Life: One Step at a Time
The journey of life is not about the destination but about exploration - Nitin Namdeo
To compare life to a journey is so familiar as to seem trite. Of course, life is a journey, we agree. Sadly, we agree so readily that we miss the power of the analogy. Worse, we agree so blindly that we miss the beauty and the lessons of the journey itself!
Often, when we are told that life is a journey, the supposed “wisdom” of the observation is too often misdirecting our gaze ahead, to the long, uncharted road before us. That is neither wise nor useful. The very uncertainty of what lies ahead makes it so. We have no foreknowledge if the road will continue another day or another thousand days. What we do know, is how long the road has been and where we are now.
As we travel our path, our thoughts are often on “to where?” when they should be on “why?”
We know the lessons we have learned to this point. We know our joys, our heartaches, our loves and our losses. These experiences, we hope, provide us with a useful compass as we continue to our “destination”, which, on life’s journey, is meaning, understanding and wisdom.
Consider the days of your life. Each day, with remarkably little variation, resembles the one before it and the one after it. You get up to an alarm, set to the same time. You slip your right foot into your slipper, then your left. You eat. You brush your teeth and shower. You dress – in clothes virtually indistinguishable from the clothes you wore the day before or that you will wear the next day. You see the same faces on the commuter train platform. You sit in the same seat, in the same car of the same train each workday of your adult life. You read. You do a crossword. You glance up and unconsciously take note of the stations along the way. You bustle along the same streets, your ear pods tuning out the traffic, the noise, the balagan.
Day after day. Each so much as the last. But, in truth, each as different from the other as snowflakes in a winter storm. The days only appear the same. Every day is dotted with moments that move us forward. Some of these are challenges that test our courage, strengths, weaknesses, and faith. Some cause us to stumble. Some moments will be filled with joy, as when we consider the eyes of a stranger and see in them the certainty of the one who will become our mate or our friend or the person who will come to our aid when we stumble on the platform.
Will we look into that stranger’s eyes and not see? Will we instead be overfocused on our crossword puzzle and miss the one who will change our life for the better, who will teach us something we’d never known, or show us something we’d never seen or help us feel in ways we’d never felt?
Time and tide wait for no man.
Imagine what your journey would be like if you did not essentially sleepwalk through each day but rather took note of the distinctions, the small joys, the moments when the divine makes itself known to those with the eyes to see!
A tad “poetic” to think of the daily grind in lofty, metaphoric terms? A little nudgy? Not the way Jews think?
“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went forth from the land of Egypt… and these were their journeys according to their goings forth.” (Bamidbar 33:1-2)
These were their journeys…? Why look backwards? What could be the merit to that? The future lays ahead! Why would the Jews review their travels in the midbar? And in such detail! My goodness, the parasha lists the entire forty-two encampments along the way from Mitzrayim to the banks of the Jordan, ready to cross into Eretz Yisrael. What’s more, several of the locations noted in Masei are not found even listed in earlier chapters of Bamidbar. If they were so unremarkable then, why bother to list them now?
Ramban teaches it is because great secrets are inherent in the forty-two stops or, perhaps put more plainly, we learn from the list that God is at every stop on life’s journey, whether seen or unseen, known or unknown, and His ongoing compassion and care allows us to survive the journey. Still, that’s a lot of stops. Why enumerate all of them. Why does it require all forty-two to teach us that God is involved in our lives? Certainly, we could learn that lesson from examining just a couple of stops.
Our life journeys have so many stops and starts; so many twists and turns. At each, there are many opportunities to engage, embrace, learn and experience. At each, we can recognize anew that there is no “every day is the same” but that each day, each moment is unique and infused with potential.
So, it was with Israel.
In the second posuk of the parasha we learn that, “Moshe wrote their goings forth (motzaeiem) according to their journeys at the bidding of Hashem, and these were their journeys (maseiem) according to their goings forth…” At the posuk’s conclusion, this same idea is restated, but with the order reversed – their journeys according to their goings forth.
No travelogue would make note of the reversal in order. A travelogue only notes the journey in one direction, towards the future. But this is not a travelogue. This is Torah. The change in order must have meaning; it does have meaning.
We see that the first phrase refers to how God regarded their travels, while the second accounts for the very same travels from man’s point of view.
God lays out the “travel plan” with a single goal – progression to the next stop and then the next until they reach the Promised Land. But man, in this regard, has a different view. He has a “better way”. He constantly asks, Why this way? Why not that way? He is constantly complaining, It’s too hot here. Too cold here. I’m tired. Enough with the manna already!
It is our nature to be impatient; to want new or “better” adventures; to want comfort. Certainly, it is human to complain! Rav Hirsch notes that Israel’s purpose was not the destination but the journey itself, even though the destination was the Promised Land! They rejoiced in moving on, in the process of going forward. Why? Simply because they were tired of the “old place.” The “grass was sure to be greener” on the other side. The next stop was sure to be nicer, more conducive to their sojourn.
Which is why we read that there was no rejoicing as they neared the destination. But… but… but wasn’t that the whole point, to get there?
Rashi cites Midrash Tanchuma, which describes the travels as a metaphor of a king (God) whose son (Klal Yisrael) was ill, who took him to a distant place (Eretz Yisrael) to cure him (spiritually). Only on the return does the father remind his son of all that transpired on the long and difficult journey. Here we slept; here we were cold; here you cried to me. Our Midrash teaches us that it is not in spite of but because of the challenges of the journey that we truly arrive at our destination.
This then is truly a lesson for each of our lives. Each one of us has our own “eleh masei”; each one of us is on a journey; each of us with unique experiences, unique lessons, a unique meaning or destination. Our journeys take place on many levels – intellectual, spiritual, geographical but they all come together in that they all contribute to the journey of our life.
The Malbim notes that the parasha begins, “These are the journeys of the Children of Israel who went forth from the land of Egypt according to their legions...” From the land of Egypt. As we noted, we commonly define our journey by where we are going, by the distant future, not by our point of departure. The Malbim teaches us that the journey is not merely a movement forward, not merely a progression towards Canaan.
There are too many experiences, too many conflicts, too many heartaches, too many joys – too many things that can and will erase slavery from their hearts before they can find their purpose. Each step, each stop, marking a step away from what they were which, by definition, moves them toward what they will be. But only if they remain aware and thoughtful; only if they do not “zone out” on their crossword puzzles or their mindless apps. Only if they pay attention to what God, and life, can show them.
The long sojourn in the wilderness was divinely ordained to, “take the Israelites out of Egypt,”
The Malbim says it clearly, “For this reason, He caused them [the Israelites] to wander in the wilderness; and they underwent numerous tribulations and were tested with numerous trials and experienced refinement after refinement, until they were purified and exchanged their ‘soiled garments’ for ‘sanctified vestments’ of pure and holy character...”
What “has passed” has left us; it has not simply passed. It is the furnace that fires our soul. What has passed is with us always, refined by thought and experience, refashioned by insight. In this way, our journeys are defined not just by the path we walk upon but by our engagement in time and space and experience.
To go on a trip, we can be oblivious; we can concentrate on our crossword puzzles. To experience a journey, we can never be passive.
To be on a journey is to be active, engaged. And to be fully alive.