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Jewish Travel

Jewish Travel

What motivates us to fly off to some distant unknown land? We are seeking to find ourselves.

by

The Jewish people are inveterate travelers. Collectively, we have journeyed to just about every spot on the face of the globe. Individually, Jews are also compulsive travelers. Out of the population of Israel, which is now over 5 million, Ben Gurion Airport recently reported that there were 7 million departures of Israelis during the last 12-month period. Whether it is curiosity, restlessness or just good old Jewish angst that accounts for this travel mania amongst us is of little difference. The fact is that we Jews are all travelers.

Part of this may be attributable to our long history of exile and its attendant wanderings. But Jews were travelers even during the time of the First Temple, the height of Jewish national power in the land of Israel. There were Jewish colonies in Greece and Ethiopia during the reign of King Solomon. The original cause for such Jewish journeys was undoubtedly economic and commercial. But Jews settled then permanently in many parts of the Mediterranean basin and soon began journeying eastward toward Persia and India. Again, the reasons for these migrations were primarily commercial ones, but soon Jews began to travel there to visit relatives and the travel bug bit Israel.

Past travel hardships were measured in months and in great danger to property and life.

It is difficult for us in the 21st century to imagine what the conditions of travel were like for our ancestors. Suffice to say that the travel that we now measure in hours and in relative comfort -- though there are economy coach seats on some airplanes that are a throwback to past travel hardships -- were then measured in months and in great danger to property and life.

In the 12th century, the great Jewish traveler, Binyamin of Tudela, left Spain for a tour of the Jewish world that lasted for years. He left us a recorded journal of his travels and visits, his impressions of the then Jewish communities and their leaders, and a fascinating description of life in the Middle Ages in the Mediterranean basin and beyond. What is interesting to note is that on all of his journeys he always met other Jews who were also traveling. This, in a time when the vast majority of the world's population never journeyed more than 25 kilometers from their hometown during their entire life span.

If you are truly adventurous, you may wish to copy the map of his route and follow it yourself. I did so a decade ago when I first visited Provence, and I found the experience to be utterly educational and inspiring.

THE SCHOLARLY FUNDRAISER

Throughout history, Jews were often forced to migrate because of expulsions, persecution and pogroms. The Jews were expelled from England and France in the high Middle Ages, and from Spain at the end of the 15th century. Pogroms and violent Christian enmity forced the Jews of Central Europe to move eastward to Poland and Lithuania in the 14 century. The Jews were of necessity a mobile people, always searching for a safe haven and a decent place to settle and live as Jews.

Another great Jewish traveler of renown was the famous Jerusalem scholar, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, known by the acronym of the initials of his name as "Chida." In the 18th century he was sent to Europe by the elders of the Jerusalem community to raise money for the support of the institutions and inhabitants of Jewish Jerusalem.

Alas, they sent a great scholar but an indifferent fundraiser. "Chida" spent most of his time abroad in libraries and bookshops, researching ancient manuscripts and texts and writing his own scholarly works based on his findings. He visited the Vatican as well as the great libraries of England, Holland and Italy. He made a number of such journeys, each one lasting many years. His contributions to rabbinic scholarship were of great value, for he discovered many manuscripts of Jewish value that were not seen by Jewish scholars for centuries. As such, his books are highly valued till today, studied in yeshivot and used as precedent in rabbinic courts everywhere.

JUST TRAVELING THROUGH

Perhaps the best surmise regarding Jewish travel in the world lies in the great chassidic fable about a very wealthy man who was sent on a mission by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the chassidic movement in the early 18th century. The wealthy man was told to deliver an envelope of charity money to the home of a certain Jew, Reb Leib, who lived in a small Polish village.

The wealthy man traveled there and discovered that Reb Leib lived in the most tumbledown shack in the poverty-stricken village. Reb Leib invited the wealthy man to dinner, which consisted of old hard bread and thin vegetable soup. Reb Leib insisted that the rich man spend the night in his home and made up for him a bed of sorts out of a wooden plank and a collection of torn rags.

When the rich man finally prepared to leave in the morning after a sleepless and painful night, he remarked to Reb Leib that at home he had a comfortable bed with a down quilt and silk sheets to sleep on. However, he said that since he was just traveling he had to accustom himself to less than adequate accommodations. Reb Leib remarked that he also had comfortable lodgings elsewhere -- in heaven, in the World to Come -- but since in this life he was just traveling through, he also adjusted himself to the accommodations at hand. "We are all just traveling," he said.

Well, we are all just traveling. Jews have always been categorized as a restless, curious, innovative people. Perhaps it is in our genes, since our ancestors Abraham and Sarah were constant travelers.

The world is a very interesting place with a tremendous variety of places and people to see and visit. It is this wondrous variety and fascinating scene that gives testimony to the hand of the Creator in forming our world and the human race. Travel therefore is not only broadening and educational, but it can also serve as a basis for faith and inner inspiration. It is perhaps this facet of travel that so intrigues Jews and makes us always interested in touring far off places. We are really in search of ourselves when we journey to see others.

Published: November 16, 2002


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