Tag Archives: pico iyer

If Abraham Had Traveled in the 21st Century

The First Jewish Traveler

In this week’s Parasha, Lech Lecha, God commanded Abraham as follows:

And God said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, your birthplace and your father’s house, unto the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and .make your name great; and you will be a blessing’.

Rashi comments on the verse that long-term travel negatively affects three things:

  1. Reputation
  2. Money
  3. Fertility

God was telling Abraham to go on a journey with a “One Way Ticket To The Blues”. Abraham, as it seems, was a bit concerned about these issues (after all he and Sarah didn’t yet have kids). Therefor God promised him that if Abraham went as told he would get plenty of wealth, a good name and of course have children too.

I was wondering what would have happened if Abraham had traveled in the 21st century. Would he still have reason to be concerned about money, reputation and fertility or maybe not?


Lets start with reputation. When Abraham left Haran he was a serious person to be reckoned with. Everybody knew about his escapades in the furnace and how he became a monotheist.  He was a Somebody. But the day he left, who else but the people back home knew him? Of course there were traveling merchants who might tell stories about Abraham, but I doubt it was enough to keep up a long-term and serious reputation.

Today it would be completely different. Abraham’s run in with Nimrod at the furnace would have been publicized in the front page of the online New York Times. He would be famous on Youtube and blogged about in every religious forum. He’s have a LinkedIn profile. Maybe Abraham himself would post daily in his Lech Lecha Travel Blog. Today reputation is simple to keep up, as long as you know how to manage it online.


In ancient times people were very attached to the agricultural world. There were of course some traveling merchants, but most were born, lived and died in one city or country (barring expulsions and exiles). Once a person went on a long journey there weren’t too many options to earn money and saving finished up quickly. Therefor it was assumed that Abraham would have difficulty supporting his family on the one way journey.

Today things are very different. One can earn money on every spot on the globe, whether you are in a hotel room or sitting on a beach. If you are a writer like Rolf Potts or Pico Iyar who make a full-time living from travel writing, then travel and money are interchangeable.

Even if you don’t write for a living, there are thousands of people who earn an online living as information workers or virtual entrepreneurs.

To be continued…

Shlach – See things as they are

Travel & Parasha

I decided to start a new series of weekly posts linked to the topics of the weekly Torah Reading (Parasha)”. Jews have traveled for millennia from the time of our Forefathers, so I’m sure (with God’s help), I will find in most of the weekly Torah readings, some spiritual insights on Jewish Traveling.

Here’s the opening post of the series for the Parasha of Shelach.

The Twelve Spies

At the beginning of the Parasha, God instructed Moshe to send twelve princes, one from each tribe, to scout the Land of Canaan. In anticipation of a divinely ordered preëmptive strike on the native inhabitants, Moshe told them to retrieve detailed, in-depth HUMINT about the political, agricultural and military situation in Canaan, to ensure a smooth takeover.

Following forty days and nights of touring and gathering intelligence, the twelve spies returned with information and booty. Eight of them carried together one huge cluster of grapes, one carried a single pomegranate and one a single fig.

These ten men declared that on one hand it was a land of milk & honey. On the other hand,  giants roamed the land, the cities were heavily fortified from attack, the fruits that they carried were proof of unnatural agricultural mutations and the locals were dying from unknown causes throughout the country. “In the eyes of the inhabitants, we seem tiny like grasshoppers”.

They concluded that Canaan was impenetrable from attack and that the Jewish People should give up even trying. “We’ll never be able to conquer the Land”, they exclaimed dejectedly.

The remaining two spies, Joshua and Caleb, came empty-handed, and disagreed vehemently with the majority opinion. They faithfully declared that God promised them victory and guaranteed a positive outcome  without question. All the negative issues were part of God’s global plan.

How could it be that these wise and God-fearing princes and leaders observed the same phenomenon, yet reached diametrically opposite conclusions? How could the majority of the princes even doubt God’s ability to give the Jews the Holy Land, as He promised?

The medieval Torah commentator Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz (1560-1630) explained that the ten princes had ulterior motives for their negativism. In fact they came with closed minds and preconceived opinions about what they were going to find in Canaan.

While the Jews wandered in the desert, Moshe entrusted them with leadership roles and positions of influence. The moment the Children of Israel would settle in the land of Israel, there would be a complete reshuffle of government, rapidly making them into has-beens. Therefore the ten spies interpreted everything they saw as proof-positive of future defeat in order to indefinitely delay immigration to the Land, and guarantee their continuing leadership.

As we all know, God then decreed that most of the Jewish People would continue wandering for 40 years in the desert, instead of entering the Promised Land, and find their death in the wilderness.

Joshua and Caleb, however, trusting God’s promise and without personal bias, were able to see the beauty of the Land and trusted that everything they observed would ultimately fit into God’s Plan, whether they understood it or not.

See Things as They Are

Tourist too often come to a new site with preconceived notions about the local population and their culture and customs. They filter everything they observe through the familiar reality from back home and through their previous belief system.

It takes a great measure of openness, intellectual honesty and humility to meet with an unfamiliar culture and accept it as it is without judgment or comparison. This is true whether one hails from the East and visits the West or whether one grew up in an advanced technological society and tours the backwaters of Southeast Asia.

