Thursday, January 9, 2014

Beshalach and Writing Circles

Years ago, when I was nine, my friend and I were misbehaving on the camp bus.  On that particular day there was no counselor to manage the campers, only a bus driver.  And so we were jumping up and down on the back seats, and screaming and shouting.  I know this is hard to imagine given how little I move on the bima, but we were even running up and down the aisle.  The bus driver understandably grew angry with us.  We ignored every request to stop.  Perhaps the final straw was when we burst into laughter after he yelled at us. 

He pulled the bus over on what was St Louis’ equivalent to Jericho Turnpike.  He ordered us off the bus.  We happily complied, grabbing our bags and lunches as we walked off the bus.  This was not a punishment but instead an opportunity, we thought.  Rather than calling our parents at the nearby bagel store or any number of stores along the way, we decided to walk to my friend’s house.  Although we did not know the area, we could see the local hospital’s tall buildings in the distance and we knew that he lived near the hospital.  And so we walked toward our landmark.

My mom only recently told me that the camp called with the following message, “Mrs. Moskowitz, we need to tell you something.  Your son’s bus driver arrived at camp this morning and told us that he kicked Steven off the bus because he was misbehaving.  We have already sent our staff out to search for him and we are sure we will find him very soon.”  My father happened to be out of town on a business trip.  My mother was advised to stay at home and off the phone in case I called her.  I did not.  She sat by the phone, alone except for my younger brother, waiting and crying.  Family legend has it that her hair started turning grey on that morning.

Meanwhile my friend and I were enjoying our unexpected adventure.  We decided to leave the busy main road and walk through neighborhood streets.  We could eat whatever we wanted from our lunch bag, whenever we wanted.  We were free, wandering the streets of St Louis, oblivious to any dangers and unconcerned by the worry growing at home and among the camp’s directors.  The staff finally caught up with us, a few short blocks from my friend’s house.  We had walked for nearly three hours, meandering through at least two miles of streets.

They called my mom to tell her that they had found me and were bringing me home.  Had this happened more recently I might have been able to retire then and there from the lawsuit’s settlement. By the way the bus driver was only docked a few days pay.  Can you imagine today’s Internet headlines?  “Young boy traumatized by crazed bus driver.”  I was dumbfounded that my mom was so upset and surprised that she kept saying, “Thank God you are ok.”  (I do understand now.)  Of course we were ok.  I had just returned from an exciting adventure.  I had explored new streets.  I had discovered new areas.  I was never afraid.  My friend and I were always together.  We never once doubted our ability to find our way home.  Although we were walking on unfamiliar roads I never felt lost.

Recently I attended a lecture with the noted Harvard professor, Howard Gardner, who authored the book, The App Generation.  He observed that today’s children have never experienced getting lost.  I wonder what lessons remain unlearned.  They are uncomfortable asking a stranger for directions.  They do not know how to use landmarks to find their way. They might be unable to bottle their fears of the unknown and unfamiliar, harnessing them instead for the strength to explore and learn.  Imagine how my story might have been different if we had cellphones or if we had opened the Google Maps app.  There would be no story.

When my father returned home and overcame his anger, he asked me why we had not gone into the closest store and asked to use the phone.  Our answer surprised and mystified him.  I said that we never thought of that.  Why?  The adventure stood before us.  We were writing a new story.

“So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness…” (Exodus 13:18)  The Hebrew is even more direct.  It suggests that God turned the people around and around, intentionally leading them in circles.  40 years of wandering begin this week.  40 years of learning begin with the walking in circles.

There can only be a story when meandering in circles. Years of learning begin with such turns.

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