Parshat Beha'alotcha 5761
I know from personal experience just how draining and disorienting travel can be. Case in point: our yearly journey from Savannah to New York, where I spend much of the summer--a trip of some 800 miles or so, completed in a full day-and-a-half of driving. (We did it just last week.)
Let me try to give you some sense of what it is like.
We leave Georgia at approximately 6:45PM, after a long and breathless day of packing, with a van full of three gleeful children ("Are we going on the highway now?!!") and one sleeping, thumb-sucking infant. 6:51PM: four year-old Binyamin announces he has to go to the bathroom. I pull off the exit into a gas station, and haul my shoeless little boy into the (slimy) men's room…only to discover that he doesn't really have to go. What he wants to do is to con Abba into buying him a snack or a toy truck; full-fledged conniption fit ensues when request is firmly denied. 7:02: in the car, and back out on the highway.
7:06: Binyamin issues another statement--he really has to go to the bathroom. Now, however, there is no exit in sight. Hasty insertion of Uncle Moishy CD (which will end up being played 10 times or more in the coming hours) distracts him briefly, while lulling the others into a trance. 7:10: with Binyamin moaning ("I have to go"), Abba desperately floors the gas pedal and initiates family travel games ("Does anybody see anything that's green?"). 7:11: Miriam (infant) begins to cry. Mrs. Edelstein: "I'm going to need to nurse her." Sara (coming out of her reverie): "I'm hungry." Yehuda: "I've got a poopie." Mrs. Edelstein: "Yosef, are the diapers accessible?" Binyamin: "A-BA!" (What was it Charlie Brown used to say? "AAAAARGH!")
I'll spare you the rest of the horrific details. Like searching for a motel vacancy at 1: 45AM in the metropolis of Benson, NC; or carrying the kids up to the room, where they immediately wake up and leap deliriously on and off beds while demanding at high decibel level to watch cartoons; or pulling the overnight bag from a perilously jam-packed trunk, only to cause major avalanche of suitcases, duffles, knapsacks and hatboxes onto the rain-soaked parking-lot pavement. And so on.
The good news is that we made it, thank G-d. (And my post-traumatic stress disorder is resolving itself, with fewer flashbacks each day.) You romanticize being on the road? I can promise you one thing: Jack Kerouac did not have four kids under six!
Which brings us to this jam-packed parsha of Beha'aloscha. For, among the many important topics covered therein, is an interesting overview of the travels of B'nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) in the desert. While those travels may not have been quite as full of sound and fury as my family's (though maybe they were, after all), they were, in any case, far from being a piece of cake. Lots of Jews schlepping lots of stuff around a barren wilderness: not a pretty sight, you're thinking. Indeed, there was a good measure of difficulty and toil for the Jewish people…which was very much part of Hashem's plan for educating and refining us.
Here is part of the Torah's description of the way the travels proceeded. The Jewish people would follow in the wake of the miraculous cloud that acted as G-d's emissary:
According to the word of Hashem, the people of Israel journeyed, and according to the word of Hashem they camped; as long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle they rested in their tents.
And when the cloud remained long upon the tabernacle many days, then the people of Israel kept the charge of the Lord, and journeyed not.
And so it was, when the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle; according to the word of Hashem, they abode in their tents, and according to the word of Hashem they journeyed.
And so it was, when the cloud abode from evening to the morning, and the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they journeyed; whether it was by day or by night that the cloud was taken up, they journeyed.
Or whether it was two days, or a
month, or a year, that the cloud stayed
Rav Ovadiah Seforno, one of the great classical Torah commentators, takes us nearly verse by verse through this passage, showing how it reveals the greatness of the Jewish people--their faith and their loyalty.
"And in the place where the cloud abode, there the people of Israel pitched their tents." Seforno: "This [whole passage] expresses the merit of [the children of] Israel, how they followed after Him in the desert. First, they would encamp in the place where the cloud rested, even though the place was empty and desolate."
"And when the cloud
remained long upon the tabernacle many days, then the people of Israel kept
the charge of the Lord…" Seforno: "…they would
wait an extended time, even though the place was very bad."
"And so it was, when the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle…" Seforno: "…at times, their camping was in a place that was favorable for them and for their flocks, and there the cloud would dwell for a few days. But even so, according to the word of Hashem, they abode in their tents, not from their love of the place, and according to the word of Hashem they journeyed-even though it meant they would have to leave that good place."
"And so it was, when the cloud abode from evening to the morning…" Seforno: "…at times, the resting of the cloud was…only one night, a time hardly adequate for preparing the needs of an encampment…"
"Or whether it was two days, or a month, or a year…" Seforno: "…in some of these instances, they did not have enough time to order their own affairs…while in some of them they had just arranged and ordered their affairs when, on a moment's notice, they would have to travel immediately, and undo all their preparations."
The passage is noteworthy for the repetition of the phrase, "according to the word of Hashem." As Seforno and others point out, the Torah is clearly emphasizing that the Jewish people did not make their own itinerary; they had to follow G-d's directives, regardless of their own desire for rest or comfort and regardless of their own personal preferences ("Let's stay a while at this oasis!" "The view in this place is the pits--let's move on!"). They went where G-d led them, and they moved on when G-d said it was time to go. Period.
As with my own travels of last week, convenience and comfort had to take backseat to the higher call (even if the source of that call was different in each case). "According to the word of their screaming kids, the Edelstein family journeyed…" "According to the word of Hashem, the people of Israel journeyed…"
In short, the journeys described in the parsha were not scheduled with an eye to our convenience; rather, the intention was to further our spiritual growth--to strengthen our commitment to follow G-d's word. At whatever hour, and in whatever circumstance. Much like the journeys in our own lives, big or small, which time and time again turn out to be unexpected and thoroughly unpredictable.
Do we always follow G-d's lead with consummate grace? Regrettably, the answer is, "No." (I didn't even bother to record all the bellyaching I did from behind the steering wheel last week on our trip, but please feel free to consult my wife on that score.) But we can be consoled by the fact that we've always had our troubles doing that, as we even see later in this parsha: "The people took to complaining…" (11, 1) The Jewish people showed themselves to be heroic in following G-d's lead in the desert, to be sure…but at the same time, quite human (I did not say, "Jewish") in uttering the sharp-tongued complaints on the way that are recorded throughout the Book of Numbers. Hey, the Torah always tells it like it is--good and bad.
I hope we can try to emulate the good traits of our ancestors, and be instructed by their shortcomings. And for anyone heading out onto I-95 with a van full of kids, there's really not much to say except, "Good luck!"
GOOD SHABBOS…AND HAPPY TRAILS!
Insights Into Exodus
Insights Into Leviticus
Insights into Numbers
Insights Into Deuteronomy
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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