How long should a journey take? That is a question I want to pose for this week’s Torah portion, Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22), in which the Israelites are poised between ending one journey and beginning another. This Shabbat we begin the book of Deuteronomy. The Israelites are at the end of their journey in the wilderness and are about to cross over the Jordan to the Promised Land. Reviewing their route from Mt. Sinai (called Horeb in Deuteronomy) Moses begins by saying that it is an 11 days journey from Horeb/Sinai to Kadesh Barnea, which is on the edge of the Promised Land.
But wait, 11 days? Didn’t it take them 40 years and 2 generations to get there! Are we now to learn that it could have taken 11 days? What is more, Rashi said that if you go back to descriptions of the journey earlier in the Torah, it actually took 3 days because the Shechina helped them along. So why did such a short journey take so long? Why did a journey of 3-11 days take 40 years?
The medieval commentator Ramban suggests a reason. After the incident of the 12 Israelite spies who were sent to scout the land, the Israelites lost faith and actually sojourned backwards. The end of the journey, the Promised Land, was within reach. They could have arrived there quickly. But instead of moving forward to reach it, they went backward, and it took forty years and another generation to reach it.
We like to think that human progress is a straight line. We like to think that we get wiser and calmer and smarter and better day by day. We like to think that our society becomes more and more enlightened, just and advanced, that it tackles an issue, achieves progress, and moves on to the next one.
But our journeys, whether social or personal, aren’t quite like that. They are more like the journeys of the Israelites–two steps forward and 1 step backward. Sometimes they are 11 days forward and 40 years backward! We may make progress–progress on our addictions, on our temper on our impatience. We may make progress by being more open and loving to others and more faithful to our values. But it is rarely a straight march forward.
Some of us feel acutely this lack of straightforward progress in regard to our society today. These are challenging times due to the divisionin our nation and the recent Supreme Court decisions. Many of us may be feeling a deep concern that with all of our progress on many social issues, we are feeling like we are moving backwards. Even though we have the Voting Rights Act, there are still powerful forces trying to disenfranchise voters.
We have had so many victories over the last 50 years. Some times it felt as if we were only 11 days away from the Promised Land. Yet we have also been going backwards, and wonder whether we too, like the Israelites, will have to look to the next generation to take us there.
Like many, I also have hope and faith in our journey. What we do together matters. Our victories have been won because of hard work, faith and commitment. We have come a long way and many people have sacrificed much to get us there. But I also want to acknowledge the frustrations, sadness and fear at this moment in the wilderness, this moment when, after having made such progress, we are turning around and moving in the wrong direction. We are going backwards. What I learn from the Torah, however is that some journeys, perhaps the most important ones, are indeed roundabout. That is not cause for despair. Going backward is not an abdication of the journey. It is part of it.