Skip to main content

Riding in Circles

The following is the sermon delivered at Friday evening Shabbat services.

When we were younger all of us took our required math classes.  Some of us enjoyed these.  Many did not.  In those classes we learned about the basics of adding and subtracting, multiplying and in my most advanced class, division.  Later we learned geometry and there I first found out about this magical number called Pi.  Pi is a curious number.  It is a mathematical constant of 3.14159 and so on.  In recent years it has been calculated out to 10 trillion digits.  In theory it goes on into infinity without ever repeating.  It is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.  It is in a word the constant around which a circle revolves.

Like a circle the Torah is perfect and so I am given to wondering, what is its Pi.  What is the verse around which the Torah spins?  Is it its opening verse: Bereshit bara Elohim—In the beginning God created heaven and earth?  Without a beginning that immediately establishes God’s relationship with the world there could be no Torah.  But you can’t spin around a beginning or ending for that matter.  Is it instead the command to observe Shabbat: Zakhor et yom hashabbat—Remember the Sabbath day?  Can there be a more central command to Jewish life than Shabbat?  Perhaps instead the verse: Vahavata l’r’echa kamocha—love your neighbor as yourself?  Some have pointed out that when the Torah is unrolled to that verse of Leviticus 19:18 the scroll is perfectly balanced.  This verse stands at the exact center of the Torah.  It certainly could be argued that if we observed this command day in and day out we would do more to elevate our lives and the lives of those around us.

Still I remain unsatisfied that these verses could be the Torah’s constant, that these could represent the circle of the Torah’s Pi.  This week in Parashat Beshalach, we read not only the Song of the Sea, containing the words of Mi Chamocha, but the following as well: So God led the people roundabout by way of the wilderness.  And I have come to believe that these words are in fact the linchpin for the remainder of the Torah’s story.  God intentionally led the people on what would become a forty year journey.  I know that we have read the commentaries suggesting that it was not God’s intention at the outset.  It was instead the Israelites’ sins that caused a few month journey to turn into one of forty years.  We recall as well the teaching that only those who were born as free people in the wilderness could become a free nation in their own land.  Slaves cannot really know freedom.  And so the slaves must die so that a new, free people can be formed. 

In fact this forty year long journey was always God’s intention all along.  That is clear from this week’s parsha.  The famous Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, suggests this as well.  He writes that God purposely misdirects us.  We only discover our freedom when pointed in the wrong direction.  I think that God just kept leading us in circles until we learned enough to realize the dream of entering the Promised Land.  Have you ever considered the fact that our central book, the Torah, concludes without this dream being realized?  It ends at the edge of the land, at the border of a dream.  And then what do we do?  We circle back to the beginning: Bereshit bara Elohim.

One of the geniuses of our tradition is having faith in the messianic redemption, but also always believing that the messiah’s arrival stands at a great distance.  This notion is codified by the rabbis when they wrote (and I share this in honor of the upcoming Tu B’Shevat): If the messiah comes and you are planting a tree, first finish planting, and then go to greet the messiah. (Avot deRabbi Natan)  When the messiah gets too close we tend to forget about the here and now.  There are plenty examples from our history (Shabtai Zevi is the most notorious) but the lessons are the same.  If you believe that this guy is the messiah then you stop trying to fix things yourself and say instead, “He will take care of it.”  You forget to plant the tree.  So we sing and pray for the messiah’s arrival but continue to take care of things ourselves.  The dream is held at a distance.  The Promised Land is across the way, off in the distance.  We circle back and begin the journey again. 

As many of you know, I am an avid cyclist.  Others might suggest, obsessed but to the aficionado, avid is the preferred name.  Every ride is a new journey.  While I always circle back home, I almost never ride the same route.  Sometimes I look for a new road to explore. Other times I just don’t want to climb Mill Hill.  Then there are days when I realize that climbing Mill Hill will be worth the tail wind I will gain riding out of Bayville.  How many times have I raced on Berry Hill on my way back towards Huntington and never even noticed Temple Lane?  How many miles are required to discover a new, potential home?  How many years of journeying and wandering are necessary?

Part of the problem is our goal-oriented society.  A life without goals appears meandering and aimless.  The sentiment is that without a predetermined destination we are lost.  But it is possible to explore without ever being lost.  When I ride I don’t carry maps.  I know that if I am riding west the Sound is always on my right.  And how do you know that the Sound is on your right when it is not within sight? By the temperature.  As you approach the water the air cools and even though the Sound is outside of view, you can feel it’s near and so you can ride, and explore and wander without ever really being lost.  The direction can only be a feeling.    

You can’t learn and grow if everything is about a goal.  The destination, the goal, is not the purpose of a journey.  School is supposed to be about discovery and not about test scores and grades.  If the message of our tradition were all about goals, then Torah would conclude with the Book of Joshua and not Deuteronomy.  The lesson of the Torah is revealed in this week’s verse.  In journeys we discover our Torah.  In wandering we find our lessons.  When you wander you discover things that are unintended.  It is there that we write stories. 

Think of the stories from vacations and travels.  Rarely do we retell them as follows: Everything went according to plan.  We followed our itinerary to the letter.  Our plane took off on time.  Our driver picked us up at the appointed hour.  More often, it is recounted like this: we were walking and exploring and we happened into this restaurant because we were tired and hungry and we discovered this gem.  We were the only foreigners there.  The food was delicious.  We talked to the chef.  Now we go back there every time we visit.

Life-long friends can be made when there is a mistake in your seat assignment.  Would we remain in the seat or berate the flight attendant about the error?  Leon Wieseltier once observed, Serendipity is how the spirit is renewed.  Wandering is how truths are discovered and lessons learned.  It could be as simple as a new route for a bike ride or as profound as a new friend.  Lessons are gained on journeys.

This week we discover the guiding verse of our most sacred book.  It is not as others would suggest.  It is instead about the journey and wandering.  The key Hebrew word is Vayesev.  It is translated in most Bibles as leading roundabout.  God turns the people around and around and around.  We could almost say that God spins us around in circles. The verb shares the same root as one word for circle. 

People always think that a journey is a straight line.  It is not.  It is instead a circle.  But even a circle has a constant.  That is a lesson learned long ago in math class.  There is a certain principle within each and every circle.  The Torah is the same.  And God led the people roundabout.  We continue on the journey.   Who knows what lessons might be learned.  The Torah never concludes.  We take a mere breath in between reading its last word and its first.  The Torah is drawn in circles. 

Have faith in the journey.  Even though we might wander in circles there remains a constant with infinite meaning. Relish the wandering.  At times we might only be able to sense the destination. Other times the goal appears mysterious. Understand this: we always circle back home.