November 11, 2019

Are We There Yet?

When I was an undergraduate, Princeton celebrated the 10-year anniversary of co-education. A T-shirt sold on campus announced: “Ten years of women at Princeton!” Below, in smaller print, it read: “Too bad it took over 200 years.”

I was reminded of that message when reviewing the Torah portion. At the beginning of Devarim, the Israelites stand ready to cross into the Promised Land. Moses summarizes key stages of the journey. Then he adds, “It is 11 days from Horeb [Mt. Sinai] to Kadesh-Barnea [the gateway to the land]” (Deuteronomy 1:2). In other words, it took the Israelites 38 years to make what could have been an 11-day trip. 

Moses reiterates in verses 19-22: “We set out from Horeb and traveled the great and terrible wilderness…. When we reached Kadesh-Barnea, I said to you, ‘… See, Adonai your God has placed this land before you. Go up, take possession….’ Then all of you came to me and said, ‘Let us send spies….’” 

The episode of the spies demonstrated the people’s unreadiness to enter the land. Moses’ timeline is therefore conventionally read as an indictment of the Israelites. “Had you only listened and obeyed, instead of rebelling and complaining,” he implies, “you might have entered the land decades sooner!”

Such rebuke certainly has its place. In their rush to achieve “the good life” — which meant, in their estimation, security, luxury and power — the Israelites actually delayed their own progress. Achieving their ultimate goal and destination required the development of character and skills, which would take time. Looking for the short cut, they extended their journey. Many of the ills of contemporary life in Los Angeles can be characterized the same way. Think of drug addiction, overspending, the lack of genuine community and connection. Demanding immediate gratification causes untold heartache and delay. As Yehoshua ben Chanania taught, there is a long way that is actually short — and a short cut that takes longer (Talmud Eruvin 53b).

Another way to understand Moses’ repetition of the timeline is as a description and instruction about how people operate. Based on personal experience and my pastoral work as a rabbi, it often does take 38 years (give or take) to make an 11-day trip. As Google warns when providing driving directions, “You may find that construction projects, traffic, weather or other events cause conditions to differ from the map results.” 

In life, detours are inevitable, because human beings are always under construction. Yes, we can and should do more to limit sabotage, complaint and procrastination. But the big journeys and important destinations are not usually attained by direct, smooth paths. What may initially seem like a hop, skip and jump — from college to “real life,” from singlehood to marriage, from injury to recovery — can become a course in obstacles. Had you gotten there sooner, you would not have arrived wiser. 

The Israelites needed the journey to be equipped for the destination — and so do we. 

In Deuteronomy, addressing generations that did not stand at Sinai, Moses faced the painful truth that life’s greatest lessons can’t be easily communicated. They have to be experienced. That’s why profound truths may sound like mere clichés — until you live them out and can personally testify to them. Imagine if you could go back in time and tell your teenage self about the wisdom you have accumulated. Even with the compassion and rapport your adult self has for that adolescent, the teenager couldn’t fully understand. 

As we age, we mentor the younger generation and write our ethical wills (both fair summaries of what Moses was attempting in Deuteronomy). Like Moses, we inevitably confront the limits of what can be taught. Words are like guideposts. Each generation and each individual must interpret them — and find their own way. Thank God, the power of Torah does not reside in its words alone.

Imagine a counter-text to our story. What if Moses recounted no struggle, no rebellion, no transition of leadership? What if everyone had followed Moses without dissent or doubt? What if there had been no heartwarming contributions from the entire population to build a Tabernacle for their long desert travels and no heartbreaking encounter with the Golden Calf? What legacy and inspiration would a docile Israelite people have conferred after entering the land quickly and effortlessly?

Raising up a people, like raising children, is demanding work. Parents can sympathize with Moses, who must lead and manage the journey while fielding complaints from the ones he loves. Yet, we look back with nostalgia and longing at our own childhoods, at the youth of our children and grandchildren and at the infancy of our people. In retrospect, we take delight both in the innocence and in the sometimes reckless drive to independence. Did we savor every bit of the journey — even the detours that took us off course? 

Don’t let these musings come only at the end. Appreciate every minute.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom, editor of the Lifecycles book series (Jewish Lights Publishing), and a frequent scholar-in-residence. The Web site features her audio teaching CDs along with other spiritual resources.