Are We There Yet?
When we come to place where the road and the sky collide
Throw me over the edge and let my spirit glide
They told me I was going to have to work for a living
But all I want to do is ride
I don’t care where we’re going from here
Honey you decide
This week we have a double-header Torah portion. One of them, Masei – literally Journeys – lists the names of all 42 locations where the Israelites encamped during their forty year wandering of the Sinai desert. We are told of places like like Dophkah, Kivrot Hata’avah, Bnai Yaakan, and of course, my favourite, Almon-Divlataymah. Why we are told the exact specifics of their desert encampments seems for the most part a mystery. But travel on they did.
Travel is a huge multi-billion dollar industry and the further we move along in history, the more we exercise our ability to move about and explore. To hop onto a plane and be in another country in a few hours is no big deal, as opposed to our grandparents a couple generations ago who seldom went beyond a few miles of their birth place unless forced to do so due to persecution or opportunity.
Whenever I have the urge to complain about air travel – something we are expected to do in our day and age of Spirit Airlines or Air Canada Rouge – I always pause to recall a comedian’s comment about flying. “You are 35,000 feet up in the air, sitting in a chair and going 500 miles an hour… and you’re not dying!!” It does put things in a different perspective.
We love to travel because going to different places offers us different experiences. It literally and figuratively expands our horizons. Coming face to face with another environment and culture gives us a different perspective, which in turn makes us look at ourselves in a different light. It can often lead to a reevaluation of many things that we take for granted in our own lives.
In Judaism this is part of a process called teshuva – return, or repentance. Teshuva is far greater than a mere repentance of sins but, moreso, a renewal of self that can only begin when one breaks out of his or her present world-view.
Too often we get locked into the values of our familiar and imminent surroundings. We think the way we view the world, or how we were brought up is the be all and end all of existence. Coming in contact with a place or group of people with a whole different set of values forces us to question and refine our own. Indeed, throughout Jewish history our greatest leaders and pioneers, the forefathers and foremothers, Abraham and Sarah all the way down to Jacob, Leah, Rachel and beyond, Joseph and Moshe, were forced to travel far from their birthplace. It was a crucial and necessary step and route in creating their greatness.
Here, at the end of the book of BaMidbar (Numbers), the Jewish people were at the post-adolescence of their existence, emerging from Egypt a mere generation before. They were akin to 18 to 25-year olds who often seek to travel the world, are constantly on the move and have little care for everyday comforts or stability. Sleeping outdoors in sleeping bags, traipsing about in youth hostels, meeting new people from all over the world – it is a time of exploration and definition as it was for this nascent nation. They too were at a time where they were just getting a sense of their freedom and trying to define and shape their future.
Israel’s travel log in the Torah is not what is often referred to as “wanderings”; aimless movements to buy time so the old-timer, sinner generation could die off. No, each stop offered something different for the Jewish nation. Every place had a unique and different name because each had a unique and different experience that was crucial in defining Israel in a way that would allow us to carry that experience with us forever. It was not too dissimilar to our own experiences of travel and the manner in which we can recall how each place had its distinctive impressions, atmosphere and impact on our lives – all duly noted on facebook for everyone to see.
For the Jewish people, these travels had a second function as well. The ability to adapt to each new place gave the Jewish people the necessary tools to bear the long travels (and travails) of Exile that we have endured for over 2000 years. It set the stage of what was to be. Throughout all of our travels in history and across the globe, and with each new place that we have dwelt, we absorb that locale, weinfluence it, and allow it to shape us. Each destination becomes another layer in the ever evolving complexity of our people.
We Jewish people have travelled so far and for so long and today, when you visit The Kotel, the Western Wall on any Friday night, you will get a great sense of the culmination of all our journeys. The tapestry of Jews – Chassidic, Sephardic, Israeli “knit kippa”, American Birthright kids, Russian, Ethiopian, secular Jews, Spanish speaking, French and JWRP women this week including my wife – every type of Jew representing hundreds of different countries over thousands of years are all at the same place at the same time… as one.
These 42 different places outlined in our parsha hinted to the four corners of the globe that God would send us to. From each new place we reappear different and stronger, growing each step of the way, until we are finally ready to return home to the Land of Israel – fuller and greater than we left it thousands of years ago.
I’m just rolling away from yesterday
Behind the wheel of a stolen Chevrolet
I’m going to get a little higher
See if I can hot-wire reality