Thursday, July 16, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


It’s the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, on another flight to the Middle East. The cabin lights are off, the individual video screens flicker here and there, most passengers are sleeping, but I’m wide awake, and am quietly crying, not sure why.

I call it ‘travel tax’ – the method of pay is physical and emotional.

I’m usually among the sleepers on these overnight voyages, sleeping pill and a scotch as my faithful helpers, but not this time, which is also the first leg of the last round-trip for this year of excessive travel. I’m trying to do the math – is this the eighth or ninth flight back and forth between NY and Israel this year?? Maybe I’m crying because of this constant sense of ‘in between’ – overdue ‘travel tax’. Or maybe and also, I’m crying because of the moving movie I just finished watching: “motorcycle diaries” – the early, defining years of Che Guevara’s life. His reaction to human suffering and injustice, his young, beautiful passion – this is the stuff that makes me cry on planes. (Full disclosure here: I also watched the last 30 minutes of ‘confessions of a shopaholic’ and that too made me weepy – just the true and tried Hollywood recipe for the triumph of the will and the victory of happily ever after… the American-Modern Orthodox gaggle of girls sitting across the aisle noted my selection and reaction with unrestrained giggles.)

And maybe I’m crying because A.’s little feet, in red converse sneakers, are resting on my thighs, while the rest of her little body stretches across the middle seat, with her head tucked into the lap of her mom, snug against the window, both of them now sound asleep. This is the first time this year that I haven’t flown solo – A., S. and I take up a whole row, family style, and we’re traveling together, and somehow, this is enough of a significant change in my travel life to make me pause, and reflect, and reach for a tissue. Traveling together with others – esp. with children - is a very different form of journey.

I turn off the video screen in front of me (even though there are 500 more movie selections) and flip open ye Good Book. This week’s Torah tale marks the end of Ba’midbar - the fourth book of Moses – the book of wilderness – the book of traveling.

It’s a double Torah-portion entitled ‘Matot Maasei’ but it’s read as a cohesive text, mostly comprised of collections of lists, attempting to sum up, add up and finalize all that Israel went through in 40 years of wandering thorough the Sinai desert on their journey home.

48: And they traveled from the mountains of Abarim, and pitched in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.

They camp out at the plains of Moab, by the banks of the Jordan River, overlooking Israel, is their one-before-last stop. One of the lists describes the number of times Israel packed up camp and took off again, picking up where they left off on a seemingly endless travel schedule. They do this no less than 43 times in 40 years. That means that at least once a year they had to pack and go. Talk about 'travel tax.' No wonder our ancestors were so stiff necked and generally grumpy and rebellious, and weepy. Can you imagine growing up and moving homes at least once a year? How did that experience impact the collective identity of our people? How did this early, defining sense of constant travel and moving about influence and mold the Jewish sense of belonging – or not - to any specific geographical location in any significant manner? How has this altered our notion of ‘home’ or even our notion of ‘homeland?’ I know that so much of Jewish history is about persecution and forced travel – but how much of it is actually built in to our collective DNA? Is it possible that our basic operational status is to be the wandering people – all over the place? That we actually thrive on travel – on constant motion and dispersion - in order to exist? That we are simply a people who are very bad at sitting still in one place for more than a year or a couple of centuries at best??

On the way to the airport, I saw a yellow cab with a sign on its roof ‘PLEASE GO AWAY’ – an advertisement for a travel agency. Smart. But it made me sigh. Enough going away.

After a year of Sinai like traveling, I, like my ancestors, have mastered the art of travel, but there’s a part of me, as was perhaps to them – that really wants to call one place only – home. And not go away quite that often. And I know that home is where the heart is, and still…

The children of Israel leave Egypt and then travel and camp, travel and camp, pitch their tents when the pillar of fire stops, and take off again when that light changes, 43 times. Reading this dry travel itinerary in chapter 33 in the middle of this flight to Israel becomes, suddenly, a very moving experience. The same expression repeats verse after verse, like a hypnotic chant, like the wheels of a train: travel, travel, travel… journey, journey, journey… home, home, home….

And maybe what makes the difference between travel as a tiresome duty and travel as a mission of will is the sense of collective – traveling together, as the Hebrews did then, as I’m doing tonight. Maybe that’s part of why the weeping – the sense of how vast the world is – and how vast the real sense of what home can mean, and with whom, and when.

A. wakes up with less than one hour to go before landing in Tel Aviv, and Dora the Explorer is off on adventures that keep us all occupied till we get All smiles, night time weeping over, we look outside the window at the sunny morning, and the captain announces: shalom and welcome home.

Til next time.


  1. Elana BelJuly 16, 2009

    A beautiful post. I also find myself wondering a lot about my ability to move between worlds with ease, connecting to people in whichever place I am in, while my friend V. has never left Israel/Palestine. He says that some people are attached to place and that for them, trying to explain what that is like to people who can move and resettle is like trying to teach someone to breathe underwater who has never swum. And what does it mean for the Jewish people today-- some completely attached to Israel, as the homeland, and some in the diaspora and happy, and some, like me, caught somewhere in between.

  2. StephanieJuly 16, 2009

    Thinking also about the ongoing travels of Storahtelling HQ. I stopped by 35th Street late in the afternoon on moving day. The last truck had already departed for the storage unit (taking Sarah & Jake with it); the building facilities folk were already tearing up carpet and kicking up dust on the swirly colored walls; the mezuzah had been carefully taken down. Remnants of memories sat, unclaimed, in the hallway - a mini fridge where Shawn once left something unmentionable in a brown paper bag; scattered books; a clock. It was good to say goodbye to the space. As I left the building in the pouring rain, I remembered a different moving day when G & I sat squeezed into a Uhaul with Tomer, playing dumbek as we navigating similar torential downpours to transfer all our communal belongings from 47th to 10th Street.

    So... the wandering continues at home, as abroad. But, in proper Sinai form, we always move as a family (and this from one who left "home" years ago). Much luck in new spaces & places. Try to enjoy the "in-between".

  3. Dear Mr. Lau-Lavie,
    What a pleasure it was to read your post. What a phenomenal piece of writing!
    As someone who has lived all over the world, your article read like a meditation. Loved it!