In the summer, we read through Torah portions that sound like very weird vacation routes. As a Shabbat regular joked during our livestreamed service, it sounded like the old-fashioned CAA TripTiks.
In the days before GPS or MapQuest, you went to your local automobile association’s shop. A travel agent would hand you tour books for wherever you were traveling and create a personal set of maps, with highlighted routes, for your journey. With lots of tips for where to stop, eat and how to use your sightseeing time along the way, it was pretty useful. I used those tour books in years past, but my family eschewed the TripTiks; my parents insisted we could read maps on our own.
Considering the long list of places that the Israelites went during their 40 years in the wilderness, it could be compared to a family summer vacation gone wrong. Rather than the fastest, most direct route between two points, the Israelites wandered. In fact, it was their behaviour and relationship with G-d that had gone wrong. This exile and wandering was very much about the journey. In Numbers 32:13, it says: “The Lord was incensed at Israel and for 40 years He made them wander in the wilderness, until the whole generation that had provoked the Lord’s displeasure was gone.”
We often talk in platitudes, like “life’s a journey, not a destination,” but let’s be honest. Most of us want to get places in life – accomplish things and do things properly. We might enjoy hiking or meandering down country roads, but most of us don’t want to see our whole lives as a lot of meaningless wandering.
This issue hit home for me in my recent studying of Tractate Yoma, which is all about how Yom Kippur works. Towards the end of the tractate, on page 86A, the rabbis discuss repentance and the notion of “hillul Hashem” or “desecrating the name of G-d.” Their explanations don’t seem direct at first. Rav suggests it’s like when a public figure, such as him, goes to the butcher, takes meat and doesn’t pay immediately, thus setting a bad example. Rav Yohanan suggests that, if one walks a distance without Torah or tefillin, it indicates a lack of appropriate respect for the Divine.
The tractate continues with when someone’s friends are embarrassed by his reputation, and other examples. Then, finally, a really difficult one: “But one who reads Torah and learns Mishnah and serves Torah scholars, but his business practices are not done faithfully and he does not speak pleasantly with other people, what do people say about him? Woe to so-and-so who studied Torah, woe to his father who taught him Torah, woe to his teacher who taught him Torah. So-and-so who studied Torah, see how destructive are his deeds and how ugly are his ways.” (Tractate Yoma 86a)
There it is, the person who disgraces G-d’s name and struggles when seeking repentance on Yom Kippur. This is because, despite a clear road map of how to behave, he got very lost on his way.
All of the examples touch on how we behave in community, and how it reflects on us and affects others. Shaming oneself or harming others disgraces G-d’s name because, well, we’re all made in G-d’s image. We should know better.
Many of us are still taking summer adventures, but it was helpful for me to read about finding one’s way more existentially, and to consider Yom Kippur. It had remarkable relevance to something else that happened.
Recently, we were involved in what would have been a big real estate purchase for our household. My kids and husband were very excited. We made tons of plans and, like the careful tourists we are, we had the routes on our “roadmaps” highlighted. We knew which steps we had to get through, and how to proceed. This was to be our summer adventure.
However, the experience proved far more challenging than usual – and no map would have helped. In the end, we learned that the seller’s finances were so tangled and she owed so much money that the sale couldn’t go through. Like the story in Tractate Yoma, it felt embarrassing and upsetting. It’s hard to see a person fall off the path that most of us expect to take.
We don’t think of closing an open construction permit or paying property tax bills as being central to our life journeys. Yet, just like the poor behaviour that caused G-d to get angry at the Israelites, sometimes our missteps cause a lot of misery down the line, and to other people.
Being an upstanding person, who promptly pays bills and deals with the chores of adulthood, doesn’t just reflect on one’s own character. As the rabbis pointed out, behaving properly avoids embarrassing others or setting a bad example. It reminds us to talk about “Torah,” or generally upright things. We should apply what we learn – to behave kindly and ethically towards others all the time.
When someone doesn’t do this, it’s not just an issue of seeking individual repentance and everything is fixed. The ramifications go beyond an individual’s bad behaviour. It turns out that not paying taxes or taking care of household maintenance affects many others nearby in a community.
When this failed real estate deal happened, it wasn’t our fault. It felt, I explained to my parents, like we’d put our car in a parking lot with an invisible sinkhole. When the sinkhole opened up, all the cars, including ours, fell in. When we got to the (imagined) parking lot, all was lost, but there was nothing we could have done. We couldn’t have known that this experience would derail us from our journey.
I can’t lie. Being thrown off the highlighted route was disconcerting. I kept thinking about how the car’s GPS voice says “recalculating” when we’re driving and get lost. It’s taken me nearly a week to process the failed home purchase. Now, we must create a new metaphorical summer destination, with fun activities for our kids.
We can’t always control our path. Maybe that’s why those platitudes mention “the journey” instead. While we focus on our destination, the lake or camping or a staycation, it’s so important to think about how we behave and live along the way. Our actions can affect everybody.
I took a long walk with my dog on Shabbat, and spoke with three separate neighbours. They all needed the company and the conversation. Was this one of my new stops, on an entirely different path?
The Israelites wandered 40 years to get to the Promised Land. Sometimes, the things we do along the way are the most important part after all.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.