This Is The Place

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.

this is the placeSeeing 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.


This year I spent a very non-traditional Shavuot on the road, driving north on U.S. Highway 93 from Las Vegas to Wells, Nevada, a drive of almost 400 miles.

When we planned this trip, we knew it would take us over the holiday. We were in Vegas at the time visiting family, and although we thought about trying to find a tikkun (study session) at night or a service in the morning, we ended up just resting and taking it easy.

And so while I didn’t observe a traditional Shavuot this year, I have spent some time reflecting back on how this whole two week adventure was a revelation in and of itself. It was a trip of new experiences: our first family camping trip, the first time I went camping where I was the responsible one, first time to many parts of this amazing country. I have overturned old assumptions I held and discovered new skills I didn’t know I had, It was a trip of reconnecting with family and friends.

[On that last point, it was also a trip of surprises. An unplanned detour took us to wonderful Flagstaff, Arizona–my college roommate whom I haven’t seen in over a decade and currently lives in Tuscon saw on Facebook that I was headed toward the Grand Canyon. It turned out that he and his family were going there as well, although we would miss each other at the Canyon by a day. We ended up altering our plans to meet up with him in Flagstaff for a morning.]

And my Torah through this trip of revelation? The road atlas I purchased before we left. In this age of GPS even on your smartphone, an atlas seems like a relic, a novelty. I don’t even know if my kids have seen a road map before. But on a trip like this, a road atlas is a necessity, and not just because we drove through places without cell service.

GPS is best when you know exactly where you are going, and only need the narrow view. A map allows you to wander, consider alternatives and see the big picture. A map you can actually read, spend time with, contemplate. A map allows you to see the interconnectedness of locations over vast spans of distance.

On Shavuot we celebrate Torah and revelation, and how they are meant to orient our lives. The Torah is a life map, meant to be read, contemplated, acted upon. But the Torah is just that, a guide–it requires our agency and our ability to be open to discovery. We look at the big picture, but we also make choices. We make decisions, but must be open to the unexpected. Life is not just Torah. Life is Torah plus experience.

On this non-traditional Shavuot spent on a road trip, I understand how a road map can tell you somethings and not others. Lines and symbols don’t tell you about the beautiful mountains and valleys we drove through. The map didn’t include the tiny non-denominational chapel on the side of the road in Arizona. The cow lumbering down the highway in southern Utah was definitely off the charts.

The Book of Nevada

Without the atlas, we would be completely lost. But without looking past the atlas, we wouldn’t fully see what it is possible to discover. Revelation requires both.


Blown Tire

Day one of our big driving and camping trip went well, as we left Olympia for the day’s drive to Boise to visit family. Day two, however, hit a snag.

About 20 miles out on the way to Utah, cruising along at the posted 75 mph speed limit, we heard a pop, felt a jolt, and realized our rear driver side tire had blown. I pulled the car quickly over to the side, we called AAA, and after a short wait a tow truck came to bring us to the shop.

Anything to make if this? I did reflect in it (of course)–and I will say this:

Not another variation of the Yiddish proverb “man plans, God laughs,” that one moment you have your life all planned out and the next moment you find yourself unexpectedly sitting in a Les Schwab in Mountain Home, Idaho for 3 1/2 hours. Although that is true.

And not that if we pay attention to the small details along the way we may be able to prevent larger issues from flaring up. Although that, too, is true. (Rotate your tires, people! I didn’t do it often enough.)

But only this: we sometimes surprise ourselves at how we will behave in any given situation. When the tire blew what could have been a more dangerous situation was not because I was able to react calmly and quickly, much to my surprise. I say this not to laud my driving skills, but simply to say that I noticed a pattern about myself: that I tend to get anxious in the lulls but not in the times of crisis. Whether it’s a tire being blown out or being wheeled into the OR for surgery (or even public speaking or performing), I’ve tended to be nervous in the lead up but not in the moment itself.

What does this mean? I’m not sure. But maybe it’s that we carry within us capabilities we don’t know we have. There are things to be nervous about, of course. But there is also our ability to weather that which comes to us with courage, strength, and clarity of purpose. We just may not know we can until we need to.

And we will need to. And then it is back to the open road.