November 18, 2018

The Spiritual Tourist

Near Mt. Amir in Israel. Photo from “Skyline” 1990

My neighbors completed an around-the-world trip. It was their dream, the trip of a lifetime. When we gathered to welcome them home, they eagerly described the journey’s highlights — the Sheraton in Bangkok, the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing, a Clint Eastwood film in a Calcutta theater, Budweiser in Holland and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in Great Britain.

My neighbor, the “accidental tourist!” He travels the world to experience its wonders from behind an inch of hermetically sealed tinted-glass bus window. Bravely, he ventures out of the bus, protected by a huge Nikon camera slung around his neck — his life-support apparatus identifying him as a stranger, and keeping the outside world at bay. He sleeps at the Hilton, breathes filtered air and drinks bottled water. He wants to see the world, but he won’t let it touch him. So afraid of the new, the unfamiliar, the exotic, so afraid that it might shake his safe, secure, narrow world, so afraid of life, he visited all the world’s capitals, and, in every one, he ate at McDonald’s.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses sends 12 men on a mission, latur et ha’aretz (Numbers 13:16), to scout out, or more literally, “to tour,” the Promised Land. Upon their return, 10 offer the dispiriting report of the land’s fearful impregnability. Tourists they left, and tourists they returned. They saw the land but didn’t let it touch them, didn’t let it change them. They found no bond with this land; they were only visitors, not owners, not inheritors. Fearful and small, they knew that they didn’t belong: They didn’t belong in this place. They didn’t belong to this place. And the place would never belong to them.

Two men, Joshua and Caleb, heard a different commandment from Moses: Alu zeh (Numbers 13:17), “rise up,” or perhaps, “become an oleh.” Don’t go as a tourist; go as an oleh. Do not go in fear. Let the land elevate you; let the experience transform you; let this life moment move you. Go not as visitors, as sightseers, as strangers. This is your home. You are expected. You belong here. Fight for this place. Root yourself here.

The most important gift we give our children is a sense of their place in the world: You belong here. You are not just passing through. The world welcomes you and your unique contribution. You needn’t feel afraid, strange or unfamiliar. You have a right to be here. This world is yours, and, so, you have the responsibility and the power to transform and mend it.

But this courage is easily forgotten. The Israelites are condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years. An apt punishment. People who do not feel they belong are sentenced to a lifetime of aimless, rootless wandering.

At the portion’s end, we are commanded to wear tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our garments, V’lo tarturu, “so as not to become a tourist” — so as not to shrink back in fear of the world, as if we don’t really belong here, as if we are just visiting, just sightseeing. Le’maan tizkiru, wear your tzitzit and be reminded there is work to be done to transform and mend the world. Be reminded who you are and why you are here. Your sense of belonging is the precious gift of your ancestry. Don’t leave home without it!

Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who is completing a book (along with fulfilling synagogue responsibilities at Wilshire Boulevard Temple).