Lessons from A Spy Story

This week’s parasha contains what is, by far, my favorite narrative in the entire Torah. The story of the scouts sent out by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan is a great story in and of itself but the Rabbinic midrashim on the story turn it into a morality tale about self image, faith in God or lack thereof, optimism, courage and the willingness to stand up for what one believes. The commentaries are truly fantastic and elevate this story to one of great significance for all of us.

A few years ago, though, I noticed something a bit less serious about the parasha and decided to approach it a bit playfully from the bima. It seemed to me that this parasha gives some very good advice about how to enjoy a good family vacation. We are reading this parasha quite a bit earlier in terms of the civil calendar than we reading it that year and so the timing worked out a bit better as it was closer to summer vacation but given that most of us are always ready for a good vacation, I’ll share the idea here.

If you’re unfamiliar with the portion, you might want to read it before continuing. But, in honor of the reading of Parashat Shelach L’cha, here are the rules for a successful summer vacation:

First, the Rabbis interpret the word Shelach L’cha, “you send” scouts as implying that sending the scouts was for Moses and the people’s benefit. So, before anything else, recognize that taking trips are for your benefit: take time for them, enjoy them, delight in them.

Second, Moses tells the scouts to go up through the Negev together and they do but then the text says vayavo (in the singular), “he went to Hevron”. While the singular might be intended to imply that the scouts went as a group, the Rabbis claim that Caleb, one of the loyal scouts took a side trip to Hevron to pray at the grave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to be saved from the evil plans of the 10 disloyal scouts. Lesson: make a good plan but be willing to take a spontaneous side trip when the spirit moves you to do so. Being unwilling to break away from your carefully planned itinerary robs you of the opportunity to truly enjoy a significant experience.

Without going into detail concerning the midrashic source for my next teaching, suffice it to say that the Rabbis teach that God said: “I meant something to be positive and you took it as a negative”. The lesson to be drawn from this is that the occasional disruption in travel or detour can lead to great results if you keep a positive attitude and look for the good that can come out of an unexpected change in plans. When we were visiting Juneau, Alaska, one of the members of our family needed to find a bathroom. It took several minutes and a walk a couple of  blocks out of our way to handle the situation. But, if we hadn’t done so, we would have never actually entered the Alaska State Capitol building (the closest rest rooms) and if we hadn’t taken that side trip,  we would have missed one of the great coincidences in my traveling life. Coming out of the capitol building a few minutes later, we turned a corner and bumped into the only people we knew who lived in Alaska as they were just arriving back at their house. That gave us an opportunity to see old friends and they took us for a personal tour of the city which we never would have received had we not had to make that bathroom stop. Even the unexpected delays and detours can lead to fantastic opportunities if you take them as positives instead of negatives.

Next, one of the great moments of the story of the scouts is when they bring back a huge bunch of grapes to show the productivity of the land. The scene of two scouts having to share in the carrying of one bunch of grapes is so famous that it became the symbol for the Israel Ministry of Tourism. That leads to the simple lesson: Bring back souvenirs and the simpler, the better. We have a separate box in our basement for every trip we have ever taken as a family. Each one contains receipts, menus, newspapers, you name it. When winter sets in, nothing is as refreshing as reliving one of our great vacation experiences.

And finally, take  a lesson from what the scouts should have done. When you get back, don’t gather everyone you know and give them all of the details of your trip. Inevitably, someone will get mad at you. Instead, just tell them exactly what the scouts should have said and had they done so, 40 years of wandering in the desert would have been avoided. Just tell them: “We had a great time. You ought to see it for yourself”.


Happy travels!





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