The Great Perhaps

“Three things sap one’s strength: worry, travel and sin.”

Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 70a


Legend has it that the French renaissance thinker Francois Rabelais’ last words were, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” If you did not catch this phrase from his own writings, you might have seen it in John Green’s novel, Looking for Alaska, the story of a young man who sets out to boarding school in search of adventure.


These are intriguing words as people pack up for summer vacations and expeditions. We never really know what we are going to experience when we take a journey. We hope for the Great Perhaps: the possibility that we will see something that will change us, relax us, challenge us and help us decompress. We want mystery but also long for the comforts of home. Alain de Botton confronts these contradictions in his book, The Art of Travel. The Talmud understood this and, as we see above, regarded travel as a source of potential anxiety.


Travel can sap your strength precisely when you do not view it as an adventure but as a humbling experience. You may not know the language, the currency or the simple gestures and expectations of the culture. You may get stomach cramps from the water and lose your way. People might see you for the foreigner you are and take advantage of you. We waste a lot of psychic energy perseverating on potential problems so it is not hard to understand why a Talmudic sage posited that travel saps our strength. Like sin and worry itself – travel knocks us out of a comfort zone.


But there is another side to travel captured in a different Talmudic volume. In the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 57b), we find this sentiment: “Three things restore a person’s good spirits: beautiful sounds, sights, and smells.” Travel can be restorative, inviting us to renew ourselves through a beautiful change of scenery. Where we might miss the sounds, sights and smells of our own neighborhood because they thin through familiarity, we become attuned to our senses in another environment. If you are on vacation right now or will be soon, contrast the sounds, sights and smells of where you come from to where you are now.


This process of “sense discovery” offers a new portal into the inner life. When we travel, we get disoriented and may blame it on the confusion of new surroundings. But this is perhaps because new places unsettle our own identity. Who am I in this new place? New places can stimulate personal reflection for precisely this reason: what held us back from thinking about ourselves was the absence of time and space. When we are given the gift of time and an extraordinary landscape, we may be forced into self-confrontation. Our new silence speaks.

As work environments relax and children go off routine, the summer offers us the opportunity to take inner journeys and explore closed off regions of ourselves. It offers us time to think about the rest of the year: our schedules, priorities and that which matters most. New sounds, sights and smells beckon to take us where we have not been before. We have to allow ourselves to go there, a leap into the Great Perhaps.


Shabbat Shalom