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Jewish Journal

Tourist Trap

Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

by Rabbi Ron Shulman

June 26, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Summer is often a season of travel and vacation. Whether travel is a part of our plans for this summer, most of us have had the experience of being a tourist.

Some of us are bold and adventurous travelers; we enjoy exploring every new place and sight. Others of us, just as curious about our new surroundings, travel in a more reserved and cautious style. Yet, for all of us, whenever and however we travel, this definition applies: a tourist is someone who stands on the outside looking in.

When we travel, we are often asked, "Where are you from?" Our answer to that question is a statement of personal identity. The place that we each call home and the cultural values that each one of us reflect, define who each of us is in the larger world of people and places.

The truth is, we do not have to go far to be tourists. We don't even have to take a trip. We meet people all the time who stand on the outside of their own life experiences looking in. These are people who live separate from -- and unaffected by -- those around them, the things that happen to them or the chances before them. These are individuals who don't recognize the truth in the cliché that "life is what happens while we are making plans."

The story is told of a young man who finished his education and started out his adult years with a great desire to live an exciting and important life. Like many young men before him, he had grandiose expectations of accomplishing great things. The trouble was that he didn't really know how to go about doing it, so he lived his life and routine as it seemed he should, as most of us would. He fell in love with a good woman, raised a family with her, earned some money working, made some mistakes and corrected as many of them as he could. He traveled a little, read a little, made new friends and volunteered here and there.

Toward the end of his years, he dreamed that the angel of death approached him.

"But I have not had the chance to truly live and accomplish the great things I had hoped to achieve," he complained.

The angel of death was puzzled and asked: "What have you been doing all these years?"

The now-elderly man answered by recounting how he had only loved, raised a family, worked, talked, helped some, made a few mistakes, traveled a bit and learned what he could -- but that he had never truly understood much about his place in the world.

"But don't you see," replied the angel of death, "that is life."

Too many of us live with the expectation that life is something more than our actual experience. We are like tourists on a journey through the challenges and opportunities of every day. We have in our mind's eye a different image of what we're supposed to do, or even of whom we are supposed to be. The real challenge is to make ourselves at home with who we are.

At the conclusion of this week's Torah portion, God instructs Moses and Israel to place a fringe, the tzitzit, "on the corners of their garments ... so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge" (Numbers 15:38-41). The Torah's concern was paganism and idolatry. Yet for us, as for every generation, the tzitzit are significant as a reminder of God's commandments.

We remember that the Jewish people's proud place in life is found in the doing of mitzvot. Every one of us can be a privileged participant in this sacred purpose. None of us need stand on the outside looking in. Each of us can know the comfort and confidence of feeling at home in Jewish tradition and community.

The Torah's word for "follow" is derived from the Hebrew word for scouting or touring. Moses instructs each tribe's scouts with this same word at the beginning of the portion: "To scout the land of Canaan" (Numbers 13:2).

As Rashi suggests, our heart and eyes are our body's scouts. Through them we desire and discover all of life's opportunities. In touring the world, we determine with our heart and eyes where we might visit and where we will reside. The message here is one of caution. In order to make ourselves feel at home and to understand where we are from, we ought not to follow our heart and eyes toward things foreign to the reality of our own experiences. Rather, we are encouraged to turn within, to recognize who we are and to live on the inside, at home in Jewish identity and present every day in the personal circumstances and genuine context of our lives.

Ron Shulman is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.

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