Why We Travel

The well-known travel writer Pico Iyer, puts across this idea quite beautifully in his article “Why We Travel” (see link for complete article):

“Yet for me the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle. In that regard, even a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (in Beijing) or a scratchy revival showing of “Wild Orchids” (on the Champs-Elysees) can be both novelty and revelation: In China, after all, people will pay a whole week’s wages to eat with Colonel Sanders, and in Paris, Mickey Rourke is regarded as the greatest actor since Jerry Lewis…

Though it’s fashionable nowadays to draw a distinction between the “tourist” and the “traveler,” perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don’t: Among those who don’t, a tourist is just someone who complains, “Nothing here is the way it is at home,” while a traveler is one who grumbles, “Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo — or Cuzco or Kathmandu.” It’s all very much the same.

But for the rest of us, the sovereign freedom of traveling comes from the fact that it whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head…

And the first lesson we learn on the road, whether we like it or not, is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal. When you go to North Korea, for example, you really do feel as if you’ve landed on a different planet — and the North Koreans doubtless feel that they’re being visited by an extra-terrestrial, too (or else they simply assume that you, as they do, receive orders every morning from the Central Committee on what clothes to wear and what route to use when walking to work, and you, as they do, have loudspeakers in your bedroom broadcasting propaganda every morning at dawn, and you, as they do, have your radios fixed so as to receive only a single channel).

We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies by seeing all the moral and political urgencies, the life-and-death dilemmas, that we seldom have to face at home. And we travel to fill in the gaps left by tomorrow’s headlines”.

Be then like Joshua & Caleb who saw things as they truly are, and not like the ten other spies who saw what they wanted to see…

The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see” (G.K. Chesterton)

There’s no place like home

Home Sweet Home

there's no place like home
Wizard of Oz

Extended travel is the best opportunity to really appreciate home. And when you journey long and far enough you might get a bit homesick . Even Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz with an enchanted world of good witches, talking animals and scarecrows, said in one of her last scenes; “There’s no place like home” and with three clicks of her Silver Shoes magically flew off to her Uncle and Aunt in Kansas.

My problem with “There’s no place like home” is that I’m not so sure what “home” means to most people.

For some, “home” is where they were born or grew up, where their parents and family lived or where they now live with their “significant other” and kids. Home might be their place of academic study, the place they pay taxes, their full-time job site, their passport issuer or even their special place of vacation where they feel in a state of peace and tranquility (like the beaches of Honolulu).

Ingenious homes in unexpected places

Believe it or not, there are places that in normative societies would be considered “hell on earth”, yet thousands of men, women and children call them home.

In this fascinating TED Talk documentary, photographer Iwan Baan shows how people build their homes in the most unlikely places; an unfinished, abandoned skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, a city on the water in Nigeria, and an underground village in China, for example.

For a Jew, “home” might mean a particular Synagogue or House of Study; as a spiritual home, though not necessarily a place to sleep. For many Jews the Land of Israel is the true home, whether or not they have lived in Israel for any period of time. In fact for centuries Jews have considered the Holy Land as their true home even if they’ve never seen pictures of the country, never mind visited there.

Concomitantly, there are also thousands of devout and religious Jews in the diaspora, with sufficient resources to live very comfortably in Israel, yet choose to live anywhere else. Which in my mind casts some shadow of doubt on the Land of Israel being a “home” for them.

So where is home for a Jew on the road?

Where is home?

I came upon another inspiring TED Talk called “Where is home?”, by the well-known world traveler and author Pico Iyer who explains how world travel gives a person a deeper insight into what home means.

Pico Iyer speaks about being born into an Indian family, growing up and studying in England, living in the States and spending 25 years in Japan. All this while doing world-travel and writing books. He concludes with the following words:

“And, of course, I’m not suggesting that anybody here go into a monastery. That’s not the point. But I do think it’s only by stopping movement that you can see where to go. And it’s only by stepping out of your life and the world that you can see what you most deeply care about and find a home.

And I’ve noticed so many people now take conscious measures to sit quietly for 30 minutes every morning just collecting themselves in one corner of the room without their devices, or go running every evening, or leave their cell phones behind when they go to have a long conversation with a friend.

Movement is a fantastic privilege, and it allows us to do so much that our grandparents could never have dreamed of doing. But movement, ultimately, only has a meaning if you have a home to go back to. And home, in the end, is of course not just the place where you sleep. It’s the place where you stand”.

I think that for a Jew “home” has a deeper spiritual essence. It is written in the Torah: “And you shall make for Me a tabernacle, and I shall dwell within you” (Exodus 25:8).

The commentaries point out that it does not say “I will dwell within IT” but rather “within YOU”, hinting that God doesn’t “dwell” at any particular address on the globe but rather within every Jew who makes his mind, heart and soul a container worthy of God “dwelling” within him.

To me this means that wherever you go and however long you travel the face of the earth, you can always be at “home” at the spot you are right now. You just need to be aware of God.

Of course feeling the presence of God isn’t a simple matter at all, but when you travel like a proud Jew on the road, and fulfill your obligations as a Jew to the best of your ability, you can be sure of God’s presence wherever you are.