The Torah is a map for our religious quests and queries


Numbers 30:2-36:13

Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4

How many of us can say that we have never embarked on a religious or spiritual journey? Most of us, I gather, are still on that journey. We are still searching. In the words of pop singer Bono, we still haven’t found what we’re looking for. Or have we?

This Shabbat we read the double portion of Matot-Masei. Parashat Masei recounts 40 years of masei, or journeys, by the Israelites from Egypt to the Land of Israel, and concludes the fourth book of the Torah.

Moses provides instructions for conquering the land, defining its border and dividing it among the tribes. He records one-by-one the names and locations of the Israelite camps. The Book of Numbers ends with a reminder of the protest regarding the daughters of Tzelofchod and a further clarification of the Torah’s laws of inheritance.

This parshah represents the collective spiritual journey of the Israelites in the wilderness. In a long list, Moses recounts names of people, places and happenings along the way. The wilderness was a tough experience. The Israelites repeatedly rebelled against God and needed frequent reminders of God’s presence.

In later generations there would be many marches and starting points for Israel. The landscape may have changed, but the questions, struggles and challenges remained the same. Masei continues to speak to the religious searching that defines who we are as Americans and Jews today.

In his book “Spiritual Marketplace,” Wade Clark Roof describes how the post-World War II generations in America paved the way for a more open, questioning religious landscape. In interviews with hundreds of people, he noted the repeated utterance of words such as: “quest,” “journey,” “seeking” and “searching.” Look around and see the rise of an expanded spiritual marketplace that includes spirituality sections in bookstores, Internet chat rooms and religious retreat centers.

Why, then, do we so often find ourselves lost? In today’s vast maze of options, it is not too difficult to veer off-course. The media is fast to offer quick fixes to our seeking appetites. As Jews, our religious journeys today sometimes take us into other spiritual avenues, away from synagogues, and away from the communities that hold the greatest potential to nurture our Jewish souls. Although we may glean wisdom from other paths, ultimately this week’s Torah portion reminds us that the Torah, the G.P.S. system of Jewish wisdom, provides the road map.

Commentator Rabbi Mordechai HaCohen, in his volume Al HaTorah, observes that in the comprehensive recital of the journeys in the wilderness, the revelation at Sinai was left out. His reason for this gaping omission?

Because, he writes, “once the Torah was given it became timeless and cut loose from any one place: every moment is its moment and every place its place.” The Torah was the guiding light in the wilderness as it is for us today. The Torah bound the Israelites together as it binds Jews together today. The Torah is the tangible part of the journey that we will pass on to our children. Our journeys may take us far, but the map is so near.

Once there was a Jew from a small village who had a dream one night that there was a treasure in the city buried under a bridge near the palace. He journeyed there and began to dig. A palace guard stopped him and said, “Jew, what are you doing?”

He explained about his dream and the guard said, “Foolish Jew! I, too, had a dream. I dreamt that there was a treasure in a village, buried in the home of a Jew underneath his stove.” So the Jew traveled home and, sure enough, he dug under his stove and found there a precious treasure.

The Torah is the map for our religious journeys. The treasure waits for us.

Rabbi Karen S. Citrin is the associate rabbi at Reform Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.