As long as I’ve lived here, I have been impressed with this community of New Rochelle. In an era of urban sprawl, people moving into Manhattan, out of Manhattan, over to Brooklyn, up into Connecticut… the New Rochelle residents have by and large remained constant, and more than just one generation calls this fair city its home. At our synagogue, the “Wandering Jew” tends to wander back to Temple Israel of New Rochelle as I experience Bar or Bat Mitzvah services where grandparents of students here are members of our Temple. This is a safe, warm home for the Jews of New Rochelle.
The Jews of the past, however, were never a people to stay still. From our inception as a Jewish family, we were wandering. Abraham was called upon by God to take his family and belongings and God would show him to a land he did not know. Jacob, after robbing his brother, Esau, of his birthright, fled his home in fear of his life. Joseph began a trek of a lifetime beginning with his brothers selling him into slavery and ending with him becoming second in command to Pharaoh. And of course, we wandered in the desert for forty years before entering the land of Israel.
As a Jewish people, we identify with wandering. Whether in the Bible or in the diaspora, part and parcel of the Jewish experience is going on a journey. Today, Jews are spread out all over the world: from Africa to India, from Alaska to Alabama, from Brazil to England, and each community always seems to have its elements of flux, traveling between countries, cities… the wanderlust of the Jew seems to be ingrained in us from that first call of Abraham.
On this, the seventh day of Passover, it is a fitting time to talk about journeys. Of course, there is the recollection of our journey from slavery to freedom, especially in light of tomorrow’s Torah reading of the parting of the Sea of Reeds. But more to the present day, tradition has us on another journey–one taking place right now. It is a journey leading up to the holy day of Shavuot: the anniversary of our receiving the Ten Commandments and the Torah on Mount Sinai. We mark this journey with the Counting of the Omer, counting each day from the second day of Pesakh to the 49th, leading us to this great moment of Revelation. This is our Spiritual Journey through time.
What makes a “Spiritual Journey?” I’m usually very reserved in using the word: “Spiritual.” It’s a rather vague term and used in so many different ways that it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Instead, I’ll try to define what I mean by a “Spiritual Journey” and then try to examine our Biblical narrative through the lens of this definition. For me, a spiritual journey is starting on a path towards enrichment, enlightenment, and becoming more “human.” It is a quest in evolving the self in a meaningful way. Ultimately, it is the charge we all should take on in order to grow ourselves beyond the basest of our needs.
Take Abraham: As we mentioned before, Abraham was set out on his journey by God, to uproot his family and travel to a place that God would show him. For this, Abraham would be rewarded with a progeny as bountiful as the stars in the skies and the sands of the sea. Abraham’s journey was one of trust and faith: Could Abraham trust in God? Would Abraham and his family be safe? What did he know about this new land and what would it have in store for him? The Biblical narrative suggests that the trust that Abraham put into his relationship with God led to his being the Patriarch of our people, and that through trust comes love and hope.
Take Jacob: His journey was one of self-discovery, repentance, and forgiveness. Once he stole Esau’s birthright, Jacob fled his home to avoid the wrath of his brother. During his flight he struggled with guilt, and then encountered the Divine and was given a new name: One Who Wrestles With God—Yisrael. He met up with Esau and four hundred men in tow and in great humility, Jacob bowed to the ground seven times as he approached Esau. But Esau “…ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him. And they burst into tears.” [Gen. 3:3-4] Jacob’s journey led him to a greater fulfillment in life through experience and self-reflection.
Take Joseph: The longest of the Genesis stories as well as the most circuitous of journeys, Joseph goes on an epic trip, from favored son to hated brother, from lowly slave to humble manservant, from prisoner to Royal Steward to the Pharaoh himself. As a youth, the Bible describes Joseph as a talebearer, spreading malicious reports of his brothers to his father. He was full of pride and self-absorption, describing his dreams of grandeur in detail to his jealous brothers. Through his journey, he realizes the importance of his family—the family he thought he lost during the famine, but in fact came to him in desperation. With his brothers vulnerable at his feet, Joseph has the power and ability to exact revenge on those who sold him to slavery. Instead, Joseph cries before his brothers, reveals himself and reassures his family of his love and caring for them. His journey led him away from self-centeredness towards caring for the other.
In each of these journeys, we see people physically traveling from one place to another. But what makes each of these journeys “spiritual” in nature is that they have a human purpose. Each journey leads the individual to an awareness of the self that he would not otherwise have had unless the journey was made. Each journey brought growth. And each journey was long, at times very difficult, but it was the challenge of the path that led to the great ends each journey yielded.
Which brings us back to today, to the Omer, and to New Rochelle. Our home is a safe place: A place in our lives which gives us comfort, stability, and no matter how far we may sojourn from here, we are confident that upon our return, we will find the familiar. But sometimes, the familiar and the comfortable leads to complacency and stagnation. A journey is what is demanded of us by virtue of human need. In order to grow, we must travel outside of our stability into the unknown, into the dark, into the undiscovered places of our souls and find greater purpose and fulfillment.
This is most definitely not a call for anyone here to move to Connecticut! Rather, it is a call for us to respond to the call of Passover and the counting of the Omer. As Jews, we have this gift every year to begin a journey together as a community and as individuals. The Omer has traditionally been a time for preparation as we get closer to the holy day of Shavuot. We are charged to focus our souls for the receiving of Divine Law through study and prayer—even more at this season than others. As Reform Jews, we can take a different look at this call and examine where we have been in the context of our lives as a community and by ourselves.
We should not remain complacent or content while our neighbors bleed: In the global theater, the UN announced yesterday that the accelerating rise in food prices worldwide is threatening their ability to feed the millions of hungry people around the world; war in Iraq continues without the great outcry against it that it may very well deserve; the unrest in Darfur, in Somalia, and the Middle East shows us how much the world is out of balance.
We should not remain complacent or content while there are those around us who have no comfort in their lives. Poverty and homelessness is still a major issue for many Americans today; our economy is in dire need of examination and a rethinking if it is to be a viable and thriving economy in this ever-changing 21st century; despite great strides, racial tensions and homophobia still very much exist in our communities, showing us how much our homes our out of balance.
And we should not remain complacent or content while we, ourselves, feel lost and unfulfilled. Experts report that depression among Americans strikes at least 17 million American adults each year—more than cancer, AIDS, or coronary heart disease, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And yet, many are in denial of their state, not willing or able to treat something that has treatment through various therapies. Addictions of all kinds affect individuals and his or her families in many negative ways. We, ourselves, are out of balance.
This counting of the Omer, leading us to Shavuot, gives us an excuse to start a Spiritual Journey of self-examination and discovery, of motivation and direction, to drive us towards finding balance within ourselves, and in the world. Each of our journeys are different. Some more than others need to find themselves, before they can help another. Others who find themselves more centered internally may be driven towards social action, towards communal responsibility. Yet others may find that their spiritual journey demands of them to give more time, energy, and money into the cause of humanity than they have ever thought possible. But it is the call of the journey we must answer. For if we do not, we soon find ourselves at a dead end in our lives—lives without purpose or meaning.
Each journey begins with a single step. For Abraham, the step was difficult, but was done with a trust that the road ahead, no matter how difficult or steep, would be buoyed by the presence of the Divine. We are fortunate to dwell with a loving and nurturing community like Temple Israel of New Rochelle—a spiritual home where we can share our dreams, our hopes, as well as lean on one another when we are weary or without direction. And together, here is where we can discover where our individual and collective journeys may lead, and to what end. May our journey on the road of the Omer be one of challenge, of growth, and lead us to a richer and brighter world than when we began with that first step.