Why Travel?

This Dvar Torah was adapted from “Valuing Journeys” by Abigail Dauber Sterne who works for the Mandel Leadership Institute developing the Mandel Jerusalem Fellows program and other programs for Jewish educators around the world.

This dvar is dedicated in memory of Rav Pinchas Aharon Weberman z"l, President of the Orthodox Council of South Florida and Founder of Congregation of Ohev Shalom, who selflessly served the Miami Beach community for more than six decades. May his memory be a blessing.

Photo by Rana Sawalha on Unsplash

The world has opened up and I don’t know about you, but WE ARE TRAVELLING!
Now that we are vaxxed and boosted, I (and of course, so many of you readers) have just taken trips or are scheduling time to travel after a few years of laying low due to Covid.
And this, coincidentally (wait— are there coincidences? or could it be the Torah speaking to us in ever-new ways?) mirrors some of our Torah portion for this week
“These were the marches of the Israelites who started from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Lord….” (Numbers 33:1-2).
Parashat Masei, the second of the two portions (Matot-Masei) that we read this week, begins with the recounting of the Israelites’ itinerary, outlining their travels from Egypt through the desert.
Many Torah commentators ask about the purpose of this listing. For a text that is so often terse and sparse on details, it seems strange that the Torah lists every stopping point on the Israelites’ journey.
Why not simply leave it up to the reader to look back in the text and retrace their steps?
A midrash explains that G!d said to Moses: “Write down the stages by which Israel journeyed in the wilderness, in order that they shall know what miracles I produced for them.”
According to this approach, the travels are enumerated to emphasize and highlight G!d’s power, and to ensure that the Israelites recognize G!d’s strength.
In our day, we have to remember that the ease and availability of travelling, particularly internationally, is a comparatively new phenomenon.
For all of human history until the late 20th century (sounds so long ago, but for me, it’s not!), international travel was the privilege of the very rich or the very brave or both.
So today, we ourselves are invited to re-appreciate the miracle of being able to travel, something we so easily took for granted before it became dangerous and difficult in the last few years.
Sforno, a medieval commentator, offers another suggestion-- the Torah’s listing of their various travels acts to praise the Jewish nation.
Despite the tortuous route through which G!d led them, despite all of the stops they made along the way, the Israelites remained faithful to G!d. Thus, the list of their stopping points highlights the challenges they faced, and by extension praises their faith.
Today, one of the major take-aways from “Covid Times” is that when we journey— physically, emotionally, or spiritually— it’s a challenge! It’s not easy when the path forward is so unclear, as it was for nearly 2 full years.
By and large, we, humans, want our journeying to be very predictable. Oh yes, we love discovering a restaurant, a beautiful view, a new friend, etc… But overall, if we have no plan of where we are going, where we will be putting our head to sleep, or where we can take a shower— we get anxious, and sometimes, panicky.
This is one of the many reasons why there is a mental health crisis occurring in our world today, especially among children and teens (not to mention their parents). Think about it— when you are 10, two years is 20% of your life!
And during those Covid years, there was no clear or predictable path to their life journey. Every day: Something new. Expectations dashed. Gatherings cancelled.
Ideally, we can now look back and pat ourselves on the back for our resilience in the face of this massive upheaval to our lives. We have been tested and survived (more or less intact, we hope).
I’d like to suggest one more explanation for these seemingly extra verses.
The interpretations of the midrash and Sforno each view the enumeration of the journeys as representative of something else-- of God’s might, of the Israelites’ failings, or of the Israelites’ faith.
However, I think that the text might be telling us something about journeys per se.
The Torah is emphasizing the value of journeying. By repeating the Israelites’ itinerary, the text draws attention to all the places that the Israelites have been and to all the experiences they have had.
In essence, the Torah is saying that there is inherent value to journeys, to life experiences.
When I was a junior in college, I went on Semester at Sea, a program where students and professors get on a retro-fitted cruise ship and circumnavigate the world. On the way, professors teach classes while the ship is at sea, and then when it docks in a country, everyone disembarks and explores for a few days.
I visited Brazil, South Africa (under apartheid!), Kenya, Sri Lanka, India, Taiwan, and China (before modernization, when everyone was still wearing Mao suits!). I studied subjects, like East Asian Art, that I would never have taken at my university.
Not knowing one other student or professor before the trip, I met a lot of new people. I witnessed poverty on a level few Americans can even imagine.
The entire experience challenged me on so many levels! And for me, without the usual supports of home and Hillel, I realized how important Judaism was in my life. So after I returned, I helped to co-found the Reform Chavurah at the University of Michigan, which had never existed before.
My experiences while journeying were one of the things that motivated me to consider becoming a rabbi (especially in those days, when female rabbis were so rare).
So, like the Israelites in our Torah portion, whether these experiences are one’s great triumphs and miracles, or whether they are one’s trials and failures, they are, in and of themselves, important.
For every individual, every family, and every nation, our collected experiences create who we are and what is meaningful to us.
The Torah teaches us that the Israelites’ journeys- their experiences- are what have created their unique character and identity.
And we, in turn, are formed and influenced by our own journeys, some of which were so transformational that they changed the trajectory of our lives.
Let us pray and work to ensure that all our journeys should lead us to be more courageous, more insightful, and more resilient for the challenges ahead!

Send me a message – I’d love to hear how journeying has changed your life and what lessons you’ve learned along the way:

Shabbat Shalom