We are back from our adventures, and we all made it!
It was a wonderful trip, full of many great new sites and experiences. We visited family and friends (including a surprise meet-up with my college roommate), explored sand dunes and canyons, discovered fossils, visited an observatory, went on walks and hikes, swam in Lake Powell and saw the Grand Canyon and the Las Vegas Strip. We had Shabbat dinner at our campsite and s’mores around the fire.
One of our visits was to Salt Lake City. We drove around the city, but our one stop was at a place called “This is the Place.” It was referred to us by cousins who stopped there on their own road trip. It is a historic recreation village of early Salt Lake during the time of the Mormon settlers, including authentic and recreated buildings and docents acting the parts of early villagers.
The name of the place refers to the words of Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon Church, who, upon seeing the Salt Lake valley declared this to be the place the pilgrims would make their settlement and build their church and city. Emulating the biblical Israelites, the Mormons were fleeing religious persecution and made their way west from Illinois based on a prophesy by Joseph Smith.
A large monument stands at the place, and it indeed is an impressive view. One could imagine after such a perilous journey seeing the valley and deciding one has arrived at the Promised Land.
Seeing this vista and learning the story I thought of the events in this week’s Torah portion. This week we read Shelach Lecha, in the book of Numbers. While we may be familiar with the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, that wasn’t the original plan. Originally the Israelites were to take a short journey from Egypt to Sinai to Canaan; on a map it is not that far. After the events we read in the Torah this week, however, the Israelites are doomed to face another fate.
In this portion, the Israelites have indeed arrived near the border of the land. Moses sends out scouts-12 in all, one from each tribe-to assess the land. Ten come back with a report: the land is fertile and lush, yet the inhabitants will be too strong to overcome and the Israelites will be destroyed. Two-Joshua and Caleb-assure the people that they will be able to enter and settle the land.
The people, however, follow the report of the ten and fall into a panic. It is after this reaction-traditionally understood to be a demonstration of a lack of faith in God and God’s plan-that the Israelites are condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years. The length of time represents a generation, for the punishment is that the Israelites who left Egypt will not be the ones to enter into the land, but rather their descendants will.
At our congregation’s annual meeting this past week, I reflected on this story. Perhaps the sin of the Israelites, what prevented them from moving forward as a community, was not disobedience or lack of belief, but rather the fact that they did not listen to each and every opinion. They only heard the views of the ten, and neglected the views of the two. Rather than make an informed decision based on all of the available evidence and opinion, they chose to hear and act on only one side. As it was for the Israelites it is important for us: in our communities we need to be able to listen to all the voices and make informed decisions based on them.
For the actions of the Israelites in the story prevented the people from moving forward as a community. Moving to the Promised Land was the next chapter in the saga of the Israelite people. By not making a thoughtful well evaluated decision, and acting only on instinct or half-truths, the people were not able to grow and build. They were not able to have the clarity of Brigham Young and say, this is the place.
And in both cases, “place” is not about the physical location. While the Israelites were headed toward a Promised Land, what they were ultimately headed for was the fulfillment of the communal goals and the redemption of a once-enslaved people. While the Mormons found a valley in which to settle, the location was only the vehicle to fulfill and live out their spiritual ideals.
We are all heading toward a place, but that place may not be found on a map. The place we are heading is one of fulfillment, redemption, growth and community. We just need to point the way, and have trust in the journey.