By the time I was ten, I had traveled to the South Pole with Scott, and Byrd. I had shlepped a 7,000 lb. printing press across thousands of miles of ocean to Antarctica with Shackleton to print and bind a single book. I fought alongside Commodore Hornblower against Napoleon, and visited Greenhearth with W.H. Auden's Secret Agent.
Books were my means of travel, and my adventures with them were far more exciting than my business trips all over the globe. Sitting in a desert tent listening as Herodotus described the distant places he visited was much different from taking a plane. The knight returning to England from the Holy Land, sharing his stories with the villagers he passed on his way home, might as well have been describing a trip to a different planet: most people never traveled more than five miles beyond their village.
Rather than read as a world traveler the long list of places the Children of Israel visited over forty years, I decided to read the portion as a young boy listening openmouthed to the returning Vasco Núñez de Balboa, as a gondolier gulping down every word of Marco Polo as I glided him home.
Each place became a different world; a life-changing event. I read the list of camps with awe for the nascent nation's ability to deal with one entirely new world after another. It was not, as it often is for us, the same malls with the same chain stores everywhere in the US, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
I realized that we cannot read the story of our travels through history all over the map as people who know exactly how to find the Hertz counter and the Airport Hilton in any city. Running from Saxony to Barcelona was earth shattering, as was escaping Porto for Amsterdam, and Poland for South Dakota. The language, customs, and religions changed, as did our enemies. We did this all without the anchor of Jerusalem and the Temple. We found our anchor in our faith, in each other, and in our history. The shared anchors allow us to connect to the Lithuanian Yeshiva student who found himself in Shanghai, and with the Jerusalem merchant stuck in Rome, trembling as he observed Titus' victory march through Rome. Only when I bother to appreciate the drama of landing in Africa as he escaped Babylonian hordes, can I connect with that terrified Jew.
If I can read the journeys in this week's portion and connect with those distant people, I will be able to empathize more with the terrifying tales we will remember on Tisha B'Av. If I can relate to them, I should be able to better connect with my neighbors, the people with whom I pray and those with whom I cannot, with old friends and new adversaries, with those who hate me and even with people I have great difficulty understanding. If I can travel to Antarctica with Shackleton, I can certainly find common ground with those with whom I disagree. If I can journey with the ancient Children of Israel through the distant desert, I can journey through the present with the people around me. Hopefully the shared journeys will heal the angry wounds of resentment and the infected sores of hatred.
I invite you to travel with me as I use these journeys to change my prayer: Drops of Light I
, & IV
Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg
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