Journeys, Symbolism and Stomach Distress

Parashat Mas'ei, 5775

Temple at Delphi

Tonight I promised to reflect on my recent trip to Greece and Israel. I advertised this in the blurb for tonight's service in order to force myself to deliver something. But while I anticipated that I would return full of insight from the journey, my biggest insight is that insight is hard to find. Certainly in the moment, in the day-to-day of travel. Things happen. You notice things that invite symbolic interpretation. But then it's immediately subsumed in the dust and grit of the travel itself.

So where could I look for guidance? Why, to this week's Torah portion, of course. It is called Mas'ei and it contains the first piece of travel writing in Jewish history. It is a recap of the 42 marches of the Israelites through the wilderness, beginning with the Exodus from Egypt and ending on the brink of Deuteronomy, at the edge of the Promised Land. And the author of this recap? Well, it turns out that Moshe is not only a prince, a prophet and a shepherd, but a travel writer also. Torah says Moshe wrote this, and this is in fact the first mention of writing that appears in Torah.

But Moshe is no writer of fluff. He does not do it up like a Hemispheres Magazine feature, "Forty Perfect Years in the Desert," complete with romantic spots and clever recipes for manna. Instead, he sticks to the facts, and refrains from romanticizing them:

The Israelites set out from R'amses and encamped at Sukot. They set out from Sukot and encamped at Etam. They set out from Etam and turned toward Pi-Hachirot, and encamped at Migdol.

Moshe's account is so dry, so matter-of-fact that some wonder why he bothered at all. The commentator Rashi deduces that it is for the sole purpose of demonstrating that it wasn't as bad for the Children of Israel as we might think. It wasn't 40 years of constant wandering, but rather 42 distinct journeys, many clustered together in the first year, so that there were often long years settled in one spot.

But Moshe himself offers no evaluation, no symbolism, even though we all know that journeys have a symbolic quality.

And similarly, I know that my journeys over the last six weeks are ripe for meaning-making. I even knew it at the time. But reflection is a luxury, and the journeys of our lives rarely afford us the time to indulge in it.

Still, you're here, and I can't cop out on my promise. So I'll tell you what I can, and offer as much meaning as I was able to develop in the moment.

We were first in Greece. At this point there were 8 of us - the four adults of my household, the two kids, and each of their best friends. In Athens, Elefsina, Delphi we looked at antiquities. Sites dedicated to Athena, to Poseidon, to Demeter, to Apollo, gods whose stories remain alive in our culture, even while their temples stand in ruins. Gods who could bring abundance or chaos at their whim. And while we toured these dusty portals to the past, Athenians were withdrawing their Euros from bank machines, shoring up what they could before disaster strikes. I began to wonder about the paroxysms of good and bad fortune that constitute individual lives and the life of a nation, and how every moment is a piece of history being lived, and how hard we work to create a world view that makes some sense of the senselessness of one's fortune. I was about to draw a conclusion from this, that maybe I could share with you tonight, but it was a hot day, and as we walked from the Acropolis to the Temple of Dionysus, we realized we'd taken a wrong turn, and had to retrace our steps, and our legs were tired already, and my thoughts flattened under the weight of backpack and jet lag.

Only half of our group went on to Israel: Oren and I, our 14-year old and his best friend. We four arrived in Tel Aviv and almost immediately it was Shabbat. We strolled. We took the kids to a park where they climbed a rock wall and played on bungies and trampolines. It wasn't a day of traditional shabbos. No prayers, no study, no songs around a table. Still, we rested. Tel Aviv rested. It was a day different from other days, filled with friends and fresh air and recreation. And I appreciated how Shabbat managed to disguise herself in this secular way. Shabbat, our ingenious bride, was not in her usual wedding dress but in sweats and a headband, jogging through Yarkon Park, rejoicing to be with us nonetheless. I was about to register a thought about this, but right then we saw this hilarious sign telling people to clean up after their dogs. It offered doggy cleanup bags, which it memorably called in Hebrew, sakei kaka. We laughed our heads off and whatever fancy idea I'd had about Shabbat dissolved in our Saturday afternoon mirth.

