Are we there yet? The importance of journey (Shabbat Masei sermon, July 21, 2017)
Not a week goes by without a story coming across one’s inbox or Facebook feed about the horrors of airline travel – long delays, cancellations or even getting booted or dragged off a flight. The frustrations of flying from point a to point b are known to us all. But, honestly: usually the experience involves a couple of plastic cups of ginger ale, partially completing a Sudoku puzzle in an airline magazine, watching a mediocre movie, and, suddenly, you safely arrive at your destination, hundreds of miles across a continent. We all have to admit that – in many ways – it beats a year on a covered wagon, wild animal attacks, typhoid fever and scurvy.
However, there is a middle ground and there’s something to be said for it. I have, several times, moved across the country and taken a week to make the drive. An airplane ride involves being almost completely removed from the land you are traversing. But when you travel by car you are spending hours watching plains gradually give way to mountains, farmland transform to desert. You stop and hear local accents, eat food in local restaurants, see quirky sites reflecting local culture. There’s inevitably the wrenches thrown into the works – I’ve been stranded on highways with flat tires, gotten lost on back roads, been held back for hours by traffic and construction, and no cross-country trip is complete without the need for a bathroom that won’t be available for miles.
Making a journey – a real physical journey with stops and adventures and frustrations and surprises – is something that always makes an impression. And at the outset of this week’s Torah portion – the final Torah portion in this 4th Torah book, Numbers, there are 47 verses detailing every individual stop and camping place that the Israelites made as they journeyed for 40 years across the wilderness. In fact the portion itself is called, “Masei” – “Journeys.” Why so much attention to every stop along the way? What’s the point? I mean, it’s about getting from Egypt to Israel, right? Why should we spend time hearing all about the space in the middle?
Our tradition has always understood the Israelites’ journey to not just be about physically getting from point a to point b. Our rabbis understood “journey” to be about the travels and transitions of our lives. We journey when we change jobs or careers, we journey when we change relationships, we journey when we decide to undergo religious conversion, after we experience a death or a birth: Anything related to the transition from point a to point b on the path of our life / is a journey. And we learn lessons about our own life transitions through Jewish wisdom shared about this very early Torah transition of the Israelite people.
Among the many writings on this part of Torah called “Masei” – I’m going to focus on three. And you might find that you relate to one or the other of them in terms of the times in your own life when you are “in between:” moving from one thing in our lives to another thing.
A teacher from the 11th century, Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan, asks:
Why does the Torah give us this super long list of details about every single place the Israelites stopped on their wanderings? Because if you add them up, and you don’t count the first year or the last year – they only moved 20 times! That’s barely any moves at all in 38 years! So to Rabbi Moshe, this section of Torah is here to show God’s kindness. To Rabbi Moshe, making changes, moves and transitions is like punishment. So the fewer changes the better – a good life is a life where things stay basically the same.
Here’s another view – from Rabbi Tanchuma who lived about the 9th century. He said this section of the portion Masei can be compared to a story of a King whose son is very sick. The King takes his son on a long journey to find a doctor who can cure him. After a long trip, they find someone who successfully treats the son and returns him to full health. Now, it’s time for them to go home again. As they go home, they pass by all the places they were in when they didn’t know how this mission was going to turn out. Every place they pass, the King says to his son – who was kind of out of it when they were on their way to the doctor: Oh! – this is the place we stayed when you had that bad fever. This is the place we slept and your head hurt. This is where we ate when I thought you might be getting better. and so on, all the way home.
So what is Rabbi Tanchuma teaching by sharing this fable about the King and his son? To Rabbi Tanchuma, remembering back to all the steps and stops along the way of making a life change is part of a process of healing – Reflecting back on exactly how we got to a place in our lives and recalling the details helps us process and appreciate where we are. Looking back at events in our lives that brought us to our present place can give us understanding and give us deeper gratitude for where and how we ended up.
Here is a third idea about the Torah’s detailed description of the Israelites’ journey: from Sephorno, an Italian rabbi and philosopher who lived in the 1500’s. He says, “God wished to write the travels of Israel to inform us of their great merit in following God to, and all through, the wilderness. They journeyed in such a way that made them fit to enter the promised land of Israel.”
Sephorno’s idea about the Israelites’ journey is that it wasn’t just for the purpose of physically getting them to the promised land. The journey itself – the experiences, the hardships, the bumps along the road – all those things molded them and their characters in such a way that it brought them maturity. It shaped them up emotionally and spiritually. This time of transition created people who were able to live life on a higher level.
So much of life is transitions. In fact, our TBS Adult Education theme for our community this year is “Transition Happens: Can you Make Change?” Not only will many individuals go through a variety of life transitions over the course of this year but, of course, our congregation is entering a time of major transition in rabbinic leadership. How will each of us see the process of change?
Will we see it, like Rabbi Moshe, as hardship? Will we see it, like Rabbi Tanchuma, as something to get through and look back on, with some nostalgia and gratitude? Will we see it, like Sephorno, as a time of expansion and learning?
Will we at times, see it as all of these things?
Realistically, there are times when life change brings frustrations – the metaphoric flat tires and construction delays. But we should not be blinded by occasional hurdles to the great opportunity for growth that transition offers us.
Just like a long car trip enables you to expand your horizons, see new things – as it changes and opens you – so do journeys in life – going through personal changes and communal changes – provide you mind-expanding and life-enhancing opportunities. And learning things about yourself and others that you never expected.
On this Shabbat Masei – the Shabbat of journeys – may you be open to the transitions and changes of life and the rich lessons, gifts and blessings they provide.
Ken y’hi ratzon – may this be God’s will.