Perhaps no other people is as restless as the Jews. No doubt you are familiar with the term "wandering Jew." The expression, popularized by the church theologian Augustine, was not meant as a term of endearment, but one of derision. It was also descriptive – after all, Jews have been expelled and banished from more places on the globe than any other people.
But I would submit to you, that properly understood, we are journeying Jews, not wandering Jews. Eileh masei B'nei Yisrael – "These are the journeys of the children of Israel" – begins our parshah. Wandering to me suggests something aimless and forcefully imposed; journeying suggests a purposeful and freely embraced venture. At the end of this book of Moses, we encounter a recitation of the 42 places that we traveled and camped at during our 40 years in the desert.
How interesting it is to remind ourselves that the initial call to father Abraham was Lekh Lekha – "Go forth and journey." It was a call to travel from one place to another, to lead life as a journey, in its ennobled sense, from strength to strength.
But did you know that according to the opinion of Rabbi Judah the Prince, editor and redactor of the Mishna, we conclude this week the sixth book of Moses. How can that be when there are only five?
In his opinion, there's a stand-alone book of Moses, and it's one you know but may not have identified. It begins, Vay'he Binsoa Ha'aron – "When the Ark was journeying" – and congregations sing these words whenever the Ark is opened before the Torah-reading service. How interesting it is to have the theme of journeying identified as a separate and discrete book of Torah, which is itself a book of life.
May I share a true story? A few years ago, the Vaad: Board of Rabbis invited four teachers and scholars to engage in a community-wide conversation about the tenor of a 21st-century Jewry. I named the event "The Four Tenors." After the third phone call asking when Luciano Pavarotti was due to perform, I became perturbed. When I took the next such query from a delightful older woman, I said, "Ma'am, they are three tenors; we are four tenors. Why would you think this is the same program?"
Listen to what she taught me, as her response was elegantly simple. "Rabbi, I know that they are three tenors, and you are hosting four tenors. But I assumed it was the same program because, after all, aren't we supposed to be better!?"
Our sacred journey and vocation as a people is to strive to ratchet up the spiritual stakes and, frankly, one-up ourselves.
Paraphrasing writer Maurice Samuel's comment that Jews are the world's "alarm clock," one commentator wrote that Jews are the moral insomniacs of the world – never comfortable with the status quo, they are always trying to make things better.
So, as we complete this, the fourth or sixth book of Moses, pay attention to a sweet custom. At the conclusion of the Torah reading, we rise and say, Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik – "Strong, strong, and we will be strengthened."
Why the repetition of the word? Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick noted that a life suffused with goodness and meaning cannot be static. We are strong in sacred deeds informed by the inexhaustible wisdom of our tradition, but our strength is in the continuing of the journey – to the next encampment, to the next study of text, to the next level of building Jewish community. It's not being redundant, it's simply ratcheting up the stakes.
We are people of chazak, and chazak again – and in so doing, v'nitchazeik, we together as a people will be strengthened. I guess it's true; we do have a hard time taking "yes" for an answer – and with good reason.
N'siah tova : "May you have a meaningful and purposeful journey." u
Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.