Backpacking Europe with a friend, we were embarrassed by the behavior of the tour groups with whom we would occasionally cross paths.

No, I’m not talking drunken soccer hooligans on the rampage. True, they were irritating, but this was worse. Lager louts may act in a herd-like fashion, drinking and fighting en masse, but they do exhibit some degree of autonomy through those tiny minds.

What provoked our outrage and disdain were the organized tour groups. Dressed identically, even down to those annoying fluorescent hats, decanted off and on those gargantuan buses at the will of their guide, clustering into overpriced tourist traps to buy identical teaspoon sets, postcards and other useless merchandise—we wondered why they bothered coming at all.

If you insist on eating at the same fast-food franchises as back home, hang out all day with the same crowd, and make no serious attempt to savor authentic local culture, then why not stay home, save your money, and illustrate your photo album with pictures of yourself digitally superimposed standing in front of foreign attractions?

We were different. We weren’t “tourists” or “sightseers”; we were backpackers. We stayed in fleabag motels and refused to let ourselves be ordered around by any guidebook. We got our pockets picked in Venice, accepted Shabbat invitations from strangers, wore out our shoe leather on the cobblestones of Paris, and came back with a far more complex appreciation and understanding of other peoples and cultures than had we done our traveling from the sterile comforts of an air-conditioned tourist bus.

Or so we believed.

We read this week of the tragedy that befell the Jews after they believed the report of ten of the spies. The spies returned from their travels with wild tales about the impregnability of the Land of Canaan and the inevitable danger involved in leaving the desert and entering the Land. After the Jews spent an evening crying, complaining and bemoaning their fate, G‑d punished them by decreeing that they would not be taken directly to the Promised Land as first planned, but remain an extra forty years in the desert.

When Moses had first spoken about sending agents to discover the best way to conquer the land, he didn’t speak about “spies”; he spoke of “tourists.”1 A spy needs to be constantly on the alert, plotting and scheming how best to obtain information, forward it back to base, and use it in the most effective manner. Tourists, by contrast, seem to float serenely over the surface of the land, unaffected and untouched by anything they see or anyone they contact.

On the face of it, by abandoning their touring mission and becoming spies, these men were in a position to render far more useful a service to their compatriots waiting for them back in the desert. Moses had instructed them to return with factual information, such as the location and size of the cities to be captured, the relative strength of their defenses, the character of the inhabitants and the productivity of the soil. The kind of stuff that could have been discovered by reading the local equivalent of Lonely Planet or Let’s Go Canaan. Of their own volition they became spies.2 They quantified the capacity of the enemy to resist, and compared that with the resources the Israelites had available. They did a cost-benefit analysis of the profits of invasion against the risks, and independently decided that they’d be better off in the desert.

This was their mistake. Moses hadn’t asked them to spy, because we didn’t need to know if the task was achievable. G‑d had told us to go in and conquer, and by definition we expected to be successful. Moses’ only concern was how best to achieve G‑d’s desired outcome. By interfering with Moses’ direct demand and contaminating the process with their own wishes and perspectives, they caused disaster.

When my friend and I backpacked Europe, we prided ourselves on our autonomy and ability to choose our path through life, and mostly this type of independence is commendable. There are times however, when we are better off "staying above it all," doing what we are told and living up to G‑d’s plan.

When we are operating under direct instruction, whether written in the Torah or educated thus by a prophet, artificially interjecting our own independent likes, dislikes and desires is foolhardy, and will probably lead to years spent wondering and wandering through a barren desert of lost opportunities.