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)

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