Back in 1984, when I first arrived in Israel, it took me some time to understand and converse in the language, since I had limited exposure to modern Ivrit.
One situation that sticks out in my mind was when a person asked me to dial a number for him from a pay phone.
A bit of a background is necessary. Back then pay phones were the normal way to make calls outside of one’s home. In Israel they had a designated token, called an Asimon, that was used to pay for the calls. An Asimon had a hole in the center and some devious people would tie a string to the Asimon, and after it was inserted into the phone and it registered payment, they would pull the Asimon back out.
To prevent this from happening, the phone company made a metal box that covered the base of the phone leaving a gap for one to slip their hand and put in the Asimon and then blindly use their fingers to push the correct buttons to place the call.
The person who asked me to make the call for him was moderately mentally challenged and he began telling me in Ivrit the phone numbers. This was no problem for me because I had learned the counting numbers in Hebrew. However, there is no Hebrew name for zero and I was never taught it. Modern Ivrit uses Efes ― naught ― for zero. When he said Efes, I paused and looked at him not knowing what he meant. I said to him, ‘Ma? – What?’ He said Efes. He saw that I still did not know what he meant. He pointed with his finger to his head, to indicate that I was dumb, and he said I was, “kookoo.” Then with his other hand he put his index finger to his thumb creating a round circle. At that point I understood he meant zero.
Well, that was one effective way of learning never to forget what Efes means.
Well, in this week’s Parsha the word Efes is used. The translation of Efes within the context of the verse is “only” or “but.”
After the spies returned from their mission to scout the Land of Israel, they initially gave some positivity in their report. They then said Efes, meaning only or but, it is not doable because the nations that occupy the land are brazen and powerful.
Our Sages tell us that the ten spies who reported badly about the land cleverly began by saying something nice and true about the land. They said, “It is a land flowing with milk and honey.” This was to convey some truth and to gain the people’s confidence in them. Once they captured their attention and trust, they said Efes, but… and were then able to convince them in believing that the inhabitants were mighty and it was not in the best interest of the Jewish people to enter the land.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky o.b.m. ‘zeros’ in on the translation of the word Efes telling us that here to, it means zero. Because the root cause of the spies’ failure was that they lacked self-confidence and considered themselves and their mission as a zero. It had no purpose and they could not rely on the assistance and help of the Almighty.
Along these lines, the Torah relates that the spies reported that they felt as if they were like grasshoppers in comparison to the giants of the land. They added, “So too, were we like grasshoppers in their eyes.”
On face value, it seems that the spies projected their own feeling of being small and assumed the giants thought the same about them, thus portraying a lack of confidence.
Rashi tell us that they actually overheard the giants saying to each other, “Look! There seems to be humans looking like ants going through the fields.” Thus, the spies reported what they overheard the giants saying about them.
However, there seems to be a discrepancy between what the spies related to the people in the Torah and how Rashi quotes it from the Medrash.
The Torah tells us that the spies reported that they felt like grasshoppers and so did they appear to the giants. However, Rashi says that the giants actually said they look like human ants. So, what did they say, grasshoppers or ants?
Because of this, some commentators wish to amend Rashi and switch the word Nemala – ant, with the word Chagav – grasshopper – and attribute it to an error that crept up in the printing of Rashi.
However, Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin o.b.m. wishes to keep Rashi’s description Nemala – ant in place. He explains that the Talmud describes the spies as liars and it spells out their various lies that they said.
They even lied concerning their report about what they overheard the giants say about them. The spies certainly heard the giants saying, “Look at those human looking ants.” However, when the spies reported back to the people, they chose a creature that is more elevated from the ground then an ant, and chose a grasshopper.
As much as the spies lacked confidence in the ability of conquering the land, they still wished to maintain an elevated sense of human dignity by conveying themselves as grasshoppers rather than as ants, the lowest form of creation.
There were two good spies, Yehoshua and Calev. The Torah relates that Moshe added a letter to the name of his student Yehoshua which provided him with the confidence to withstand the negativity of the spies. On the other hand, Calev prayed and remained righteous without assistance. He was able to maintain a presence of mind to see the transparent negativity of the spies. Because Calev didn’t buckle to peer pressure and maintained his steadfast belief in G-d and His promise, G-d in the Torah specifically highlights and rewards Calev for his accomplishment of standing strong and confident in His word!