There’s a well known saying “It’s about the Journey not the Destination.” Or perhaps you know it in the reverse, as “It’s not about the Destination, it’s about the Journey.” Or you’ve seen it plastered on a feel good bumper sticker in the middle of rush hour traffic as a desperate Mantra “Don’t worry about the destination, focus on the Journey.” There are a few more variations, but you understand the meaning. Don’t worry about that end goal- that place you finish- that final stop: enjoy the moments that get you there! Certainly my parents told me this any number of times during my childhood. On trips into the Rocky Mountains or down to New Mexico they would implore me, “Sam- look out the window (instead of at your book) and take in everything around you!” A direct challenge to the desperate moan of me and my sisters “Are we there yet?” And as I grew up I realized that maybe my parents were correct, that half the fun of a road trip was just that: the road.
While reading this week’s dual Parsha, Matot/Maasei, I came across what the Rabbis call the “42 Stage Journey” of the children of Israel. A step by step numbering of each destination where Bnei Israel encamped during their time in the wilderness. And while reading this incredible journey narrative, it occurred to me that the Torah might not agree with the slogans and the bumper stickers. For those Israelites leaving Egypt, for Moses and his siblings, I think one can make a convincing argument that it was, in fact, all about the Destination. The Journey had very little to do with it. Since the reasoning behind “It’s not about the Destination” is that we learn more from the Journey than we do from our arrival, but does our story of being in the wilderness fit that model? Do the people learn from the extra 38 years in the wilderness and the death of a generation? Perhaps when you are a fugitive slave, redeemed by God, thrust into a wilderness and preserved only by repeated miraculous intervention… maybe… maybe… it really is all about “Are we there yet.”
We’ll come back to the text, but for the moment I want to take a step away from “Is it about the Journey or the Destination” and focus on stories of travel. Specifically our own narratives of personal journey, and why we tell them. Often people define themselves by a journey narrative. I hear it when I make new friends, when people are trying to explain their identity, a huge composite of information, in the shortest possible way. I hear this when I visit people in the hospital or at elder care centres, with people who are looking back and organizing their memories of well lived lives. I hear it from my own lips, regularly this summer, when I try to explain how it is that I’ve gotten to this place, in this role, at this time.
Why do we tell people about our journeys? Because a journey can explain who we are. I’m going to teach by example here and tell you about my own Journey. My great grandparents came to the United States from Belarus at the turn of the last century, fleeing Russian persecution. They settled in New York, raised their children, and became American. My grandparents met, all of them, at various USO dances and my paternal Grandparents married after my grandfather returned from the fighting in France during the Second World War. They each moved out to burrows in Long Island, raised children, who went to University throughout the east coast of the USA. My parents met in Philadelphia and married there, before moving out to Denver, Colorado. I grew up in Denver, regularly visiting my family on the East Coast and Florida- where one set of grandparents had retired. I attended University in Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, and moved to Manhattan where I worked for 6 months. I left Manhattan for Chicago, lived there for three years, and then I visited Jerusalem. One year later I moved to Jerusalem, I lived there for two years, before coming back to North America and settling in Cincinnati where Hebrew Union College- the Reform Rabbinical School- is. And I will live there for one more year, until I move to an unknown future location: the first congregation that I will serve as a “Rabbi” instead of -Student Rabbi or Intern Rabbi.
That’s my “journey”. A listing of places, relations, and some sparse detailing. And yet I’m certain that it’s let you know me better! Why do I say that? Because I trust that you have knowledge of the places that I’ve named, even if you don’t know them intimately. You hear Belarus and Russia and know that , perhaps like some in this room, mine is an Ashkenaz immigrant family. It could be that we even came from the same region or fleeing the same pogrom. You know the challenges that my family faced when we came to this continent, because it is a story that many of us share. When I speak of the New York in which my Grandparents lived, certain images pop up, and when I speak of my grandfather’s service in the european theater during World War Two other references are sure to come up as well. And it doesn’t matter if you have a deep knowledge of the location and the time period. We are familiar enough with those places: even if it’s simply a landmark, the Liberty Bell or the Rocky Mountains, imprinted on our own memories or perceptions of that time.
And perhaps you’ve gleaned something of my personality from the journey as well. Not only are you gathering the WHO of me, but maybe you’ve also gathered a little bit of the WHAT of me. That I like cities more than smaller locations maybe? Or that I always seem drawn to live in places with significant Jewish populations. That Israel is important to me, or that I like Chicago more than I like New York. And if I had a map of my journeys, one that showed you the places that i’ve travelled for pleasure (rather than just living) you’d see a road map through the Mediterranean, parts of the Middle East, Eastern and Western Europe, and of course Canada. And you might gather a piercing insight about me from that or make an mistaken assumption about my interests. My journey can inform you about who and I am and what I value, and yours can do the same for me.
