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Shelach 5779 - What We Saw in Guatemala 

07/02/2019 01:44:58 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Some of you might have noticed my new shoes.  I bought them in Pastores, a small village in Guatemala, which specializes in making shoes.  I bought them to support the local Guatemalan economy and also to remember our trip to Guatemala.  They are a conversation starter and I want people to ask about the shoes so that I can tell them about our very special experience in Guatemala.

In total there were 30 of us in our group who traveled on our spiritual mission to Guatemala.

What did we learn from our experience there?

Let’s answer this question through the lens of our parasha, Shelach.

The parashah begins with Moshe sending forth representatives of the Jewish people to scout out the land of Canaan, “U’reitem et haaretz mah hi, ve-et ha’am hayoshev aleihah, you shall see the land, what is it, and the people that dwell upon it” (13:18).

There is a command to see, “u’reitem.”

There is a second command “to see,” at the end of our portion.  “Vehayah lachem letzitzit, u’reitem oto uzechartem et mitzvoth Hashem, and you shall have tzitzit and see it and remember the mitzvoth of Hashem” (15:39).

There is also a third time in the Torah where it says “u’reitem, and you shall see.” When Pharaoh commands the midwives to kill the Jewish babies he says to them, u’reitem al haavnaim, when you see the Jewish women on their birthing stools (Shemot 1:16).

The commentary, Likutei Basar Likutei of R. Shmuel Alter, connects these three verses with a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot where we are commanded to see more broadly and widen our spiritual perspective ((as cited by R. Shalom Rosner, Shelach, 5777, found on

Says the Mishnah (3:1): 
Histakel beshlosha devarim: —look at three things and you won’t come to sin”
1- “Me-eyain batah—know from where you came.”  He connects this with the verse, “ureiten al haavnayim,” see when you too, were delivered on a birthing stool.
2- “Le’an atah holekh,” to where you are going. He connects this with the verse, “See the land, ure’eiten et haaretz.”  See where you are going with your life and where you will eventually end up.
3- “lifnei mi atah atid leiten din vechshbon,” see that in the end you will end up having to give an accounting of your life.  He connects this with the verse, “ureitem oto, and you shall see the tzitzit, and remember the commandments of Hashem and do them. 

This teaching especially resonates with me this week.  I too, want to suggest that the repetition of the word, “ur-eitem oto,” is a broader commandment for us to see the world.

U’reitem oto, we must not have myopic vision.  We must not only focus on the direct needs of our own community.  We must sometimes broaden our vision and see the world around us and see how we can help.


U’reiten al haavnaim, we must see the birthing stools and remember we too were once birthed on birthing stools.

Our first night in Guatemala, we landed after 10:00pm.  By midnight we had gathered in a marketplace in the middle of Guatemala City.  During the day it is a busy open-air market.  At night, the market place fills with hundreds of children whose mothers work as prostitutes.  Just moments before we got off our bus, we witnessed from the window of our bus a street fight with one young man swinging a knife and the other swinging a stone.  As we got off the bus, with our armed guards, our holy guides from the church, Casa de Dios told us that we must not wander or deviate from the plan.  We had no idea what to expect and I felt my son squeeze my hand tight in fear.  We met with children of all ages who live on the street.  Some looked like they were newborns and others were in their early teens.  The church workers told us that many of these young teens were already mothers themselves.  None of them went to school or had actual homes to live in.  We gave them each a blanket and a shirt and an instant soup mix which they devoured without even adding water.  

U’reiten al haavnayim.  We later learned that although Guatemala has a population of around 17 million people, as many as 1.5 million Guatemalan children don’t attend school.  As we got off the bus to meet the children, the church worker said to us: “Whatever you do, please look at these children in their eyes.  In the eyes of the government these children simply do not exist.  They are not registered anywhere. There is no record of them.  Simply by looking at them in the eyes you might remind them for a moment that their lives matter.”

U’reiten al haavnayim.  We must look at the children of the world and remind ourselves that they exist.

There was chaos that night.  The children were all running forward to get a blanket and a shirt.  But then a young man named Daniel stepped forward.  He was the son of Pastor Raul, whose church was coordinating the ongoing efforts to help these children.  Daniel spoke to the children.  He gathered them in prayer and created order so that everyone got a blanket and food. It was very hard to leave those children that night knowing that as we slept in our hotel they would sleep on the market floor with only a blanket.  But hardest of all, was knowing that we were only seeing a glimpse of the struggles of millions of children in Guatemala. (Click here to support this charity.)


U’reitem et haaretz: And you must see the land.

Obviously this verse refers to the commandment to see the land of Canaan, and not the land of Guatemala.  But I also felt a spiritual commandment to see the land of Guatemala itself.  It, too, is an ancient land with a long and rich history of Mayans and, also, of Jewish involvement.  We slept in the town of Antigua which was a haven for Conversos fleeing Spain, and much of the architecture contains hints of our Jewish culture.

I walked into a shop in Antigua that sells jade and asked them if they sell a mezuzah case.  Without pausing for a second they said, “of course.” 

Guatemala has 37 volcanoes, and we decided to alter our plans and spend a few hours climbing a volcano.  We got to the top and saw the beautiful lava flowing down the volcano and recited the blessing, oseh maaseh bereishit, in appreciation of the beautiful world Hashem created.

Of course, the volcanoes of Guatemala have also caused tremendous damage.  Around a year ago the Fuego Volcano erupted and killed hundreds of people and destroyed villages, leaving thousands without homes and running water.

