11 Lessons for Existential Tourists

11 Lessons for Existential Tourists

The Chassidic masters recognize there is something both profound and wrong with uprootedness, travel, the state of being on the road. Their approach is too complex for a full survey here, but we need for contrast look no further than the (desirable) recognition of the Maggid of Mezritch that he is but a traveler in this world and the (undesirable) doubled and redoubled darkness of the exile to which the Baal Shem Tov referred.

What seems clear is that Home is where we belong, but we may need to travel far afield before we are able to reach it, a “long short way”, through the deep night, the muddy road, with a faulty wagon and good cheer and a chassidic melody and perhaps just a drop of mashke.

This week I have been a tourist in the simplest physical terms, in cities of flesh and blood. Folded into the experience, resonant within its bones, are lessons I recognize from the long ride ’round to the entrance of the shining city of G-d.

1 – You only need to know a little to help others.

The Rebbe says, “If you know Alef, teach Alef.” A single letter, a simple principle. The beggar receives enough charity to give charity of his own and is in a way less the beggar with only two coins. I have never in my life been to the town of Sintra before this morning, but I already know more about it than I think. A Korean couple asks me how to get where they are going and I am wrenched from my private musings and find, to my surprise, I have the wherewithal to help. This never would have happened, had I remained home.

2We can choose what is best to see, and remain ignorant of the rest.

The Holy Baal Shem Tov says, “Where a person’s mind is, that’s where he is.” I am sure there are Portuguese politics and Portuguese complaints and sneering cynics who see the whole affair coming apart at the seams. These are things I am in America. But my surroundings have changed, and I wear my ignorance of even the language like a cloak. Is the architecture of Lisbon less magical because I’ve never seen “Iberian Peninsula’s Got Talent”? The question answers itself. Direct your heart to the good and true and beautiful, and the rest can simply fall away.

3 – There is obvious beauty where the crowds go, and less obvious beauty where they don’t.

Do not separate from the congregation, but woe is to the wicked, and woe is to their neighbor. If thousands are walking down a certain fork in the road, chances are, there is something worth seeing down there. But why rush? Take the wrong fork, and find something equally new to you, perhaps smaller and more modest, but no less special. G-d brings us to exactly where we’re meant to be, and sometimes that may well mean breaking from the group. Do not be afraid! He is the light to all feet, even those on the unbeaten path.

4 – The locals go around every day not realizing how beautiful it is, and we are all locals somewhere.

There are people (I’ve watched them) who put their heads down and walk to work right past the Rossio Station, one of the more beautiful buildings this yokel from suburban America has ever seen. We must not judge them. We surely do the exact same thing where we live. A guest for a while sees for a mile. When my friend David moved to Atlanta, he was shocked by the beauty of the forests. We must sometimes forget our homes in the past before our plane flights in order to remember them.

5 – G-d creates and sustains and dwells in infinite lives of which we’re not even aware.

How many are Your works! We can know this sitting on I-75, but a small curled thing deep within us feels egotistically that everyone on I-75 is somewhat like us, that somehow in proximity to our home they are caught in the web of our being. On the train into the Portuguese countryside, you see maids and police, apartments in a foreign style brocading a hillside, shacks in verdant valleys, and the same thought hammers again and again: “What is it like to live there?” Again and again, we have no answers. Yet G-d is as close to the residents as He is to us, closer than our very selves, and attends to their foreign path just as he attends to ours. What mysteries He knows beyond the small walls we build to feel large…

6 – If you build something really good it can bring joy to others for generations.

Not only dramatic crenelations or fine tile-work make for gifts to the future. A life of good deeds, each one eternal, raises a structure that no time may dull.

7 – The priceless, majestic things are less comfortable than our life today.

The king of Portugal’s vacation bedroom was less comfortable than our bedrooms at home, most of us. The bed is made of who-knows-what, the room is drafty, it’s cramped and not very large, and no matter how much gold and silver you inlay in the headboard, it does not grow more accommodating. The trick to being a king does not seem to be an easy life in particular, and if it was, there might not be much to marvel at in the old palace. We are privileged in our generation to face little external oppression, to thrive in comfort. We may set out from this place to discomfort ourselves with the burdens of beauty and purpose.

8 – A lot of people like Jews, and if you look like a Jew you will have the pleasure of meeting some of them.

Fear displaying your Jewish identity because of antisemites and you will not reap the rewards of Jewish pride. The Uber driver from the airport asked me about the Jewish history of Lisbon, and in exchange for tidbits on Sephardic Jewry, gave me a free brief history of Portugal. The doorman of a hotel where I am not staying flagged me down, asked me if I was Jewish, and told me I must visit the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery; he tells this to non-Jews as well; they are an essential part of the city. The light at my feet shone extra bright in these moments, like a swell of nachas.

9 – Getting lost is okay if you value the journey.

Just as most sin results from a disbelief in the ease and efficacy of repentance, the angst of getting lost with the useless Pena Palace map results from a need to be somewhere in particular right now. Trust a little that you can get back to the right place from where you are, that you are on the right path though not the one on the map, and life is blown into the nostrils of your errors. They carry you to places you never could have reached had G-d made you differently, that is, perfect.

10 – Effort is easier with knowledge of a worthy prize.

Sometimes we don’t have the energy, and often it’s because it doesn’t seem to be worth it. I am not speaking about distant afterlife rewards. I am talking about the indwelling reward at the heart of the experience itself. We do not climb the impossibly steep hill next to the funicular or the insanely tall steps of the Moorish Castle because of some distant present from a passive observer. We do it because they are redolent with their own reward; is not every single step another notch in the angle of the view? Can you not stop to catch your breath and look over your shoulder and see new lights of the city you have created as if from nothing with the simple lifting of your feet?

11 – More travel leads to more roads, and so the proper destination may be right here… 

Arriving is a mindset, not a place on the map. There is no destination we cannot dilute into a step on the path with our own doubts. But this is a good thing; just like the impossibility of knowing the entire Torah, it points to the potential infinitude of our own experience, the way G-d has placed no limits on our own growth. To be a happy tourist, then, whether in the National Palace or this life, is to hold two opposites in mind and appreciate both: we have reached somewhere worth reaching, and we have so much further to go. This is not a contradiction. The road lends meaning to our home, just as travel abroad lends meaning to our own country, teaches us how to look at it again, and find within it powers and potentials hidden by our tendency to see it as a sleeping place.