We often describe the Israelites journey through the wilderness as forty years of wandering, implying that they were forever on the move. And yet the concluding chapters of Numbers delineate twenty places at which they encamped. There is the wilderness of Sin where the manna first appeared and Rephidim where the people complained about lack of water and Moses struck a rock in anger.
The medieval commentator, Rashi, observes that the Israelites were really on the move in the first year when they left Egypt and the last year when they prepared to enter the land of Israel. During the thirty-eight intervening years they were actually living normally at one place or another. They were not constantly on the run, or even on the move. Instead they journeyed from Egypt to the promised land in stages, stopping for even years at a time at one oasis or another.
Often when recounting a trip, we speak about the destination, we paint a picture of what we experienced there. Perhaps we encountered in this place great natural beauty or met unique and wonderful people in that land. And yet the Torah never arrives at its destination. It concludes with the journey’s goal incomplete. Thus, we imply that its chapters and verses are about aimless wanderings. We never arrive so our journey lacks direction and purpose.
And while there is great value in meanderings, in setting off on a walk that offers no purpose than to be accompanied by others or one’s thoughts, this might not be the most accurate description of our forty years in the wilderness. Instead “the Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham…” (Numbers 33)
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, teaches: “Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel will occur to each individual, between the time he is born and the time he dies.”
For the first years of my life I lived in Northern New Jersey, and then we journeyed to the suburbs of Saint Louis and then back again to New Jersey and then back once more to Saint Louis. And then I spent my years of college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and then it was off to Jerusalem for the start of rabbinical school and then to Cincinnati to complete my studies where I made the pronouncement, “I will move anywhere but New York.” And then we moved to Great Neck and Dix Hills and now Huntington which are all of course in New York.
Each place, that was more often than not chosen for me by circumstances, offered new adventures: the birth of children and new jobs. Each place offered new discoveries and something even more to learn.
And so now I find myself encamped in Huntington waiting out this unexpected, and unforeseen, pandemic. What will we learn of ourselves? What will we learn of each other? How will we arise from this crisis better than before and better than we can now imagine?
The Torah offers a blueprint for our lives. We find ourselves in its pages.
The destination is always off in the distance, and perhaps even after the conclusion of the book. Life, and meaning, are found in the unexpected places we find ourselves, the places at which we pause. That’s where life happens.
And that is where our Torah is written.