a cluster of grapes. They carried it on a pole between two [people] and [they also took] some pomegranates and figs.

Num. 13:23

Sarah Pachter, Author and Lecturer

Rashi explains that the word two refers to two poles which required eight men to carry, whereas the Zohar writes that “the two of them” refers to Yehoshua and Calev.

The Rabeinu Bechaya explains that the other spies were unable to lift this cluster of grapes, whereas Joshua and Calev, alone, managed to easily lift them. What normally required 8 people, Yehoshua and Calev were able to do together. Yehoshua and Calev exhibited unity and camaraderie. This is where their supernatural strength lies.

Dave Ramsey, in Entreleader, notes that the Belgian draft horse is capable of pulling eight thousand pounds. If trained together, however, they can pull 32 thousand pounds, four times the weight.

Rabbi Zacharia Wallerstein tells of a wealthy man who owned expensive horses purchased throughout the world. During a trip, two horses and the wagon fell into a ditch. Despite much coercion, neither horse moved.

Another man came by and strapped two donkeys to the wagon. Merely lifting his hand to hit caused the donkeys to mightily pull the wagon out.

He explained, “You bought one horse from Saudi Arabia and another from Egypt. My donkeys were born and raised together, like brothers. Your horse saw that the other one was hit and didn’t care. My donkey saw that I was about to hit the other one, and they both gave their heart to pull it out.”

When the Jewish Nation sees each other as brethren, we can lighten ANY load, no matter how heavy it seems.

Laya Saul, KadimaPress.com, ChildrensMuseumoftheGalilee.org

You see what you look for.

The Israelite spies entered the land. There they found abundance or shefa – rich growth. Pomegranates, figs, and grape vines with clusters so big it took two men to carry one cluster of grapes. The image moves us so deeply that it’s the symbol of Israeli tourism today.

Have you ever eaten fresh, ripe, sweet, sun-warmed figs straight from the tree in Israel? Have you seen “fig milk” trickling from the stem when you pick them? Or pomegranates that grow like gems in the summer sun? No wonder there is so much art with pomegranate themes. Have you had fresh grapes dripping with natural sugar, ready to quench your thirst?

But what will the spies do with the gifts of the land? Will they trust? Will they fear? Do they feel entitled, or are they grateful? Will they share? Do they feel worthy?

There’s a story of a man at a table that is laid with a feast, but in his hands are peanuts infested with weevils. He’s holding so tightly to the weevilly peanuts that he has no way to partake of the great feast before him. Undervaluing the good in front of him costs him dearly. If only he would let go of those weevilly peanuts. Do we see the abundance in our lives? Do we understand the source of all the gifts? Are we saying yes to the sweet fruits we’re offered? Are we grateful?

You see what you look for.

Chaya Lester, Co-Director of Jerusalem’s Shalev Center for Personal Growth

Here we meet the super-sized-grape-cluster. Famously, it is THE symbol for Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. It symbolizes Israel’s greatness, but also the greatness of the people who already lived here, the giants of lore. It is brought as a sign of the Land’s unconquerability.

Fearsomeness and fruitfulness; it is a symbol of utter contradiction.

The fearful spies said, “We saw there giants…We were in our own eyes as ants…so we were in their eyes.” The people are sent into a frenzy of terror and self-doubt. Caleb and Joshua alone stood firm in their faith of the goodness of the land and the goodness of the people.

Note the name Nahal Eshkol, the Brook of the Cluster. There is a modern Hebrew term, eish eshkolot, a man of clusters. It refers to a jack-of-all-trades. Indeed, survival in this land often demands an ability to patch together a cluster of abilities. I have four different business cards on my refrigerator. Each for the same guy. He’s a carpet cleaner, electrician, social worker and taxi driver. The man’s a creative genius. He’s truly an eish eshkolot…and this country is full of them!

As the spies said themselves, “It is a land that eats up its inhabitants, and all those who dwell there are great.” Yes, admittedly, it is a challenge to live here, but those who do touch greatness.

Wherever you live, the Biblical life-hack of this verse teaches us that we choose how we view ourselves – like Ants or like Gi’Ants!

Abe Mezrich, Poet & essayist, abemezrich.com

“Be strong,” Moses had said. “Take hold of the fruit of the land.” Which the spies did. But after, they returned to the camp and held up the fruit and all the people grew wild with panic.

Remember that this is fruit from a valley. Life that fills the empty space.

Maybe the fruit reminded them too much of themselves. A people blooming into a nation in the desert. Think of yourself. How did you feel the first time life held itself up like that? The fruit you will bear. The people you would love and the things you would accomplish. You were the blossoming valley, the question growing its own answers. The grapes and pomegranates and figs. Weren’t you terrified? Even if what you saw was large and sweet. Even if it fulfilled the oldest promise. Even if the wise had already whispered: This is meant for you, take hold, be strong. *

*Last line inspired by a poem by Carrie Fountain

David Sacks, Podcast weekly about Life @ Spiritual Tools for an Outrageous World

A group of Israelis were eager to get home after a long day’s work, but the last bus for the night was beyond late and they feared they’d be stranded. Suddenly, a bus with a different number drove past. Realizing that this could be their last chance they frantically waved it down. The driver told them that this wasn’t his route and that he could get fired if he took them, but they pleaded with him, and he finally let them on. They thanked him profusely, and then he admitted the truth.

“I was your driver the whole time. But I was so late that I knew when I showed up you were all going to scream at me. So, I changed the number of the bus, and pretended this wasn’t my route. That way instead being angry, you’d be grateful.”

Everything in life depends on how you look at it.

There’s an argument among the Torah commentators regarding the giant fruit that the spies brought back. Was it supposed to be in praise of the Land? Or was it supposed to be proof that the land was inhabited by giants who would devour us?

It’s all in how we see it. If we can trust that Hashem loves us, and that He’s only leading us to good places, we’ll experience even the things we don’t understand in life as blessings.

But if we don’t, the grey areas of life will appear to us as signs pointing to disaster.

With thanks to Sarah Pachter, Laya Saul, Chaya Lester, Abe Mezrich, and David Sacks

Image: Israeli stamp circa 1954

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