Parashat Massei: The Journal of the Journeys
Rabbi Ron Isaacs
In 1960 I spent the summer at Camp Ramah in Canada. Advertised as a Hebrew-speaking camp, it was my first summer away from home. I decided to document my 8-week summer by keeping a diary which I still have to this day. Looking back, I am amazed at the amount of detail each day contained. Not only did I describe the weather, the food, evening activities, the camp plays, color war scores, and camping trips, but my daily feelings of homesickness and how much I missed my parents and brother. I continued to write in that diary for my next four years at the same camp, but I had grown as a person and no longer did I need to document feelings of wanting to go home. On the contrary, I wanted camp to continue beyond the 8 weeks. To this day I continue to write in my diary, documenting momentous milestones such as my marriage, rabbinic ordination, the birth of my first child and finishing my doctorate at Columbia university. Recording these milestones has given me a chance to reflect upon my achievements, write about them, and occasionally, to take a nostalgic look back at the stages of my life’s journey.
Each year when we read Parashat Massei, I am reminded of my purchase in Jerusalem of an old map, which when I saw it, immediately caught my attention. Dated from the 1500’s, the map documents the route of all the stages of the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the plains of Moab. I hung the map in my dining room and often look at it and admire my purchase. Moses, too, kept a diary, and wrote the goings forth of the Israelites, stage by stage, as God had commanded. At each of the stops they pitched their tents and had an opportunity to rest and reflect. I have often viewed the listing of the stages as the love letter between God and the Israelites. Although not recorded in the Torah, I am imagining that every halting place had its suggestions for the instruction, admonition, and encouragement of the Israelites. It reminded me of the AAA Triptik that years ago (before WAZE) was created for each of my trips, where I was able to flip each page with a map that presented the route that I needed to take to get to my destination. On those pages I often wrote suggestions and places that I wanted to see along the way to enhance my trip.
There are numerous rabbinic explanations for the mentioning of the 42 stations of the Israelites. Rashi likens the stages of the Israelite journey to a king who had taken his ailing son to a distant place to be cured. On the return journey, the king would lovingly recount to his son all the experiences that they went through at each of their stopping places. “At this spot we slept, at that, we had a cool resting-place from the heat. At the other, you were overcome with pains in the head.” Israel is God’s child, upon whom God bestows compassion even as a father bestows compassion on his son.
As I grow older, I continue to have an even greater appreciation of each day of life’s journey. Documenting moments in time has given me an opportunity to review and reflect upon my personal growth and achievements. Sometimes I simply close my eyes and I can relive a moment in time for which I have had a personal happy association. When my children were younger, I would take a pictures of them on their first day of school, holding up a sign that documented the grade that they were about to enter. I put each of the pictures in a large frame and occasionally, would take a moment to look at the pictures and see the maturation of my children. Now that I have grandchildren, I have enjoyed the fact that their parents (my children) have followed my lead and take pictures of the first day of school of their kids. It puts a big smile on my face.
My life’s journey has been a gift. Although there surely have been obstacles along the way, I have personally witnessed many joyous occasions and the satisfaction of overcoming challenges which has helped me to grow as a person.
The Israelites never made it to the Promised Land, but their children did. And yet what they did and what they learned and how they lived in the desert shaped their lives and the lives of their descendants.
Our ancient rabbis knew how dangerous a journey could be and composed Tefillat Haderech (Prayer for the Journey) in which we ask God to protect us from all danger when we travel. I love this prayer and take it with me wherever I go. Years ago, I purchased keychains that have this prayer written on it, and when I directed a Hebrew High School, I would give it to each student after he/she received a driver’s license. I am reminded each day that whenever we get up in the morning, we are already starting our day’s journey, In the travel is the discovery and the growth. The Israelites found the meaning of their lives in the journey, not in their arrival. They had the cloud of glory hovering over them, which provided their GPS and gave them a feeling of safety. In life there will always be journeys and encampments. Without encampments we are likely to suffer burnout. Without the journey, we do not grow. The Torah portion with the forty-two stops has reminded me that there are no short cuts in life, and that we must learn to cherish the many stops along the way. Reaching any destination requires effort, time, and most importantly faith.
I wish you and yours safe travels!