Friday, June 08, 2007

12 Spies and a Man from Laos

In the summer of 2001, Ilan and I were preparing for Shabbat in a beautiful town in northern Laos called Vang Vieng. Cooking frantically in our little pot late Friday afternoon, and trying to explain to the hotel manager how we don’t turn on lights, cook, use money etc because it’s a special religious day (anyone whose ever done this can imagine the scene) I was shocked when he responded; AHHH, YOM SHABBAT.

Astonished, I looked at him, and he repeated, YOM SHABBAT. As it turns out, he, along with many other people from the developing world came to Israel in the 60's and 70's on scholarships to the Weitzman Institute to study agricultural techniques. 30 years later, he still looked back fondly on his time in Rehovot.


This week we read about the 12 spies, sent to check out the land, 10 of whom brought back a bad report causing a 40 year exile in the desert. The Torah reports they returned saying;

'We came to the land you sent us to, and it certainly is a land flowing with milk and honey...
But the people that dwell there are fierce, and the cities are fortified, and very great… And Calev stilled the people and said: 'We should go up at once, and possess it; for we can surely do it.' But the men that went up with him responded: 'We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than us…The land through which we passed is a land that eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw there are men of great stature.’

To mark the Torah portion, Nefesh BeNefesh asked Olim to write 12 things they most love about being in Israel. The request has been going round the blogosphere and has led to some great answers here, here, here and my favorite one here.


I was also tagged to comment, but realized that most of my answers had already been written. There are so many things I love about this place – Hatikva with 40,000 fans in Ramat Gan, Shabbat Shalom wishes in the supermarket, not being the geek with his harmolis meal when going out with work, a day off by the beach instead of at Brent Cross or Primark… the fact that THIS is where Jewish history is being played out.

But there's something that makes me prouder than all of those things – and that’s meeting a Lao hotel manager from a small village who loves Israel and the Jewish people due to an experience he had 30 years ago. That Israel gave the chance to others less fortunate to improve their life and education, and bring that expertise back to their own countries. There must be tens of thousands of people all over the world who have benefited from Israeli kindness, something Israel bashers don’t even have the faintest idea about.


Yet that’s only one side to this country. Strange as it may seem, the 10 spies didn’t lie about the land. As they said, it is a land of milk and honey. Yet it’s also a land that 'Ochelet Yoshveha' that eats up its inhabitants. It’s a land of wonder, but also one that desensitizes us to suffering of others, of what David Grossman describes as shrinking the “surface area” of the soul. It’s a land where a stranger will drive out of their way to help you, yet another might drive out of their way to cut you up; a land that can invite Lao farmers to study but whose religious leaders can refuse asylum to Sudanese Refugees because 'we have enough problems of our own'.

As the 10 conclude, the people that dwell in this region are tough, and living won’t be easy.

But the other two spies were also right. Despite this we should go up, we should move here; it may be difficult, it may sometimes be painful; but with a little faith, and a little courage we will ultimately be able to overcome everything.

Shabbat Shalom


Jonny Steel said...

So much Torah in one post, Calev. What's got into you?! Love the story of the guy in Laos - I wonder if he'd like to do speak at the next UCU conference?

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