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Travel: Pitfalls and Pertubations

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, June 17, 2016

We complain a lot today about how difficult travel has become. Everyone has a horror story about the lines at the airports, the delays, the congestion boarding the plane as everyone carries on their own luggage.

We remember a golden age, before TSA, when you could arrive at the airport ten minutes before your flight and travel in comfort with room to stretch your legs.

Of course the hassles of travel today, aren’t even in the same universe as travel in earlier centuries.  When our grandparents and great grandparents left the Old Country to come to America, just crossing the Atlantic took 6-12 days and that was after the steamship, which cut the trip down from several weeks, was introduced.  Even with the faster ships, the seas were rough and infectious diseases spread quickly in the crowded holds.  Getting to the ship was often its own adventure, days or weeks of travel by foot, by river boat, or sometimes by horse drawn carriages, to the port of embarkation.

And what if we go further back in time- those who left Spain for Turkey in 1492 had little hope of everreturning, and sometimes left without knowing much about their destination. For much of Jewish history travelling even relatively short distances was dangerous, as evidenced by all the shortcuts one was allowed make in prayer when on the road.

And going even further back in time, this week’s Torah portion makes it clear that travelling from Egypt to the Promised Land was no stroll in the park.

When Moses’s father in law, Jethro, priest of the desert country Midian, hears that the Israelites have escaped Egypt, he comes to greet them, bringing Moses’ wife Zipporah and their two sons, born before Moses returned to Egypt. But now after a long visit, perhaps  as long as a year or two, Jethro, also known at Hobab, is returning to his own people and Moses is concerned: ” Please do not leave us, “ he begs, ” in as much as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide.”  Shortly thereafter, just four verses later, the people take to complaining. Had they already gotten lost, or was it just that Jethro’s absence unleashed something in them?

Though the camp had been put in order, with banners to lead each tribe, and the Danites assigned to gathering up the stragglers at the end of the march, the surrounding wilderness was still overwhelming. God’s presence in the cloud by day and pillar of fire at night, must have been comforting but it still seems that the people were ill at ease. The book of Numbers is full of stories of the adversaries and obstacles the people confronted on their journey, and how ill equipped they were to deal with them.

Celebrating a 50th and 55th wedding anniversary tonight, makes me think of another journey, and that is our life journey through time, rather than through space.

It is equally likely to be a journey for which we are ill-equiped, a journey filled with obstacles and adversaries, or what Robert Alter calls in his Biblical commentary: ”peregrinations and pertubations”. And while our journey through life, like our journey through space, has gotten easier through the centuries, and we are more likely to progress much further than past generations and live to more advanced ages, we are not without our own complaints.

In this week’s Torah, we are told that the Israelites were travelling, away from Sinai.  ( NUMBERS 9:15-23) ” The Israelites set out on their journey from the wilderness of Sinai.”( Numbers 10:12) “They marched from the mountain of the Eternal, a distance of three days.” ( Numbers 10:33). Why the focus on this strange little journey of three days? If they were travelling already, why didn’t they continue further before setting up camp again—and conversely, if they weren’t really going anywhere, why bother dismantling the camp and having to set it up again, three days distance away?

 The commentary Iturei Torah gives an interesting answer. It claims that the people were anxious to leave Mt Sinai, because they were afraid that if they stayed there, God would give them more commandments, and that wasn’t what they wanted. The initial ten had seemed like plenty, and then that man Moses had come down from Sinai, with a whole bunch more. God felt their anxiety and moved them on.

Another commentary focuses on how all this is about the time before the sin of the spies. God was intending to bring the people directly to Israel. In fact the midrash has the cloud of God lowering mountains and filling up valleys, smoothing the way so the Israelites could get to Eretz Yisrael more quickly. Three days travel under those circumstances, could get you a ways.

For me though it is two other commentaries that add the more applicable insights. The first focuses on the fact that the Israelites saw themselves as leaving Mt Sinai, not yet understanding that Mt Sinai was with them now wherever they went.

Finally Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch the founder of the Orthodox movement in Germany in the 19th century teaches that the challenge for the Israelites in the desert, was not on the days when the cloud lifted and they were to move on, but rather when the cloud stayed put, without any promise of when it would guide them forward. Finding the endurance and patience necessary to stay put, was in many ways even more challenging than finding the strength and courage necessary to travel.

In our own life’s journeys I imagine many of us have already discovered, what the Israelites learned, that further commandments, responsibilities, and commitments, will find us even if we try to wander away. I hope we have also experienced those moments when it does seem like the way has been cleared for us, made smooth, when we least expect it.

As a Jewish people we have embraced the portable Torah, the heritage that travels with us, whether we are moving from coast to coast, or from home to college, and then on to the beginnings of our adult lives.

Finally Rabbi Hirsch attributes Jewish survival to our ability to live with anticipation that isn’t immediately fulfilled. That is his definition of GALUT, of Exile, holding on to a vision of a better world, and fulfilling in our lives, Habbakuk’s Messianic vision “ although it tarry, wait for it.” Interestingly in our personal lives, that ability to delay gratification, is also a predictor of stability and success in life.

In our travels this summer and on the journeys of our lives, may we find direction and purpose, avoiding all pitfalls and pertubations.

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