“See, I was standing right there,” I hold out the brochure for my children, pointing to the famous Panama Canal.

I had just returned from a speaking engagement in Panama. In between lectures, Selma, a friendly woman from the community, graciously offered to give me a tour of special attractions. My children are eager to hear all about the sites that I visited.

“Far on my right, I could view the Pacific Ocean and on the left was the Atlantic Ocean! And here was the canal, attaching the two.”

Out came the world map. My husband gingerly placed it on the kitchen table and all our heads locked together as we located Panama.

“Here, it even says ‘Panama Canal’,” Shira was the first to locate it. “This must have been where you were.”

“I was able to see how the Canal works, as a ship traveled through.” I offered.

“But why did they have to build the Canal? And what is a canal, anyway?” My youngest son, Yisroel queried.

“Well, for ships that are traveling from Europe, it’s very convenient to cut through the Panama Canal instead of going all around South America to get to the other side,” I began.

My husband is tracing for the children the route that ships travel and illustrating the long detour that would be necessary without the Canal.

The Panama Canal is 80 kilometers long from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was cut through one of the narrowest and lowest saddles of the long, mountainous Isthmus that joins the North- and South -American Continents.

Recalling the information I had learned about the Canal, I continued. “For centuries, ever since Panama was discovered by Christopher Columbus, people were trying to make a route, cutting through Panama to shorten their sea travels. First, King Charles of Spain ordered a survey of the area, but it was beyond the possibilities of that time.

“Three centuries later, the French were the first to actually begin construction. But they faced a difficult climate, constant landslides and tropical diseases. Many people died along the way and eventually, their funds ran out.

“Finally, in the early 1900s, the Americans took up the challenge. It took 10 years and the labor of more than 75,000 workers,” I emphasized the numbers. “They faced many hurdles as they tried to dig across the Isthmus and build huge locks to hold the water levels steady,” I paused.

“The Canal is made up from locks that open and close to raise the ship from sea level to lake level and then back again to sea level,” I point to the picture of the large locks on the brochure.

“The incredible determination and will of the men and women who built the Canal resulted in its successful completion in 1914,” I conclude.

“Was the ship that you watched crossing the Canal large?” asked Shira.

“It was very big and it originated in Israel. I could tell from the Hebrew letters forming the company name that were emblazoned on its side,” I explain. “Every ship is charged a toll, based on the value of merchandise that it transports. Guess how much it cost for that ship to pass through the canal.”

“One hundred dollars,” Yisroel was the first to speculate.

“Much, much more.” I responded.

“One thousand dollars,” Naomi suggested.

“Much more.” I repeated.

“Five thousand dollars,” Shira ventured.

I shook my head.

“Twenty thousand dollars,” my husband was enjoying this guessing game.

“No, again,” I rejoined. “It cost that Israeli ship $200,000!”

My children gasped.

“But even that amount must be well worth it to save the long detour all around South America,” my husband mused.

I continued telling my family all about Panama and the wonderful community that I met. And we continued talking about the Canal and the ships, while perusing the world map and the brochures that I had brought back.

And as we spoke, I thought about how sometimes in life we are faced with a huge obstacle – a large piece of rough terrain that stands in our way. It takes a lot of work, energy and determination – on ourselves and on our environment – to slowly chisel away at this obstacle.

Sometimes, we may opt for the shorter route – avoid it or travel around it, rather than facing the challenge and dealing with it.

This is what the Talmud refers to as the shorter, longer route. It seems the quicker route to travel, but if we haven’t transformed our environment, or worked on our own character traits, ultimately the obstacle remains, blocking our path from here on in.

On the other hand, if we do expend the necessary efforts, and face the challenges that life presents us, head on, we have traveled the “longer, shorter route,” longer and more difficult initially, but ultimately a more enduring and invaluable investment.

An investment so great, in fact, it was easily worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for one large ship that was passing through.

Chana Weisberg is the author of several books, the latest, Divine Whispers – Stories that Speak to the Heart and Soul (Targum/Feldheim). She is also a columnist for www.chabad.org’s Weekly Magazine. Weisberg lectures on issues relating to women, faith, relationships and the Jewish soul. To book a talk for your community or for information on her books or speaking schedule, please contact: weisberg@sympatico.ca