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Sukkot Feature Israelites’ Trip out of Sinai Highlights Need to Enjoy the Journey

If we don’t change our direction, we’re likely to end up where we’re headed, a Chinese proverb tells us. For us Jews, that’s never been a problem. Even if we change our direction, multiple times in fact, we’re unlikely to end up where we’re headed. Or at least not in any reasonable time frame.

Sure, the Israelites left Egypt and made it to Mt. Sinai more or less punctually. “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai,” Exodus 19:1 tells us.

But the trip from Mt. Sinai to the border of the Promised Land, a trip that Moses says in Deuteronomy 1:2 should have taken 11 days, clocked in at a long-overdue 40 years.

“Talk about being directionally challenged,” says Jeremy, 16.

“Or having to listen to your kids say, ‘Are we there yet?’ 12 times a day for 14,600 days,” adds my husband, Larry.

But the trip wasn’t about the destination.

It was about transforming a people who had lived in slavery for 431 years into a people who knew and appreciated freedom, despite the hardships. It was about transforming a people who kept whining about the past, about the comforts and delicious melons and fish of their former life in Egypt, to a people who looked forward to the future, to the challenges and joys of settling in the Promised Land. It was about transforming a people who argued with and complained to God into a people who accepted that God would lead and protect them.

In short, it was about the journey itself.

And making all the stops along the way.

Thus, Numbers 33:1 announces, “These were the marches of the Israelites.” And the verses that follow painstakingly list all 42 wilderness encampments, starting out from Rameses, in Egypt, and ending in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan River near Jericho.

The list includes familiar places such as the wilderness of Sin, where manna first appeared, and Rephidim, where Moses struck the rock to bring forth water for the thirsty and complaining Israelites. It also mentions a place where the Israelites demanded meat to eat and God rained down quail, inflicting the people with a severe plague.

But equally noteworthy are the unfamiliar places, including all those in Numbers 33:18-29, like Rithmah and Rissah, Tahath and Terah, that aren’t mentioned elsewhere.

Places where, one has to believe, the Israelites had to deal with setting up and breaking down camp; with hunger, thirst and exhaustion; and with heat, cold and sandstorms. And with 603,550 other whining and rebellious Israelites, their wives and their children, their flocks and their herds.

For Sukkot — unlike Passover, which celebrates the Exodus, and unlike Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah — is not about observing the sublime moments. Rather, it’s about dealing with the toilsome, troublesome and tedious exigencies of everyday life.

Similarly, the journey we undertake as parents is less about the transcendent moments — the births and b’nai mitzvah, the rewards and recitals, the graduations and marriages — than about the unglamorous daily grind.

And so we make the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drive the carpools. We referee the sibling rivalry, soothe the broken hearts and nurse the high fevers. We deal with the lost homework assignments and the lost football games. And we rearrange and reconfigure our schedules, continually changing directions.

Indeed, these are the marches of the parents, a seemingly interminable trip laden with multiple detours, obstacles and stops at unknown encampments.

For this trip also isn’t about the destination.

It’s about taking our children from birth to the brink of adulthood, from dependency to self-reliance, from whining babies to solid and solidly Jewish citizens.

“It’s also about taking ourselves from slavery to freedom,” says Larry, optimistically.

“If we ever get there,” I answer.

God commands in Leviticus 23:42-43, “You shall live in booths seven days in order that future generations may know I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”

And so, for seven days we sit in our sukkah, knowing it marks just one temporary stop in a complicated and lengthy trek. But it reminds us that this journey — both for the Israelites and for us as parents — is sacred. That it entails putting our faith and our future, ourselves and our children in God’s protective powers.

When God said to Abraham in Genesis 12:1, “Lekh l’kha,” or “Go forth and journey,” God wasn’t kidding. But Sukkot teaches us that we are likely, eventually, to end up where we’re headed. And that’s the Promised Land.

(Jane Ulman is a freelance writer in Encino, Calif. She is the mother of four sons.)

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