The next day we drove from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea. We spontaneously decided to stop off in Jerusalem to visit Yad Vashem, the museum that is the mothership of Holocaust memory. An awareness of the Shoah's shadow is important for understanding Israeli history and character, so Oren and I decided that the kids' seeing it early in the trip made sense. While there, I walked into a chilling room they call the Hall of Names. It is multi-storied and cylindrical, containing not only projected pictures and names, but also floor-to-ceiling shelves holding binders filled with Witness Sheets, which are forms filled out by survivors naming everyone they knew who perished. I entered and there was a group already there being given a tour. A teenager looked up and met my eyes. We stared for an uncomfortable moment before I realized this was someone I knew, someone from the Chicago suburbs, whose mother had been my camper and whose grandmother was my mother's best friend. We hugged in this bizarre moment of uncanniness, and I asked what kind of group he was here with. A BJBE group, he answered. That is, my childhood synagogue. And with that, the rabbi walked up to greet me and there, in this place of loss and memory, she told me how affected she'd been by my mother's death. My mind spun. How all three of us, tied to each other by memory and by our shared Old Country ended up in the same moment in this shrine to memory and to a lost Old Country. I drifted to the supernatural - what intuition brought me here today, of all days, only to stumble upon my own roots? I became lost in this thought, but suddenly we were in the Yad Vashem cafeteria, and I had to figure out if vegetarian food was available on the fleishik side so that I could sit and eat with my voraciously carnivorous 14-year old, and I got caught up in a conversation with the chef about his meatless shnitzel, and by then thoughts of kismet and divine intervention were crumbs swept away.

(Ancient Synagogue, Kfar Nachum)

The following week, we spent a day in the Galilee, a place with water and green fields and a history of Jewish study and mysticism. We visited the grave of Maimonides and also that of Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the Roman-era sage who got smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin in order to try to appease the Roman general who was besieging the city. He failed to prevent the destruction of the Temple. But Vespasian allowed him to set up an academy in Yavneh. And there, Ben Zakkai dreamed up portable Judaism - substituting prayers for animal sacrifice as our path to God. It was a time of national calamity, yet he invented the means for keeping Jewish belief and Jewish people alive in exile.

We went on to an ancient synagogue in Kfar Nachum, where Jesus is reported to have preached. And we finished by washing off the dust of antiquity in the Kineret, the harp-shaped, freshwater Sea of Galilee.

As we began our drive back to my in-laws' home in Haifa we took a wrong turn. We ended up in a cul-de-sac in the town of Yavne'el. This place is a Bratslaver Chasidic enclave, 400 families, all followers of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, who was famous for many things including comparing the world to a narrow bridge and also his beautiful if hard-to-follow watchwords: It is a great mitzvah to be happy always. And his followers do seem ecstatic much of the time, in ways that sometimes feel aggravating to the rest of us shleppers. As we circled the cul-de-sac an older man in a Bratzlaver white shirt and kippah stepped in front of the car and motioned for us to stop. I opened my window not knowing if I'd be scolded or proselytized. Instead he asked what we were looking for. The road to Afula, I answered. And he gave us directions, plain and simple, and his round, bearded face was simply radiant. I was suddenly reminded of Joseph, sent by Jacob to his brothers in the field, and getting lost. There he meets a man, in Hebrew an ish, who directs him to his brothers and to his fate, because his brothers that very day sell him into slavery whence he ultimately becomes an Egyptian vizier and the savior of his family. The sages say the ish, the man who appears for no reason but to point someone on a path, is inevitably an angel. I looked at this man outside the car window and wanted to call him tzaddik, O saint, but instead I thanked him simply and drove away, wondering what destiny this angel was pointing us toward. I was nearly certain that if I spun around the circle one more time, he'd be gone. I was filled with expectation, with a sense of fate, and magic, and a bit of contact high of Bratzlaver joy. I would have made something of this; I would have written about it for you. But then outside Afula I saw Kibbutz Mizra, famous for making pork products, and I started telling the kids about my childhood friend Ken who traveled all the way to Israel to live for six months on kibbutz and ended up assigned here, making hamburger on a Hollymatic industrial meatgrinder, ironically manufactured in his home town on the south side of Chicago. And by the time I was done with this story, the Bratslaver had, in fact, disappeared from my head.

