In 1954 J.R.R Tolkien famously wrote, “Not all who wander are lost.” How true those words sound as we bring Passover to a close, setting down our haggadot as the Israelites enter the desert in which they wander for forty years. Yet in that time they were not lost. They learned.
When the Israelites were finally freed, journeying toward our promised land, Israel, G-d appeared to all of them for the first time. This revelation, to know our G-d instead of simply believe the words or deeds of a prophet, was revolutionary on an existential level. At Sinai we received law and order and Torah, cementing a fundamental new era of significance and understanding of personal identity. This was a completely new way of seeing the world after generations in dehumanizing bondage. A power greater than anything human, the universe itself, was saying, “you matter.”
But it was too much too quickly it seems, for the newly inspired Israelites, truly awestruck, emulated the only self-realized, free people they knew – their former masters, the idol-worshipping Egyptians. In no time at all, the astounded Israelites adopted a material zeal and erected a Calf made of gold, unknowingly dismissing the invaluable, immaterial euphoria intrinsic to the G-d they sought to praise. In trying to do good, a people who had never known freedom used it to opposite effect and trapped themselves in the emptiness of idolatry.
For all the progress that was made — liberation, a new way of seeing the world, a greater understanding of others — the people, misguided and afraid, turned to shadow instead of a bright future. The winds of change blew too strongly for some of our ancestors and too fast. The result was a pendulum swing that almost destroyed the Jewish people forever. It is in that moment that the Israelites were lost and when Moses destroyed the idol he too had strayed from G-d. But that is not how the story ends.
There is a reason Moses is so treasured in Jewish tradition. One of the most thoroughly described figures in Torah, he is inarguably human, with strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us. What distinguishes him as a model of leadership was his ability to acknowledge the humanness of error and weakness within himself and therefore others, and remain patient and steadfast.
Moses recognized, despite his outburst against the sinful Calf, that the people were not ready for revolution — not yet. The pace of the journey home was reduced and education and dialogue became more inclusive, thorough, and prioritized. The time spent in Sinai was not punishment. It was necessity. There’s a reason Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy aren’t super exciting — they’re a manual. A manual that shows how people make mistakes, but can learn, and must learn, in order to be more complete people. All of the Children of Israel deserved to know G-d and thrive as a nation, so Moses took the time — all forty years — to ensure that by the time the Israelites reached the Promised Land, they were actually ready to reign over it.
Those who refuse the future do not see it, but those who struggle with it are not failures. Think about that in terms of education. Think about that in the troubling times of 2017. Despite the rapidity with which we receive emails, delivery orders, or news updates, it is not a sin to take time to seek meaningful insight and effective solutions to the challenges we all face. True knowledge is not a commodity, it’s a treasure that is earned.
Pop the bubbles. Break down the walls. Unshackle the chains. Be free, and actually use that freedom instead of simply celebrating it in shortsighted frenzy. Talk with thought and act with awareness. Be a part of the world by understanding it in detail.
Yes, to do this takes focus, dedication, and time. These days, time-consuming challenges are annoying, daunting, or scary as hell, but maybe it’s time we realized this is because we have been worshipping a new Calf of our own material design. Maybe it’s time we do away with the constant posting, tweeting, shopping, binging, brunching, trolling, YOLO-flaunting, FOMO-dreading we’ve been obsessing over and take some time to wander a little bit.
I promise we won’t get lost.
Gregory Uzelac is a writer and artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Instagram to see his work at @greguzelac.