Near the end of the book of Numbers, the Torah offers a travelogue of sorts, which lists the places where the Children of Israel stopped on their 40-year trek through the desert.
It’s not very interesting. Our sacred text has an entire chapter that in essence says merely; The Children of Israel went here, then they went there, then they went somewhere else. No details, nothing new.
It is not unusual for the Torah to interrupt the narrative to offer a series of commandments. But this seems like an unnecessary digression. Why not just go on with the story?
A friend of mine had something to say about this. Usually, I quote rabbis living and dead. Melvyn Bloom isn’t a rabbi, but that didn’t stop him from saying something wise and important about this Torah portion: “I thought of the decades of wandering as a metaphor for our lives….we all can make lists of where we’ve been, but one reaches a point where we have to face whether it has been an empty odyssey; hopefully it’s never too late to reassess our goals.”
Mel Bloom is a pretty famous guy in the Jewish world. He led the American Technion Society for more than three decades. He knows a lot about staying the course, knowing where you came from, where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there. And how to raise millions upon millions of dollars for a good cause.
His has been anything but an empty odyssey, and in retirement he continues to think, to advise others, to study, and to interact with the world in meaningful ways. That’s how a great life is lived. With intention, with a clear goal that serves humanity. And perhaps one of the most important aspects is living that life with joy, with humor, and with love.
As Mel said, it’s never too late to reassess our goals. When I was in my early 20s I read an article about a woman who graduated from medical school at the age of 63. I don’t recall her name, but her story has stayed with me. It was a rare story then, but some 40 years later it’s not unusual to hear about someone who changed direction at an “advanced” age. I’m one of those people – I was 59 when I was ordained as a rabbi.
Even if our journey hasn’t been an empty odyssey, opportunities abound in our lives to explore new ways of being in the world. Everything I did before I became a rabbi has helped me on my rabbinic journey. From my new perspective on the world, I feel that I have more to contribute than ever before. Like Mel, I have found new ways to stay engaged and involved in tikkun olam, making the world a better place.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has this to say about the Israelites’ journey: “Life is precious. The experiences of… just plain living are the warp and woof of our lives…. The journey of our lives is our calling and our fulfillment.” (To read R’Greenberg’s entire essay, click here https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/not-vision-journey)
One last reflection on the journey taken by our ancestors. The list of stops after they left Egypt does not include Mt. Sinai. The place where God revealed God’s-Self, where the Torah was given, where we as a people were changed forever, not mentioned? How could that be??
Rabbi Gunther Plaut said Sinai isn’t mentioned because, “It is timeless; cut loose from any place.”
Sinai was more than a mere mountain. It was an experience. One shared, according to Jewish tradition, by all the Jewish souls ever born, and by the souls of every person who converts to Judaism. An experience we can return to again and again, as we delve into the words of Torah and the indescribable joy of being a Jew.