The Torah portion which we read this coming Shabbat, Shelach Lecha, tells the story of the 12 scouts sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan and report back to the people on how beautiful it is.
The entire mission turns into a disaster as the scouts return with glowing reports of the beauty of the land but 10 of them make it clear that the land is inhospitable and could not possibly be conquered by the Hebrews. Upon hearing the report, the people side with the 10, against Joshua, Caleb, Moses, Aaron and God and express a strong desire to return to Egypt.
The sins of rejecting the land and expressing a lack of faith in God and in themselves results in God’s decision that this generation would not enter the land but would wander in the desert for 40 years.
The story is fascinating especially when read with the rabbinic commentaries. It becomes, for many commentators, a story about self-image and self-respect. It becomes a story about the leadership decisions of Moses and Aaron and the qualities of the land itself. Just how serious these commentaries are taken is reflected in the fact that it is one of the only stories from the Torah in which midrashei aggada, commentaries on a narrative in the Torah, are found in one place in the Talmud as the entire story is interpreted verse by verse in the middle of a discussion on another subject in the Talmudic Tractate of Sotah.
So, it’s a great story with many serious implications.
But, I want to look at the story a bit differently here. A few years ago, I gave a much more “playful” sermon on Parashat Shelach Lecha, taking a break from the more serious issues to talk about summer vacations. It occurred to me that we could learn five important lessons about vacations from the text and the commentaries of this parasha.
So, as we enter vacation season, here are the five lessons:
Lesson number 1: The story begins with the words Shelach Lecha. God says to Moses: Shelach Lecha, “You send scouts”. The word Lecha is superfluous. It is unnecessary in the Hebrew. The commentaries say that it implies that the sending of the scouts was for Moses’ benefit. Do this, says God, for your benefit.
That is the first point about vacations. You deserve them. Take time away for your benefit. Enjoy them and don’t feel guilty.
Second point: The Torah says that the scouts came up to the land as a group but then, curiously, it says, that “he” went to Hebron. While it is easy to conceive of the “he” in the singular as meaning “the group”, many of the rabbis say that the singular refers to Caleb, one of the 2 loyal scouts. The tradition is that he, Caleb, broke away from the group which he sensed was going to undermine the conquest of the land and went alone to Hebron to pray at the grave of the Patriarchs hoping that they would protect him.
It’s a great story and it can teach us that all of the planning of our trips shouldn’t prevent us from making spur of the moment decisions to break away from a planned itinerary to do something a bit “out of the box”. A few years ago, when our family took a trip to South Dakota, we were sitting in a restaurant before doing what we had planned for the afternoon when our waitress casually mentioned that it was only a 2 hour drive to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. How could we resist? Every plan we might have had for that afternoon disappeared and off we went to see this fantastic place, so central to my favorite movie: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was one of the highlights of the trip.
Lesson 2: Don’t stick to the planned script. Break away from your plans and follow your instincts.
In the Torah story, the spies come back and say: “It is a land which devours its inhabitants.” According to the commentaries, the scouts say that every town that they went to was having a funeral when they got there. God was furious at this because, say the rabbis, God had meant this all for good and they had interpreted it as a negative. God had arranged to have a leading figure in each town they went to die just before their arrival so that they could scout surreptitiously while everyone else was at the funeral.
Regardless of what you think of that story, it can teach us a very basic lesson. If something happens to disrupt your trip (hopefully something less catastrophic of course), look at it as the possibility of an adventure rather than complain about it. This takes tremendous patience but being re-routed or getting lost may give you a great story to tell
I still remember a trip we took when we were kids. My father took a wrong turn off a highway and we ended up in a small town in upstate New York. As he was trying to find his way back to the highway, my father suddenly gasped and slammed on the brakes. He pointed to a sign on a building nearby which said: “Dobrusin real estate agency”. My father just was elated as it led to more attempts to unravel our family history when we able later on to contact this person and try to piece together the connection.
Lesson #3: Don’t begrudge the minor (or more major) interruptions to your trip. Sometimes, great things can come from them.
Next, when the scouts return, they bring back a huge bunch of grapes (you’ve seen that image most likely on Carmel wine bottles or the Israel Tourist Bureau).
So lesson #4: Bring back souvenirs!
In addition to whatever we bought in overpriced gift shops, I always managed to bring back simpler souvenirs: newspapers, menus, maps etc. They are great reminders of where you were and can bring back the spirit of a trip. Now, as we are going through some initial steps at downsizing (giving away or throwing away clutter), it is those souvenirs which I am finding it hardest to part with because they remind me of great days of traveling together as a family.
Finally, in the Haftarah reading for this week, Joshua sends scouts to Jericho and the entire mission has an air of secrecy about it. He learned his lesson from the disastrous mission of the 12 scouts. Moses apparently charges the scouts in public with their mission and they report back to the people in public. This was a horrible mistake as mob psychology took over.
So, learn from this that you should resist any temptation to gather everyone you’ve ever known to tell them about your great trip at great length. In all likelihood, that will be a disaster. Just smile and say; “It was great, you should go there and see for yourself”. That will prevent any mass rebellions among friends and family.
This is a great parasha with so many critical things to consider.
But, on this beautiful Michigan summer morning, it’s worth thinking about one of the simple pleasures of life: the summer vacation and realizing that the Torah can teach us about that too.
Nesiah Tovah! Happy journeys!