This week we read, “Shlach, send out the spies.” – The infamous scouting out of the Land of Israel to see if it is indeed hospitable…and conquerable. This is the narrative that inspired the myriad paintings of the larger- than-life grape clusters, so huge that they must be carried on a pole between two men. It is a sign of the land’s greatness, but it’s also a sign of the greatness of the people who already lived there, for imagine the hand that harvests such a vine!
Interestingly, this super-cluster has come to be a central symbol for Israel. Most notably it is THE symbol used for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. It is quite remarkable that the Ministry of Tourism would parade such a mixed symbol of both the fruitfulness and fearsomeness of the land. Tourism after all, is about giving a ‘good report’, while the spies report was overwhelmingly negative.
All of the spies but Joshua and Caleb come back with terrified reports of how unconquerable the land is. They say, “We saw there giants…and we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers…and so we were in their eyes.” The people are sent into a frenzy of terror, doubt and squelched self-esteem. They saw themselves as grasshoppers, or as Rashi adds, as ants…and their opponents as giants. If that’s not a psychological set-up for failure then I don’t know what is!
Yet Caleb, along with Joshua, stood firm in his faith of the goodness of the land, and tries to strengthen the people to enter, “Let us go up at once and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” Because of his faith and fortitude he will be the only one to live through the 40 years of wandering that ensues as punishment for the people’s fear and faithlessness.
It is interesting to note that the place where the massive grapes are taken from is named, 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. The name is fitting given this Biblical image of the grape-clusters. For it seems that survival in this land often demands an ability to patch together an array – a cluster – of trades. It is astounding how many of my friends here work at several different types of jobs. Wild combinations of plumbing, accounting, grant-writing.
Just look at my neighbor, Alon. I have four different business cards for him on my refrigerator. He’s a carpet cleaner, electrician, social worker and taxi driver…oh, and in addition to fixing our dryer, he’s building us these gorgeous wooden benches for our living room. I kid you not, the man is a creative genius. He is 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 men!” Yes, admittedly, it is a challenge to live in this land, but those who chose to “go up and possess it”, touch greatness.
In the end, the mega-grape-clusters are an entirely apt symbol of Israel. If we can but chose to see ourselves more like giants and less like ants, the amazing fruits of this land will be ours.
The poem below portrays Caleb as a type of Eish Eshkolot. Caleb, a man whose name, strangely, means ‘dog’. Caleb, who was willing to stand out against the crowd of logic-pushers and nay-sayers who called for his very stoning! Caleb, the man whose plan the people refused to listen to. The only man to merit actually entering the Land.
The poem is dedicated to all of the endearing, inventive, eccentric, and sometimes slightly insane characters I have met over my years here in Jerusalem. Sometimes it is easy to view the more eccentric among us as mad men, but instead of seeing them as ants, what if we were to see them more like giants? But why stop there? – What if we were to do the same for all of the eccentric, slightly insane, parts of ourselves as well?! What is the Caleb in you barking? Listen to your inner eish eshkolot and perhaps it will move you one more step from Ant to Gi’Ant!
There’s a mad man on the phone
Calls himself an eish eshkol
A man of clusters – a maverick
A maven – for making the most impossible a given
He speaks the gospel of the driven to G-d
in gardens untrodden but for giants
and all the old unforgotten fortresses of Goshen
can’t hold him back from the Land he’s been promised
He is Eish Eshkolot
some call him Caleb
some call him Rabb,
Some call him rabid
for his tail wags a passage
like a pendulum between two points
between the opposites
his sweat anoints
the cut curse of earth
to work ‘til death
do us birth
back to the mother
who may eat the flesh
but leaves the soul stronger
and the mad man of clusters gathers
the gefen grapes
that snake and splatter
wine upon white face
that breaks into laughter
no fear of force
no tears disastered
can shake this dog of faith
from the land of his master
None but Caleb can lift the grapes
into clustered crowns of greatness
none too magnificent for the tastes
of this maverick in his madness
he takes what the heavens
have bowed down to hand us
But who will believe the boy that cries peace?
Will armies of giants
retreat from the ants at their feet?
The heart speaks the truth
that our mouths vainly seek
Call the dog dumb, yet Caleb will speak
Call the dog dumb, yet Caleb will speak