Parshat Bamidbar: Constantly on the Road
Rabbi Yedidya and Ahuva Toyber are Straus-Amiel shlichim in Caracas Venezuela, where Yedidya is the rabbi of the Sephardic community and head of the kollel, and together, they head the region’s Jewish and Hebrew Studies
Our portion opens up a new book which deals entirely with the journey of the People of Israel. Instead of reaching the Land of Israel soon after leaving Egypt and settling down, each tribe in its respective inheritance and each man and family in his personal plot of land – the Israelites find themselves wandering around in circles in the great wilderness in what seems to be an endless journey.
Instead of the destination, the actual journey suddenly becomes the focal point and takes on new meaning. So much so, that it is explicated upon over an entire book, as the need arises to address various issues that come up along this great journey and would probably not have transpired had the Israelites not been on the road. Indeed, the Book of Bamidbar depicts a myriad of downfalls and problems which spring up along the way – the complaints about lack of meat, the Korach affair, the spies and so forth. All of these events take place en route to the Land.
The dangers on the road
Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook of blessed memory, wrote:
“In this world one finds oneself in two types of situations: at home or on the road. When a person is in his own home, he is safe; on other hand, when one is on the road, danger lurks in every corner… He comes upon unexpected complications and undergoes troubles and tribulations…. And yet, it is crucial to set out and hit the road. Reality, by definition, requires us to get up and journey, and there is no evading it… When a person is in his own home, he is safe, protected, quiet and calm; he is surrounded by walls; he has a set routine. But both these dimensions – the “home” and the “road” – make up the life of the individual, as well as that of a nation.” (The essays of Rabbi Zvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook on Bamidbar, 13-14, 53).
Embarking on any type of journey involves dangers and presents challenges. When one is on the road, one cannot but feel constant fear and tension. The heart rate is accelerated, the eyes dart in all directions and one is constantly concerned with the following: Where will the next unexpected occurrence come from? What might go wrong? These feelings stem from a sense of insecurity. One who is not within his own walls, and does not have a roof over his head cannot but feel unprotected. For this reason, we say Tefillat HaDerech (literally – “The Prayer of the Road”) upon leaving our homes and setting out on a journey.
There is no special prayer for one who decides to stay at home, but only for those who set out and hit the road. Here are a few words from the prayer: “May You save us from the hands of all enemies and all those who lurk for us… and save us from all types of calamities that come to the world.”
Nonetheless, embarking on the journey is essential. One who only sits in his own home and never leaves his comfort zone and his protective space cannot ever advance and progress. One must always take steps forward; strive to improve; aspire to be a better person. For this, one needs bravery of heart, without which one cannot set forth and hit the road.
It follows then that the perils on the road stem from the fact that the journey takes place outdoors, where there is no protection. However, if we delve deeper, we will find another reason still for the challenges which arise for the fact that one is on the move.
“Every change is negative”
This is what Shmuel says in the Talmud: “Any change leads to illness”. Similarly, the Maharal writes in numerous places that “any change is a bad thing”. In his book Gevurot Hashem, the Maharal explains as follows:
“The explanation seems to be that every change stands in relation to that which had existed beforehand, and comes to uproot a previous process or break down that which had formerly been standing. It follows then that every change incorporates some kind of loss or void in reference to the previously existing form. Hence, every change is negative, for it has lost something which had previously existed.”
In other words, every change involves a departure from a previous position or place; an eradication, of sorts, of an earlier reality or existence. Hence, even if one advances towards a better place or a higher level, the loss of the previous existence is bound to cause some form of sorrow. The pain of this sorrow is not easy and that is why we require a special prayer when setting out on a journey, a prayer asking that the sorrow be not too great, and that the road to change be as pleasant as could be. For example, one who treads the path of marriage with the woman he loves, knows that he is on a road leading to a better place and that the destination is one of greater wholeness and joy. And yet, he also knows full well that some concessions must be made and that from now on, his spouse will have to be taken into account. He will probably enjoy less freedom than he did as a bachelor, and will have to engage in household chores and so forth. In other words, although the destination is wonderful, the journey is oftentimes filled with hardship stemming from the fact that the person now finds himself in a new reality.
The historical journey of the Jewish Nation
There is no other nation in the world that has had to undergo such a long and trying journey as the People of Israel. The 40 years in the desert were only a taste of what was yet to come – a 2000-year-old journey strewn with obstacles and bumps. The Book of Bamidbar gives us a tiny glimpse into the true essence of our nation, a people well-weathered by a long journey. It was not our choice to take to the road for so long, but we have had no choice. Reality demands constant growth. It requires of us to grow incessantly and to aspire to be better people. As such, we have no choice but to seize our walking sticks and set out on our journey. It is for good reason that the phrase “the wandering Jew” was initially coined. After all, wandering is a part of our calling.
This does not mean to say that our ultimate goal is to wander till the end of times. After all, we pray daily “Thou bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance” in addition to praying for the Holy Temple to be built on the Mountain of God and that “old men and old women sit in the streets of Jerusalem.” And yet we are not afraid of a long journey. This long winding road may have led to the downfall of great empires, but it does not deter the Jewish People. For we are skilled in walking long roads; we are versed in great voyages.
The journey of Shlichut
The very fact that one understands that the journey is not an easy one, but is filled with great challenges, is what gives one the strength to cope with the trials of the road, alleviates some of the concerns experienced by every traveler and gives courage to set out and hit the road.
Embarking on the journey is inevitable. Some may even feel that the road is calling out to them, and so they cannot remain indifferent. These people constantly feel the urge to push forward and transcend to new levels. They always strive to be better people who add light to the world; they give whatever they can of themselves, even in the most remote of places. These people aspire to connect every single Jewish community in the Diaspora to the roots and the core of the Jewish People; to embrace every Jew as members of the Jewish nation.
These devoted people know well that the road is filled with bumps and that the staff in their hand is often painful, but they push forward nonetheless, with the thought that the Jewish People has never ceased to wander, and that our nation is always on the road, upon an incessant journey even when the destination is in sight.
And at this point they turn their heads upwards to heaven and ask God to assist them on their journey. Solemnly uttering the words of Tefillat HaDerech, “The Prayer of the Road”, they wave goodbye to their beloved ones, wipe away a tear and set out on their mission.
The Jewish population of Venezuela comprises some 3000 Jews, belonging to either the Ashkenazi or the Sephardi community. The Sephardi community is composed of a number of smaller congregations, all of which are warm and closely-knit. In the past, the security situation in Venezuela was precarious, and the economy was at an all-time low. Today, however, there are no security threats and the economy is recovering. There are four Jewish schools, about seven synagogues, a local rabbinate responsible for supervising kashrut matters and a rich and active community life.