(r. Scrabble Shark)

We had many adventures, many travels. I learned many things. I learned that 14-year olds can make dust angels on the floors of ancient chalk caves, and still have to be told to wear different clothes the next day. I learned that my role when playing Scrabble with my champion-level mother-in-law is not to try to win, which would be futile, but to provide good cheer as she reduces the rest of the players to rubble. I had many dreams, and I learned how easily the prosaic sits beside the magical within them; how in an anxiety dream about being on stage with the Kinsey Sicks, and the audience misconstruing a pause as the end of the show and beginning to file toward the exits, I still, in the dream, had the lucidity to say, "Don't forget to tip your server." Dreams come alive in Israel, and I would've made something of that fact, something beautiful, but each day, my morning cup of coffee would drive the dream from my memory.

Now here's something you might find interesting. On our final day, heading to Tel Aviv for the evening, I noticed an empty, overgrown field along the freeway with a sign on it saying, Anachnu shomrei shmitah, "we are observing the shmitah." That is, the sabbatical year, the fallow year. The owners of this field were advertising that they had not temporarily sold their field to an Arab family as a loophole around the ancient law. Instead, they were letting the field be - not tilling, not pruning, not harvesting - and trusting that it would be okay. And I wondered about this year that I've had, that I began on this bimah, suggesting that we all consider doing less, trying less hard to control everything in our environments, that in the spirit of shmitah, we let things be, just a little bit. And I noticed that I did not in fact do that this year. That my fingers remained busily engaged in every corner of my life, and the respite I'd promised myself I had failed to deliver. I wondered if it was too late to commit to letting go, at least between now and Rosh Hashanah. I began to feel that yes, this would be possible and I would have made some resolutions around it. But just then we reached Tel Aviv, and if you've ever tried to park around Dizengoff Square on a summer night, you know how fully occupying that is. The resolutions remained unresolved.

At last we were on the plane coming home. I was alone with the two boys. I looked at them next to me and I knew in that instant just how fortunate I was. To be able to have this experience. To have enough money to travel and to be able-bodied enough to do so. To be able to show my kid the Israel that I know and love. To have seen him pretend not to learn any Hebrew at all until the last night when I overheard him calling a waiter by saying, selichah. I felt myself steeped deep in blessing. I might have written a poem on the flight. I might have written a prayer. But at some point the special meal I had ordered proved more special than anticipated, and as I threw up for the fourth time in the airplane bathroom, my sense of gratitude became harder to connect to. And yet, as they rolled me off the plane in a wheelchair, through the barely open slits of my eyes I saw the two 14-year olds heroically handling our passports and customs forms and getting us through immigration and out of the airport. And I felt proud and heartened that the sullenness of teenagers turns out to be camouflage masking generous and capable people who will one day emerge like sun through a break in the clouds.

This trip was hard work. All the journeys in our lives are hard work. There are sore feet and blisters. Blazing sun and cold rain. Useless maps and cranky negotiations and food poisoning and good companions and kind strangers. Our journeys are filled with metaphor. But in the course of them, and in their immediate aftermath, our feet and sometimes our stomachs are too sore for symbolism. And in those instances, maybe reciting the map of our travels is all we can reasonably do. And so I will reel back to Moshe's very real level of detail when I tell you this: We went to Greece. From there to Israel. And now, at journey's end, I'm glad to be home.


Okay, I did reflect a little while there. For my reflections on Jerusalem, click here: City of Stone and Flowers.