The Mysterious Traveller

In 2004, a beautiful blonde dropped out of Stanford University to start a biotech company she called Theranos. Before she was 21-years-old, she had raised hundreds of millions of dollars from some of America’s smartest and most sophisticated investors. These included ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; the owner of the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, Rupert Murdoch; and the Walton family, founders and owners of Walmart. Even then-vice-president, Joe Biden, toured Theranos and announced, “Talk about inspirational, this is inspirational.”

These investors weren’t deterred by articles questioning the technology of the company and the secretiveness of its founder. For example, the Journal of the American Medical Association was hardly reticent in expressing concern that Theranos was operating in “stealth mode”  and never published research in peer-reviewed medical journals. Their concerns were valid. Within a short space of time, Theranos was revealed as a scam and stupendous sums of money were lost.

How do smart people make such big mistakes?  This same question could be asked about all of us who have ever made bad mistakes with money, relationships or politics. It could be asked about every bright and intelligent person who carries regret for dreadful decisions.  Now, imagine if we possessed a foolproof ‘mistake monitor’ that could prevent us from making those egregious errors in life that end up being so costly.  Well, we do, but like all effective solutions, it is not a magic wand.  It takes hard work to deploy it in your life. Let’s begin.

Exodus 23:5, as usually translated, seems to be a straightforward verse:

If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under his burden,
you would refrain from helping him?— you shall surely help with him.

A deeper look shows a rather large problem with this translation. The word translated here as ‘help’ is repeated three times in the Hebrew. However, the Hebrew root,  A-Z-V  doesn’t mean help. It means ‘leave’ as in this verse: 

…therefore shall a man leave his father and mother…
(Genesis 2:24)

The Hebrew word for help is A-Z-R, not A-Z-V and leave is surely the very opposite of help. 

In II Samuel 11, King David displeased the Lord by taking Batsheva, wife of Uriah. The Lord sent the prophet Nathan to denounce King David, which Nathan did by way of a parable. He described Uriah as a poor man who had only one sheep and King David as a rich man who owned many sheep (wives).  One day a traveller visited the rich man and instead of preparing one of his own sheep for the traveller, the rich man (King David) took the poor man’s sheep (Batsheva) for the traveller. (II Samuel 12:4)

I am sure you see the colossal question: Why in the parable did Nathan introduce a “traveller”? In the real-life scenario there were only three parties, King David, Uriah, and Batsheva. Nathan tells the story as if there were four:  King David, Uriah, Batsheva, and the traveller for whom, said the prophet, the king really took the sheep.

Who is this mysterious traveller?

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that the traveller is the spirit of fantasy/imagination/romance that so often enters our souls. It is the intense emotional fixation we develop for something we want.  Without it, our better selves would simply and unequivocally banish the temptation.  But once that particular traveller has taken up residence in our souls, the temptation is no longer a moral temptation to be resisted.  We now rationalize and view it as the right thing to do.

David inadvertently saw Uriah’s wife bathing.  He didn’t just desire her, he ‘fell in love’ with her and even recognized with Divine insight that she was intended to be his wife. The traveller had entered his soul and fantasy/romance/imagination flourished. He not only wanted her, he actually decided to bring about that result.

Now that we know that the key word in Exodus 23:5 is not ‘help’ but ‘leave’ and that donkey is always a Biblical hint for our physical, material (versus spiritual) selves the verse more properly reads like this:

If you see the tangible reality of the tempting source of fantasy and imagination
(which is the enemy of your highest self)  lying under his burden (of harming you),
do not refrain from leaving him, you shall surely leave him.
(Exodus 23:5)

In other words, do not allow the powerfully persuasive force of emotional appeal to enter your decision-making apparatus.  It is always trying to harm you and hinder your progress. You feel tempted to make it a welcome visitor in your soul, but don’t do that. Get rid of it!

Those smart and successful investors in Theranos would never have foregone their due diligence had the company’s founder been a middle-aged man in a rumpled suit rather than a beautiful blonde in an immaculate black turtleneck.  They desperately wanted to be part of history’s first major hi-tech enterprise started by a young woman rather than by men. They fell in love. The emotional appeal of that proposition, along with her attractiveness, was easily strong enough to overcome natural caution and prudence.

Even the great King David fell victim to this dangerous tendency to welcome the ‘traveller’ into his soul.  Our challenge is to put ourselves on perpetual high alert to the peril of making important decisions once fantasy/emotional appeal/imagination has taken up residence in our souls.  That is no way to pick candidates, investments or spouses.

20 thoughts on “The Mysterious Traveller”

  1. Rabbi,
    I thank you for giving me the analysis of the Traveler. I am wondering if you can apply this to the downfall of Samson. He did not take the warning of his parents and went for a Foreign women.