But all of this information you are gleaning, the identity that I’m sharing with you from my Journey, is based on the fact that you are familiar with the locations that I mention, either intimately or on a broad level. Because if you lack this frame of reference, if Jerusalem is a blank void to you, if you don’t know any part of the immigrant story in North America, if I say the words Niagra Falls and no image comes into your mind… then my identity cannot be established through my journey. We don’t share enough of a cultural repertoire for this method of sharing to work!
And that lack of shared repertoire isn’t so rare on a micro level! I’ve been a bit of a Stranger in a not so strange land this summer, here in Toronto. People are often mentioning landmarks, neighborhoods, and places that I’m just utterly unfamiliar with. I was told repeatedly, for instance, how much of a shame it was that the Islands are flooded. I know what an Island is… but I don’t have images or experiences of Great Lakes islands to draw on. When Rabbi Splansky was looking for places for me to live she had to explain to me the difference between living in the Annex versus living north of Eglinton. When congregants first mentioned that they were going cottaging for the weekend I politely asked where, but when they told me all I could offer was a blank stare. I’m sure your cottage is beautiful, but because I’ve never been to Northern Ontario I fill in the image in my head with memories of my God-Parents mountain home in the Colorado Rockies or of the cabin my friends and I rented a few summers ago on a canoeing trip in Minnesota. Thankfully our lack of shared repertoire is a temporary thing, and just as I’ve adapted, learned and increased my frame of reference, so too have people around me learned to be broader and wider, to make it easier for me to understand their journeys.
The great challenge of the 42 Stage Journey of Israel, from this week’s Parsha, is that we lack the cultural repertoire to share in this narrative. The locations that are listed; Marah, Dophka and Elush, Hazeroth and Rithmah, Libnah and Rissah, Kehelah and Mount Shepher… these were places that had great meaning to the Israelites who travelled through them. Perhaps to our later ancestors as well, those who lived during the times of the Temple or who fled down to Egypt during the exile. And it wouldn’t surprise me if the Jews of Egypt had retained some tradition or knowledge of these places. If you knew where these places where, if you knew pieces of songs, landmarks, images, culture, or cuisine: or perhaps if you had a cousin who still lived in one, or if a travelling merchant brought you a vessel from one and perfume from another. If you went camping in the Negev desert and could landmark them… they would have meaning. But we lack the ability to do this. And as a result this journey narrative- which is so important to the text that it feels the need to bring us through it step by step, each individual location along a path of 42- is mostly empty.
And I say mostly because there are locations on this listing that we know! The Slave Built city of Ramses, The Sea of Reeds which we walked through on dry land, the Wilderness of Sinai where we received Torah! These markers that we know, where our ears perk up and MEANING suddenly slams into us from the narrative, only serves to highlight the lack of familiarity we have with the other locations. The brief illumination of context only highlights the dissonance when the other locations sink into the dark of obscurity.
If you’ve been learning with me at all this summer, you’ve heard me say what’s coming next a few times already. Dissonance, the kind I’m describing here, is a natural part of studying Torah. We are often confronted with Dissonance, ranging from as minor a twinge as phrases, words or locations which lack meaning to us, to as large as full contradictions. Contradictions between our modern values and our historical text and even seeming contradictions within the text itself. It is my belief that the role of meaningful Torah study is not to exclude, excuse, or excise these contradictions, rather the role of meaningful Torah study is to manage the dissonance. To acknowledge the discomfort or the seeming problems, and then to turn it again and again- as our sages say in the Talmud “Hafuchba, v’Hafuchba Kol I’Ba” Turn it and Turn it again for Everything is in it: until we find a new angle, a new teaching, a new approach which works for us.
And with that approach in mind, this is the teaching I want to offer to you on the 42 Stage Journey of Israel. Perhaps the original meaning of those locations is lost on me, but my lack of shared cultural experiences does not render the verse empty of meaning. I argue that the recitation of these locations in our Torah serves as a Kaddish Yatom, a mourner’s Kaddish, for the generation which left the land of Egypt. Because in each of those locations that are mentioned members of that generation were lost. We know, the Torah tells us, that at this point in the narrative the children of Israel stand on the banks of the Jordan and the entire generation which left Egypt has died. And while their names are too numerous to count the recitation of the journey is a method by which God and Israel can memorialize the generation. And what then do we learn out from this? That our connection to the stories of our ancestors transcends our normal limitations. Despite lacking a shared language, despite lacking a shared cultural repertoire, despite the fact that the steps they walked and the paths they trod have little meaning to us- we are still family. Because we still find ways to remember and honour them, and we hope that this is true for future generations as well.
At the end of any book of Torah it is traditional that we rise and say the following “Hazah hazak V’Neithazek.” Strength, Strength, may you be strengthened. Finishing the book of Numbers I offer this same blessing to all of you, and especially to our honoured members who are present with us for the Summer Gathering. Hazak. Strength to you in the past, a prayer of thanks for the strength and the journey which brought you to our community in the first place. Hazak. Continued Strength on your journey which brought you here with us today. V’Neit Hazak. And may we all be strengthened on our journeys in the future. Our journeys which lead to knowing our community, knowing our tradition, and our knowledge of God.