In 2013, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on breast cancer, which included the incredible statistic that, since 1972, only a half percent of all grants awarded by the National Cancer Institute focused on metastatic cancer. When the reporter wondered why, the chairman of the University of Kansas Cancer Center told her that, to many people, focusing on metastatic cancer feels like — and I’m quoting — “a waste of time.” It turns out that researchers and institutions want to find ways to eradicate medical conditions or learn how to prevent them. It is simply not as exciting for them to study how to help people live with them, especially when they are still largely incurable.
In addition, there is a social stigma in play as well. I remember reading an essay by an unlikely survivor of metastatic Sage IV melanoma. She wrote of how, when it seemed like she only had months to live, her very presence made others uncomfortable, almost as if she were a ghost intruding into the world of the living.
The second portion we read this morning is called “Masei,” “the journeys,” and it describes the 42 encampments that the Israelites made during their 40-year journey through the wilderness, beginning with the Exodus from Egypt and culminating at the border of the land of Israel.
If you look at a map, you know that it should not take nearly that long to travel from Egypt to Israel, and if you know the story as it develops through the Book of Numbers, you know that it was not supposed to. It was following the sin of the spies who cravenly slandered the land and demoralized the people that God decreed that they would wander until the entire generation that left Egypt perished in the wilderness. The land of Israel would be finally conquered and inherited by their children.
In this context, we can imagine how that might have felt. An entire nation literally wandering in circles, going nowhere. One ghostlike generation, doomed and waiting to die, travelling alongside those who were essentially waiting for them to die so that they could finally move forward with their own lives. The long list of place-names speaks to all those wheels spinning pointlessly for month after month, and year after year.
But I think there is something more, encoded in the most striking feature of this list. The most important stop is not mentioned – and that is the destination. The Israelites’ itinerary begins in Egypt, but ends on the plains of Moab, just short of the the land of Israel.
This is a deliberate narrative choice. The narrative ends with the Israelites encamped on the wrong side of the Jordan River, even though we know that they cross into the land in the very beginning of the next book. So the very framing of the story of the Torah is a story of living an entire lifetime moving from station to station, and not quite getting there, of still always having just a little further to go at the end. It resonates so deeply because that is the story of all of us, no matter how long we live, or what we struggle with, or what we accomplish. We are all wandering through the wilderness.
In the Talmud, one sage asked, “What short text is there upon which all the essential principles of the Torah depend?” He answered, “In all your ways know God.” Maimonides explained this meant that everything we do in life should be directed towards our larger goals. So the food we eat, the water we drink, the work with which we sustain ourselves — all of it for the purpose of enabling ourselves to achieve our noblest goals.
We so often think in terms of what we have to get done in order to do the really significant things, the things that we really want to do. We think about the places we have to pass through to get to where we really want to be. But what happens when we spend our lives wandering through the wilderness?
In contrast, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook insisted that the path to a spiritual and fulfilled life is not to focus on the things we do and the places we are as means to an end, as stops on the way to a destination. Instead of always be trying to get to the Promised Land that is just beyond the horizon, he explained the same verse, “Within all your ways, know God,” as a challenge to fully focus us on where we are, to be fully engaged in each moment, each place — even if it’s in the middle of the wilderness — without necessarily thinking about what came before or what may come next.
This morning’s portion teaches us that the Israelites managed to anticipate both Maimonides and Rav Kook. Through a lifetime of wandering through the wilderness, they kept themselves pointed towards the Promised Land, yet were also fully present, conscious, supportive, and united at each stop along the way. What a powerful lesson, and what a model for us in to emulate in the journeys we take over the course of our own lives.
The Hampton Synagogue
Shabbat, July 22, 2017