  2. Alessandro Mecle

    Dear Rabbi and Mrs. Lapin: beautiful words in form and content – one of the wisdom’s faces is elegance. Even hours after the reading, the “traveler” is still alive in my mind.
    By the way, I have not been using social media on Lent, so I will use this space to tell you how I appreciated your latest podcast. I found my self aligned with your recommendations, out the number 4, that now I will put on practice.
    Thank you!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Good to hear from you, Alessandro,
      and thank you for your kind words.
      Take care of yourself and those you support.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you Kristin–
      Your kind words are uplifting.
      We consider Thought Tools to be among our most important work.
      Take care,

  3. Rabbi thank you for this wonderful interpretation of this mysterious parable. I had just read it the week before and did not know what it was trying to teach me. Can you do this with the parables that Jesus used in the gospels. Looks like that would make a good book for you to write. Please help. Dave.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Dave–
      The great sage, Clint Eastwood said in his 1973 film, Magnum Force, “A good man knows his limitations!” If that is indeed the definition of a good man, then I am certainly one because I know my limitations, for sure!
      One of the many is that though I am knowledgeable, experienced, and trained on the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tanach, I am not all in the New Testament. For this reason, I am not the right person to help you understand the parables of Jesus. I would guide you to your own Pastor or Christian teacher.
      I am thrilled that you found meaning and value in this Thought Tool that laid out the full meaning of the prophet’s parable.

  4. The metaphor of the Mysterious Traveler is powerful and scary, yet not entirely without parallel. One of the last stories of Mark Twain is called The Mysterious Stranger, which seems eerily similar. An unknown youth enters an Austrian village and plays cruel and fateful games with the lads there. He invents whole miniature worlds and then wipes them out without mercy, to the dismay of the lads. In the end the dark interloper identifies himself as Satan, and tells the chief protagonist: ‘YOU are the only thing in existence.’ Satan then fades and vanishes and the narrator awakens to find that the solipsism is true. I read this around age 13 and its outrageous ending triggered a tumultuous crisis of faith. Today you make me wonder how much Hebrew tradition Mark Twain absorbed before he went off the rails. But the moral of his story (like yours) seems clear: don’t trust the mysterious traveler!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you James,
      I was quite unfamiliar with this Mark Twain story and plan to take a look. I was fascinated to hear what power it exerted over the young you.

      1. Right! And what was I thinking: more Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? Samuel Clemens’ internal philosopher apparently took a turn toward the Dark Side of the Force. If I read Mark Twain aright, he was soured and embittered by the lies and hypocrisies of those who profess religion, yet their actions profess otherwise. But we all must face challenges of faith as we grow and mature. Ain’t it the truth?

  5. And what do you do with the last word of verse 5 עמו? Does “leave with him” make any sense at all?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Sebastian–
      Good question and I will try to explain fully just as soon as I can set aside the time to do so.
      Stay tuned and take care,

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      That’s why, dear Elden,
      I like to say, “Everybody needs a rabbi”.
      And I humbly submit my candidacy.

  6. R’ Lapin, I’ve been learning from you for over 40 years, yet I’ve never heard or read this. It’s a beaut.
    But a natural question on it is: Why is is this essential message given to us in disguise? If the message were something highly spiritual or potentially confusing; sure, it should be available preferably to those who can use it well. After all, truth is power and not everybody should have lots of power. But this message is essential to everybody, so why wouldn’t our Loving Father get words like this out to us?
    You might say that it’s to make sure that everybody has a Rabbi? OK, maybe.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear David–
      And I have deeply appreciated your friendship each and every day of the past four decades. Now, the only minor matter I must correct is that you did hear this since I taught it in one of my sermons to our SoCal synagogue during summer 1979. Nonetheless, your wonderful question stands. Let me try this way: Imagine you ask me what makes a beautiful, awe inspiring lightning bolt? I respond by saying, that the voltage of the electrical discharge is L x dI/dt and the breakdown voltage is B x p x d/ ln(A x p x d) – ln(ln(1 + 1/secondary electron emission coefficient )) I then smile contentedly knowing that I answered you truthfully and precisely. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean very much to you because you lived a life instead of studying physics so you press your question further. I then explain that lightning is caused by a cloud becoming charged as a cumulative result of huge numbers of falling rain drops each carrying a tiny static electrical charge. Eventually the size of the charge carried by the cloud is enormous enough to jump an air gap of perhaps several miles which it does, discharging to some ground point. In doing so it ionizes the air particles in its route which glow white hot for an instant and the noise of that discharge travels from different points in the discharge to your ears and is thunder. That you get. “But” you ask, “Why did you first give me the essential message in disguise of letters and numbers in a complicated looking equation?”
      No, that wasn’t disguise. Those equations constituted a far more accurate and far more useful and far more widely applicable layout of permanent principles than my long-winded description in words of what causes lightning and thunder. But you preferred the latter. I understand. But it still wasn’t as true, as useful or as applicable as the way it was actually presented.
      Does that make sense to you, dear David?

  7. Rabbi Lapin,
    It never ceases to amaze me the revelation and wisdom you open up through the scriptures!
    Oftentimes when I am reading your material I say to myself ‘Whoa! Where did he come up with that insight! I know you are a smart guy but divine inspiration comes on you like the prophets of old.’ Thank you for your steadfastness and commitment to open up God’s word.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Jeff–
      You know me well enough to know that I am not afflicted with any false humility; I struggle enough with the real thing. So you know I speak with sad candour when I forgo any credit. Sadly, it is never I that ‘comes up with that insight’. I merely report (with diligent accuracy, I’ll say) what ancient Jewish wisdom reveals. This Thought Tool did thrill me as well and I was certainly helped ‘from Above’ in the task of setting it down with reasonable clarity. It also thrills me whenever I hear from you.
      Warmest wishes,

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