If you’ve seen an advertisement for travel to Israel, or if you have checked out the website of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, you may have seen a curious logo. Here it is:
This is the most recent styling. Earlier versions looked more like this:
Both the new and old logos depict two figures holding up an enormous cluster of grapes.
Did you ever wonder what this image is or what it has to do with Israeli tourism?
The image comes from this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach. Before we look at it, though, let’s review a little biblical background.
While the Israelites were traveling through the wilderness of Sinai, the people asked Moses to send scouts into the land of Israel so they could find the best route to take while inspecting the cities along the way (Deuteronomy 1:22). According to Rashi and other commentators, God gave Moses permission to send the scouts in response to this request (Numbers 13:2). Moses gave the 12 scouts – one from each tribe – very specific instructions about what to look for and what to bring back.
“See what kind of country it is,” said Moses. “Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they live good or bad? Are the towns in which they live open or fortified?” (Numbers 13:18-19). These instructions focus – as we might expect – on gaining information that would be important for an army planning an invasion.
But not all of the information that Moses sought was military. He also asked the scouts to find out “is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?” and to “take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land” (Numbers 13:20).
That last request – for a sample of fruit – might seem a bit odd. The Israelites were mostly interested in information that might help them not get killed in battle – which seems like a reasonable concern. But Moses’ interests were different.
Because of his faith in God, Moses had no fears about the Israelites succeeding in taking the land that God had promised them. Moses’ concern was to convince the other Israelites that their future home was worth fighting for. He wanted to reassure them of the long-term gain they could achieve if they had the faith to go through short-term hardships.
Moses also seemed to know that the best way to the people’s hearts – as the saying goes –was through their stomachs. That’s why he wanted the scouts to bring back the fruit and testimonies that would show the land’s fertility. He wanted to leverage the Israelites’ literal hunger for food into a spiritual hunger for the land and for God’s blessings.
During their 40-day mission through the land of Israel, the scouts did find agricultural riches. This is where we find the inspiration for that modern-day logo: “They reached the wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes. They needed two of them to lift it on a frame” (Numbers 13:23).
The Ministry of Tourism’s emblem refers to this memorable image of a cluster of grapes so large that two men were needed to lift it.
If you think about it, the Ministry of Tourism has the same agenda today as Moses had in the wilderness. They have to sell Israel – convince people that it is a place worth seeing, worth being a part of, and worthy of our affection and loyalty. And – let’s be honest – today’s Israeli Ministry of Tourism has the same obstacles to overcome that Moses had –people’s fears.
If you know how the story of the scouts ends, you know that their mission was a failure. Instead of taking faith and courage from the enormous cluster of grapes, the Israelites succumbed to their fears. They convinced themselves that they would never be able to defeat the people who lived in the land. Instead of imagining themselves devouring the giant grapes, they imagined the Canaanites as giants who would devour them like tasty grasshoppers (Numbers 13:32-33).
Today, those whose job it is to inspire people to visit Israel face the challenge of overcoming people’s fears of terrorist attacks and of being tagged with the calumnies that are hurled at Israel. Some things never change.
We can see the story of the scouts as a metaphor for all the worthy choices we might make in life. We are always hovering between two contrary desires: the desire to feed ourselves with life’s goodness, and our fear that we will fail to overcome the obstacles we will encounter.
How often in your life have you talked yourself out of doing something because of a fear of failing? How often have you backed down from doing what you knew was right in the long run because of some short-term obstacle that scared you?
The Israelites’ error in this story – giving in to their fears and giving up on their faith and hope – is regarded as their greatest sin. It was even worse than the sin of the Golden Calf. Because the Israelites believed that they could not take the land God had promised them, they were made to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, until a new generation could take their place.
I’ve heard people wonder why the Israeli Ministry of Tourism uses a “negative image” to represent Israel – an image of the scouts who succumbed to fear and abandoned faith. To me, though, it is the perfect image. It shows that the work of the ministry is to sell a vision of Israel as more than a tiny country surrounded by nasty enemies. Its job is to present Israel as a dream that is still taking shape – a land of spiritual abundance for all that can feed our souls with faith and hope.
So take this as a lesson in your own life. Have faith in yourself and resist the temptation to give in to fear. Know that God has placed you into this world for a purpose that may now be beyond your understanding. Dare to pursue your highest and noblest dreams – for yourself, for your community and for our world.
RABBI JEFFREY GOLDWASSER is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, in Cranston.