Numbers The Unattainable Destination Shapes Our Journey
I once owned a refrigerator magnet that read, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey to get there.” Each time I went to the refrigerator, whether I was reaching for a snack, meal ingredients, or something else, I considered its truth. Surely the idea of living and learning in each moment of the day is something I preach and teach, but doesn’t the destination matter at all?
This idea gets seriously tested in this week’s portion, Shelach Lecha. With the words “send men to scout the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:10), Gd puts into motion an experience that underscores the role the destination can have in a particular journey.
At Gd’s request, Moses does send men to the land, asking them to report back about the land itself as well as its inhabitants. One midrash explains that the people did not believe Gd that the land they were traveling towards was a land “flowing with milk and honey.” The scouts report back what they see: Indeed, the land is one flowing with milk and honey, but unfortunately the people who live there are literally giants (Numbers 14:27-28). The people, provided with a positive vision of the land itself, are also told the obstacles to inheriting it. The question shifts from the quality of the land to the possibility of ever realizing the dream of living in it.
The entrance of the Israelites into the land of Israel and the land itself can be thought of as a messianic vision, a scenario that is only achieved in a specific place (the land of Israel), in a specific time (once the Israelites have entered the land), under specific conditions (assuming the Israelites follow of all of Gd’s laws). That this is an unattainable goal is made clear both through our own understandings of the human condition and the biblical text itself. Given that the destination is unattainable, what happens to the journey? For the Israelites, the story continues with a descent into violence, as the children of Israel throw stones at Joshua and Caleb, two scouts who remind the people that faith in Gd will allow them to reach their destination. The children of Israel also cry out, seeking a return to Egypt. With the destination no longer attainable, they long for some vision of home, even if it will lead them back into oppression.
As I survey the world around us, considering the political environment that seeks to pull our country further into the grips of racism and white supremacy, just two weeks after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, and days after the citizens of Great Britain voted to leave the European Union, I can’t help but wonder where our global community is headed.
What Judaism offers is a vision of the world that is based on justice and compassion. A world where everyone’s dignity is recognized and upheld. A world where the systems that allow our society to sustain itself do not privilege any particular group’s experience over another’s. A world that is flowing with milk and honey. We may not ever be able to reach the destination, but the journey is lost without it.
In the Torah, the journey is able to continue because of Moses’ ability to convince Gd not to destroy the entire people, though the generation of the scouts is still prohibited from entering the land. How can we continue our own journey towards a repaired world when our dreams are mixed with despair? And what are the particulars that might characterize that journey along the way?
We can be Moses, beseeching the divine sparks inside each of us to move through the world, with an eye towards acting compassionately towards each other and searching out each other’s inherent value. These are the moments of listening to each other, valuing the experience of the other, and seeking to uproot the fear that prevents us from moving forward. These are the moments of speaking truth to power, of taking risks, of standing up for what we know is true.
We can be Joshua and Caleb, daring to speak out against the majority, calling ourselves to action, whether it is faith-based or not. These are the moments of white people calling out white supremacy, of Jews calling out racism in our communities, of challenging many of the assumptions our communities make.
We can act in the image of Gd, keeping the vision of a land of milk and honey in our minds, as we fail and succeed and fail again. This is the poetry, the song, the storytelling, the chanting, the coming together of community that leaves tastes of liberation on our tongue. Though our arrival at our destination–the actualization of the just and fair world that we envision–never seems to be close, the prospect provides us with motivation and vision. Released from the obligation of getting there, we can focus on the path itself, on the moments of connection and revolution that move us forward. The vision of the destination focuses us, but the specifics of the journey brings us to life.