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 two Torah portions. 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 Dophkah, Kivrot Hata’avah, Bnai Yaakan, and of course, my favourite, Almon-Divlataymah. Why we are told the exact specifics of the desert encampments seems for the most part a mystery. But travel on they do.
Travel is a huge multi-billion dollar industry, especially now after Covid which has been termed “Revenge Travel” as people strive to make up the time and experiences lost to the pandemic. Despite all the grumblings of air travel, we are more than happy to hop on a plane and be somewhere very distant in a matter of hours. We have come to take for granted something that, but a couple of generations ago, was quite foreign and unknown. Less than a hundred years ago, few went beyond a few miles of their birth-place unless forced to do so due to persecution or opportunity.
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, culture, people and language gives us a different perspective on ourselves and our lives. It helps us to see things in a different light and gives us the opportunity to reassess our values.
Re-evaluating our lives is an integral part of 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 principles.
Throughout Jewish history our greatest leaders and pioneers, the forefathers and foremothers, Avraham and Sara all the way down to Jacob, Leah, Rachel and beyond, to Joseph and Moshe, were forced to travel far from their birthplace. It was a crucial and necessary step on the road to creating the great leaders each had become. Indeed the very first words to the very first Jew, Avraham, were לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ – Leave your land, birthplace and father’s house and go to the land that I will show you.
And now, at the end of the book of BaMidbar/Numbers, the Israelites 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’s 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 the Israelites 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 or Instagram for everyone to see.
These travels had a second function as well. The ability to adapt to each new place gave the Jewish nation 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, we influence it, and we 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 if you want a fantastic sense of what it has done for us then visit The Kotel, the Western Wall on any Friday night. There you will get a great sense of the culmination of all our journeys. The tapestry of different Jews – Chassidic, Sephardic, Israeli “knit kippa”, American Birthright kids, young Israeli soldiers, Russian, Ethiopian, secular Jews, Spanish speaking, French speaking and Momentum women and men – every type of Jew representing hundreds of different countries over thousands of years are all at the same place at the same time. And we are all there as one people.
These 42 different places outlined in our parsha hint to the four corners of the globe that God would send us to. And from each new place we reappear different and stronger, growing each step of the way in so many different places, until we finally returned home to the Land of Israel. And now that we have come home, we are so much fuller and greater than we left it so long ago.
I’m just rolling away
Behind the wheel of a stolen Chevrolet