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Two Minutes of Torah: Chukat - How to be a good tourist

As summer begins, many people are looking forward to their holidays, and the various exotic destinations they will be visiting. A holiday abroad is an opportunity to experience a foreign culture, sample new cuisines and bring home a variety of souvenirs. In the 1970s and 80s the joke about British holiday makers was that they would go abroad and then search out establishments selling British food and drink, avoiding the local cuisine. They went in search of the sunshine, but were less interested in searching out foreign experiences.

While we often think about what the tourist gets from the experience of a holiday, hence the joke about Brits abroad, the country being visited also benefits. There are many countries, across the world, for whom tourism is a major source of their annual income.

While in this week's Torah portion the Israelites were not exactly tourists traveling through the wilderness, we can also learn something about how we should visit a foreign country.

To reach the Promised Land it was necessary to pass through a number of kingdoms along the way. As Moses and the Israelites approached the kingdom of Edom, he sent messengers in advance of the people. He shared the hardships which they had experienced, and asked "Please let us pass through your country. We will not pass through the fields or through the vineyards, nor will we drink water from any well" (Numbers 20:17). The offer was rejected, with the threat of military force, and so Moses tried again: "We will go along the highway, and if we or our cattle drink any of your water, we will pay for it. We will only pass through on our feet, without doing anything else" (Numbers 20:19). This too was rejected and the Israelites had to find another route.

As they approached King Sihon of the Amorites, Moses again said "Let us pass through your land; we will not turn aside into the fields or into the vineyards, nor will we drink water from any well, but we will go along the King's Highway until we pass your borders" (Numbers 21:22). Once again the offer was rejected, and this time the Amorites came out to attack the Israelites.

On two occasions Moses offered to pass through a foreign land without taking anything, and twice the offer was rejected. While this was clearly not a holiday, there is a possible lesson here about how one might approach visiting the other. How different would things have been if Moses had asked permission to meet with the people of the land and to experience something of their culture?

Moses may have assumed that the Kings would want the Israelites to pass through as quickly as possible, and the offer may have come as a way of alleviating the disruption caused by 600,000 plus Israelites walking through their land. And yet both times it was rejected. The opportunity for interaction with the other was lost, and enmity persisted with these other peoples. Of course 40 years in the wilderness was no holiday, but when we look for the lessons in this week’s Torah portion, it is striking that the solitary route was twice rejected. As we approach the summer holidays, maybe we can learn from our ancestors something about travelling through and to foreign lands.

And if you want to listen to this Two Minutes of Torah: [audio]

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