For nearly 20 years I have coped with Los Angeles traffic by listening to books on tape and CD in the car. Of the hundreds I have “read” biographies and autobiographies fascinate me because of the secrets they reveal about the individual and the human condition. One day I hope to write my own story to at once record the significant moments, encounters and experiences that have shaped me, and to leave a legacy for my children and grandchildren. I am motivated to do so in part because I have so very little material evidence of my father’s life whose 52nd Yahrzeit comes in two weeks. Most of us, in fact, have little evidence of our family histories beyond 2 or 3 generations.
Several years ago my brother told me of a pack of letters that had been buried away in a trunk that my father had scribed to his family during WWII. In them my dad described sailing into Pearl Harbor a month after Japan attacked as well as his experiences in the four years that followed in Hawaii, Guam and Midway Island where he served as a medical officer. Those letters, for the first time in my adult life, offered me a glimpse into his heart, mind and soul. I learned not only much about him and of that era in American history, but also that he was a gifted writer and keen observer of the human condition.
I raise the issue of the importance of telling our stories because in this week’s Torah portion, Mas’ei (see Numbers 33), there is a description of 42 stations through which the Israelites passed on their journey from Egypt during the 40 years of wandering. The Torah text doesn’t explain why Moses wrote down this list of places, some of which appear nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. God does not explicitly command him to do so. However, the Midrash attempts to explain by imagining that God, indeed, did tell Moses to “Write down all the places through which Israel journeyed, that they might recall the miracles I wrought for them.” (Bamidbar Rabba 23:1)
There is something of importance for us here beyond the details of the 42 stations and why they were important in the ancient world. I am grateful to Rabbi Arthur Green who notes that just as the ancient Israelites were wanderers, so too are we wanderers. “In the private region of our own inner lives, we all have such sacred lists, all the important stopping places in our journeys.” (The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary, pps 248)
I was raised in Los Angeles and have lived in Berkeley, San Francisco, New York, Jerusalem, and Washington, DC. Yet, despite my comfort and familiarity with all these places there is something in me that is eternally restless, that seeks constant newness and discovery despite feeling “at home” where I live today. This seeking quality in me is not unique to me. Indeed, I see it as part of the human condition, which begs the question – What does feeling at “home” really mean?
Numbers 33 suggests that so often we move physically from place to place, but our deeper journey (the Hebrew Mas’ei means “marches” or “journeys”) is spiritual. Pesach reminds us that we began as a wandering people. Living in a sukkah for 8 days annually reminds us that being human means never truly settling, that our lives are fragile and our circumstances flimsy at best, like a temporary hut. This sense of wandering and homeless vulnerability is built into the Jewish psyche.
Rabbi Green wrote, “We are still wandering through our wilderness, not knowing if we’ll ever get to our Promised Land. Meanwhile we struggle with the meaning of all this travel, seeking to find out how each way station will reveal some secret. All we can do for now is to write them all down. What they mean is something we’ll hopefully figure out later, when we have time.” (Ibid, p. 250)
Mas’ei is the portion for this coming Shabbat (Numbers 33:1-36:13) and concludes the Book of Numbers.
Chazak chazak v’nitchazek – Be strong, be strong, and together we will strengthen one another.