By Rabbi Beth Kalisch
“These were the journeys of the Israelites,” Parashat Mas’ei begins (Num. 33:1), and here it is, the season for summertime journeys. But what, exactly, is the Jewish way to travel?
To judge from every synagogue mission and Birthright Israel trip I’ve been on, it would seem like the key ingredients are the hats and the buses. Traveling around with 40 of your closest friends, trying to stick to a schedule that packs in activities from 7 am until 10 pm, being warned over and over to wear your hat and to drink enough water…. and somehow still loving it.
But what about when we’re just taking summer vacation on our own? What’s the Jewish way to travel then? What’s the Jewish way to take a vacation? This is the kind of thing a rabbi thinks about on her vacation to Nicaragua. This is the kind of thing a rabbi wonders about when her hotel shower catches fire.
By way of explanation… Nicaragua is a beautiful, beautiful country. Volcanoes, beaches, cloud forests with butterflies and hummingbirds, colorful colonial architecture, hand-woven hammocks on every porch, and more flavors of fresh-squeezed fruit juice than you can remember the Spanish words for.
All of that beauty makes Nicaragua a great destination for Jewish travel (however unorthodox that might sound!) The wisdom of Shabbat, that human beings need time for rest and renewal, makes a good argument for relaxing vacations, for watching the sun set while lying in a hand-woven hammock. It’s easier to feel spiritual with such a breathtaking backdrop; it’s easier to appreciate God’s creation among such incredible biodiversity. And our sages taught that on the Day of Judgment, each of us will be called to account for any permissible earthly pleasure that we did not indulge – surely, that includes jugo de calala, Nicaraguan passion fruit juice.
But Nicaragua is also the second-poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and that poverty can make travel challenging. In most of the country, you need to boil the water or treat it with iodine before you can drink it. Many roads are unpaved, which doesn’t make for the smoothest ride on the second-hand school buses that are the most common form of public transportation. And since hot water is more of a luxury than a standard plumbing feature, even midrange city hotels feature electric showerheads. They’re safe most of the time, I’m sure, but I’d recommend against being the lucky person who happens to be taking a shower when the heating element starts sparking and smoking, and then bursts into flames.
But even beyond the physical discomforts, the challenges of traveling in Nicaragua are the emotional ones. A homestay in northern Nicaragua provided one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had, simple but delicious rice and beans, homemade cheese, home-hatched eggs, and a home-grown fried banana, but also a harsh glimpse of rural poverty: houses with dirt floors and corrugated tin roofs, schools that are open only on weekends because even children spend the rest of the week working in the fields, latrines and bucket baths in place of indoor plumbing. Our sages imagined all the troubles of the world being weighed on a scale – and poverty was as heavy as all the rest put together. It was draining to be there; by the time we left the rural village, I needed a hot shower, a down pillow, and a bit of luxury more than ever.
Of course, at the same time that I was cursing the electric shower and craving a soft pillow, I was also a little embarrassed by these feelings, as I realized anew just how privileged my “needs” are, and just how lucky I am to live such a comfortable life in such a wealthy country. And I think that’s what makes uncomfortable travel a Jewish thing to do, too – whether we’re encountering poverty in the developing world, dealing with culture shock, or even trying unfamiliar foods, stepping outside of our comfort zone reminds just how big the world is, how far and wide it extends beyond our day-to-day concerns – and can help us gain greater perspective and reassess our priorities.
Judaism has never demanded asceticism, but neither has it permitted shutting ourselves off from the uncomfortable parts of the world. So that polarity is my new guideline for Jewish travel. Wherever I go next, I’ll be looking to balance growth and renewal; to push my boundaries while still feeling like I’m on vacation; to make myself think, and also not to think much at all.
But as for the shower? Next time, perhaps I’ll just stick with cold water.
(PS I can’t help offering a few additional suggestions for traveling Jewishly this summer… Have a great trip!
- Visit Reform synagogues around the world! http://wupj.org/Congregations/Overview.asp
- Visit Israel, or even tack on a few days in Israel to a trip in Europe or Asia – sometimes the connecting flight is incredibly cheap!
- Volunteer in the US or around the world.
- Remember the workers who make your vacation possible (start by tipping the housekeeping staff!), and consider buying carbon offsets.)
Rabbi Beth Kalisch currently serves as the Adjunct Rabbi at Central Synagogue in New York City and is also working to build Jewish life in Brooklyn. As usual, she is already dreaming up her next trip.