September 2, 2007
Journey of a Lifetime
Parshat Pekudey (Exodus 38:21-40:38)
After serving as a weekend scholar-in-residence in Indianapolis, I was about to begin the first leg of a trip back to Los Angeles. I shared the aisle with a friendly fellow who introduced himself by extending his hand and giving me a strong shake. Noting his crew cut and strapping physique, I sensed immediately that he was in the Army.
"Hi, my name is Sgt. Jonathan Boscoe, and it is a pleasure flying with you," he said.
Although I was exhausted from the weekend and looked forward to catching a nap on the flight, I made sure to stay awake and converse with a person who, without knowing me, expressed pleasure in meeting me.
During our conversation he informed me he had already served 13 years and in another seven he would retire from the military with a full pension at the ripe old age of 47. Upon hearing this I wondered why such an opportunity wasn't offered in the rabbinate. Just as I began dreaming what I would do with such a retirement, Sgt. Boscoe brought me back to reality by saying, "I see you're a man of the cloth. Am I right?"
"Indeed I am, but how did you guess?" I answered.
"Well it wasn't too hard. The first sign was your skullcap. But if that didn't give it away your suit did," he said.
"How did my suit tell you that I am a rabbi?" I asked.
"Look around and show me one other person dressed so uncomfortably. It is Sunday morning. Nobody is dressed like you. That's how I knew you are on a special journey, not like everyone else on this plane," he said.
Truth be told, Sgt. Boscoe was wrong. Every human being is on a special journey; the secret, however, is to realize it. This, perhaps, is the Torah's message when it recounts the details of how the first Jewish house of worship, the Tabernacle, was constructed and dedicated.
In this account, however, the final verse of the book of Exodus puzzles me. Immediately preceding the closing verse the Torah informs us that when the Cloud of Glory rose from above the Tabernacle, the Israelites journeyed, but when it rested they camped. Then comes the last verse: "For the cloud of God was upon the Tabernacle by day, and there was a fire in it by night, before the eyes of the entire House of Israel, in all their travels" (Exodus 40:38).
The final words, "in all their travels," do not make sense. The first words describe a stationary Tabernacle, not one that moves. If the tabernacle is immobile, then why does the verse conclude, "in all their travels"?
The great medieval commentator Rashi, noting this oddity, offered an answer that resolves not only our text but also informs us what it means to be a Jew. He explained, "A place where they encamped is also called 'a journey.'... Because from the place of encampment they always set out on a new journey, therefore they are all called 'journeys.'"
The point is linguistic, but the message is profound. In these few words, Rashi captured the challenge we all face in life. So long as we have not reached our destination, even a place of rest is called a journey. In this way the Tabernacle becomes the symbol of Jewish life.
Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of the British Commonwealth explains that the Tabernacle represented a revolution in religious thought. The ancients all believed that gods were restricted to a place. In the journey of life, one could encounter many deities, such as those of Moab, Edom and Egypt. Theology was linked to geography. God, in their frame of reference, was restricted to a specific area. Judaism denounced such thinking. We claimed that God is omnipresent. God cannot be confined to a specific place, not even to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Sacks argues that if anything is responsible for the strength of the Jewish people during the long centuries of our dispersion it is this concept that God is never limited by geography but accompanies each of us throughout life's journey.
In 1990, the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile from Tibet since 1951, invited a group of Jewish scholars to discuss the secret of Jewish existence. Realizing that he and his followers might have to spend many more years in exile from their land, the Dalai Lama pondered the question, "How does a way of life sustain itself far from home?" He understood that only one people could answer that question -- the Jewish people. Even the Dalai Lama, a leader of a group far removed from Judaism, recognized that there is something unparalleled in the Jewish capacity to stay faithful to its faith despite its dispersion.
Judaism understood that even when at rest the Jew is on the move. If we can realize that we each are on a special journey, then our lives become meaningful and the opportunities we are offered are endless.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.