Devarim — Traveling close to home
Summertime usually means trips of some kind. More than just fun, our parashah reminds us of the spiritual significance of travel.
In Devarim, Moshe’s lengthy speech unfolds before we cross the Jordan and settle the land of Israel, culminating a 40-year journey. But it really began much earlier; indeed at the dawn of creation. The ultimate destination of any journey isn’t the place we explore, but the home from which we departed. The essence of travel is not going to foreign countries or exotic destinations; it’s making our way home a changed person because of what we’ve experienced. This is reflected in our parashah as well as in the Jewish concept of repentance — teshuvah.
In Devarim, the tribes prepare for arrival, but their destination is not a foreign country. It is the country of our ancestral origins; the place of Abraham’s covenant with God; the birthplace of Isaac and Jacob; the land of Israel. In reaching their destination, the children of Israel come full circle. They come home.
Rabbi Riskin taught, “Fundamental to our history as a nation is that we are constantly traveling — in all of our wanderings — on the road to the Promised Land, on the journey toward redemption. Our traveling is not an aimless wandering. It is with a clear compass and a purposeful direction. That direction was given to us at the dawn of our history in Hebron, at the Covenant between the Pieces; in Jerusalem, at the binding of Isaac; and at Sinai, with the Divine Revelation. Our starting points are also our end-goals.”
Such purposeful wandering back to our places of origin has profound inner significance. Being days away from Tisha B’Av and weeks away from the month of Elul that begins the High Holy Day season, teshuvah is on our minds now. We think of teshuvah as a process that leads us from a place of sin or failure to a better, different place. In truth, teshuvah takes us back to where repentance was needed in the first place. The difference is we arrive there as changed people.
In “Al Hateshuvah,” Rav Soloveitchik wrote about how in order to create a future for ourselves we must confront our past. By repenting, we don’t move forward by forgetting our past. We move forward elliptically by revisiting and redeeming it — making our past a usable platform off of which to venture into the future.
Teshuvah means return. To where? To our core, to our inner potential. This is the purpose of our journeys through life: to come home to ourselves as stronger, more enlightened and faithful creatures.
How far must we travel to reap the insights and rewards of a journey upon our return? Not one mile.
While many can recall a trip to an exotic site that was life-altering, we become hardened to the transformative effects of the places we call home.
In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes not just about the where and how of travel, but of its why — why we are drawn to explore different cities and cultures. He concludes that the lesson to be learned from being amazed at the beauty of other places is to learn to be amazed by the beauty of the places we call home.
He describes how in 1790, nine years before Alexander von Humboldt undertook his journey around South America, the account of which he published as “Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent,” a 27-year-old Frenchman named Xavier de Maistre undertook a journey, the account of which he published as “Journey Around My Bedroom.”
De Maistre was a well-traveled man: he had been to Italy, Russia, the Alps. His point in recording his journey around his bedroom was only in part to be provocative. He wanted to awaken us to the beauty in the banal, the delight in the daily, the sacred in the simple.
Writes de Botton: “…de Maistre’s work sprang from a profound and suggestive insight: the notion that the pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mindset we travel with than on the destination we travel to. If only we could apply a traveling mindset to our own locales, we might find these places no less interesting than, say, the high mountain passes and butterfly-filled jungles of Humboldt’s South America.”
He describes a traveling mindset as being receptive to the mystery and beauty of things known and ordinary.
How many of us fail to notice the richness of the lives we have right here at home: the embrace of loving families and friends, the fellowship in communities of all kinds, the beauty of our beaches, mountains and neighborhoods, the breadth of the arts in the tristate area?
Like poor Reb Yitzchak, who made the difficult journey to Prague believing there he’d find the treasure that would change his life only to discover once arriving that the treasure lay behind his stove back in Cracow, we too must learn that oftentimes the most rewarding, if arduous, journey beckoning us is the one that has us venturing more deeply into the lives before our very eyes.
Hindu scholar Heinrich Zimmer saw in this chasidic parable an insight into the central struggle of human life:
“And so the real treasure, the treasure that brings our wretchedness and our ordeals to an end, is never far away. We must never go looking for it in distant lands, for it lies buried in the most secret recesses of our own house; in other words, of our own being. It is behind the stove, the life and heat-giving center that governs our existence, the heart of our hearth, if only we knew how to dig for it.”
In this season of travel and in the approaching season of teshuvah, I wish you safe journeys. Pack lightly but travel far, knowing that the trip of a lifetime may be no further away than your own home.