Wandering in preparation for the journey ahead

By Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg

Have you ever felt that you are on a long journey that seems endless? 

I think this feeling of endlessness must have been what it felt like for the Israelites when wandering the desert for 40 years. What is most interesting about their journey is that the actual distance between Mount Sinai and Kadesh Barnea, the settlement right outside the land where we find the Israelites placed in this week’s parashah, Devarim, is about an 11-day journey by foot.

Yet, we know that the Israelites wandered for 40 years between their time at Mount Sinai and the time they find themselves once again in Kadesh Barnea. So, what took them so long? What was the need for journeying 40 years? Was there a purpose and did they learn something in the process of their journey?

We know from previous parshiot that the last time they were at Kadesh Barnea they were not yet ready to enter into the Promised Land. They were scared of the reports they heard from the spies, but perhaps it was much more than that.

They had never known freedom, they had just renewed their Covenant with the Holy One in a momentous moment at Mount Sinai, and perhaps they were so overwhelmed with everything going on that they could not look ahead to what would come next. Therefore, it was necessary for the group to wander for the 40 years, so that a new generation would be ready for the journey into the Promised Land.

But does wandering make one ready for a new task or journey that lies ahead? In this week’s parashah, Moses reminds the people of their history, reminds them of their Covenant with God, and reminds them of the purpose of their journey – to live in freedom, in relationship with God, in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In repeating their history, Moses helps them to define themselves as a nation and as individuals. He begins to help them understand themselves so that they can take ownership of their history and their relationship with God and therefore begin to understand that the journey their ancestors made and the journey that they are about to complete is not about what happens along the way but rather is about how they respond, what they learn, and what they do in relation to what happens to them.

This I think is the reason why their journey seemed endless at the beginning, as they had to truly be ready to enter the Promised Land.

They had to be able to see their own future, to recognize that Moses and most certainly God were there to help, and that they had to help themselves to move forward.

This is the most important lesson we can take from the journey of our ancestors.

Life is sometimes a long and endless journey, especially when we are not ready to step into the future and take ownership of our actions.

God is with us on our journeys, be they long or short, but we have to be ready when we are standing at the edge to take the next step.

Just as the Israelites depended on God and depended on Moses, they could only enter into the land when they themselves were ready.

As each of us continues on our own journeys throughout life, may we learn from the long journey our ancestors took and perhaps live our lives as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l, once suggested, “Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you.”

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg serves United Hebrew Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.