We visited one of those villages, which is called Nueva Jerusalem.  When we entered the village we were greeted with a sign that said Bruchim Habaim in Hebrew.  The village is the product of a partnership between the Catholic Church, the Evangelical Community, the Jewish Community, and the State of Israel.  It is a new village that was created to house those displaced by the volcano.  The partners in this project are building homes for hundreds of families and providing them with running water and also medical clinics.  The goal is also to provide them with a school and to teach irrigation skills so that the people of this village can earn a livelihood.

We entered one of the homes, which to our eyes was small and oppressively hot.  But the villagers were incredibly grateful for their new homes and since we were Jewish and spoke Hebrew, greeted us as heroes.  With the owner of the house, we sang the song, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, and one of our members pulled out her piccolo and played the song.  We sang and danced with the owner and she told us that our visit brought her great joy.

After leaving that house, we encountered a man named Shay.  Shay was part of the initial delegation sent from Israel to help start the village.  After the delegation was called back to Israel, Shay decided to stay and complete the task.  He has spent every day since then working on building Nueva Jerusalem.  Talking to Shay, we felt that we were in the presence of spiritual greatness—a man who was dedicating his life to helping those in desperate need of basic things like water and shelter.

Leaving Nueva Jerusalem, I felt that I had witnessed a prophetic vision.  As the psalmist says, “kol goyim..yishtachavu lefanekha, all the nations shall bow down before you” (Psalms 86:9).  Here in the back roads of Guatemala there was a shared vision of spiritual unity and a recognition that we are all children of God.  That to me is the essence of the messianic vision—the recognition that we are all children of God. In this Guatemalan village, I truly felt that we were in a New Jerusalem, a new light upon the world. (Click here to support this charity.)


U’reitem oto uzechartem et mitzvoth Hashem: And you shall see the tzitzit and remember the commandments of Hashem.

I left Guatemala inspired after witnessing the dedication of the Jewish community of Guatemala and their herculean efforts to keep the flame of the Torah alive.

Guatemala has a Jewish population of under 1,000 people.  But it still has three Chabad houses.  The Shabbat we were there, the Chabad of San Pedro hosted over 100 people for Shabbat dinner (mostly traveling Israelis).   We were able to pray and eat in these Chabad centers and saw up close the dedication of the shluchim and their families.   We spent Shabbat with the Orthodox synagogue in Guatemala City, which welcomed us as royal guests and fed us generously.  We were invited to teach a class and lead services.  They made us feel like our presence and energy lifted them.   

The Jewish community of Guatemala is small, but they are energetic and are deeply engaged in humanitarian work.  One night we combined with their humanitarian organization, Cadena, and gathered in a village that had no running water.  We were able to provide water filters and blankets for the entire village.  The water filters were necessary to make potable water which the villagers did not have before we arrived.  (Click here to support Cadena.)

When we arrived in this village the clouds were gathering and a thunderstorm was approaching.  Still there were hundreds of people lined up for our visit.  We quickly broke into song and we taught them the song Baruch Hashem (by Zusha).  We sang this song together and even though there was a language barrier, the warmth and joy in the air was palpable.  It started to pour and thunder, but no one left.  

“And you shall see them and remember the commandments of Hashem.”  This verse technically refers to tzitzit, but of course it also refers to people in need of our help.  We must see people in need and remember the commandments of Hashem.


With so many overwhelming needs in this country, and only being there for 5+ days, what could we realistically hope to accomplish?

On our trip we were helped door to door by some incredible people associated with the Church, Casa de Dios.  One morning we were shown the impressive campus of this church. The pastor, Raul, showed me that the name of the room where they hold youth services is called the Caleb room, after the biblical figure, Caleb. 

Of course, Caleb appears prominently in our parasha.  When the Meraglim return, they say that it is too difficult to enter the land of Canaan.  The inhabitants are fierce and the fortifications are immense.  

Caleb quiets the mob and says, “aloh naaleh…ki yachol nuchal lah, we must go up, because we can prevail” (13:30).  He does not refute their arguments with logic. He just seeks to inspire.  He says that we can do it.  We are capable of entering the land.  

I view our mission in that context.  The church we met is doing an enormous amount of humanitarian work, the Jewish community is working hard day and night, and most of all, the people of Guatemala do not have the luxury of giving up or stopping to work towards their survival and a better future.  What I pray we were able to accomplish is to offer words of inspiration, to remind them that there are people around the world pulling for them and praying for them.

One of the last groups we met with was Te Conecta, a small organization run on a shoe string budget by a brother and sister team.  These two people saw that when people were deported to Guatemala they were simply being dropped in the country without any resources.  They took it upon themselves to train these people and to give them skills that would enable them to succeed in Guatemala.  They now train over 2,000 people a year and help them find jobs.  As a result of our meeting them, one of our group members offered to help them start a US non-profit so they can help even more people learn skills needed to survive and even thrive. (Click here to support this charity.)
We came to inspire and to support, but we left inspired and supported.  We left inspired by the holy men and women who dedicate their lives towards a greater future for all of the Guatemalans.  

We were reminded that we must see the land and its inhabitants.  We must not only see our tzitzit, but also the holy work of other faith communities.  And, above all, we were reminded that we must see the children of the world.  U’reiten al haavnayim, we must see the children of the world. 

Sun, February 16 2020 21 Shevat 5780