My friend Ron Wolfson, an extraordinary educator, likes to recall the “trip-tix” his family used on their vacations. The American Automobile Association (Triple-A) would put together spiral-bound packets of maps, about the size of a reporter’s note pad, with segments of a trip from beginning to end. You didn’t have to unfold a road map the size of a picture window to get from Omaha to Niagara Falls; you followed page one out of Nebraska until you finally arrived at the Canadian border on page 28. Ron used the metaphor in some of his work on journeys through life and Judaism.
Of course, this was all before Google Maps.
The great thing about trip-tix after the vacation was that it was a visual reminder of each segment of the travel. You could slip a snapshot (remember?) of a state capitol or a flat tire into just the right map. You could jot down the name of the diner with the perfect blueberry pie next to the town in which you found it. You could press a wildflower plucked from the side of the road while your little brother was peeing in the brush.
Very retro, I know. Very late-twentieth-century. But these documents were not a whole lot different from the recitation of the 42 stops made by the Israelites on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. We read them now with impatience when they appear near the end of Numbers because the places mean nothing to us. The stories are lost, except the few recorded in the Bible. For someone on that pilgrimage (and for many anonymous someones who descended from them), each place was special. Ritmah – that’s where I met your father. Hashmonah – that’s where your sister got lost. Hor ha-gidgad – we thought that name was so funny we fell over laughing. Abarim – I was the last of my friends still living when we landed there.
A good app connected to a GPS will probably do the same thing and allow you to link to digital photos and the video of your little brother peeing in the brush. And it all will get stored in the cloud so that when you want to revisit those places you can pull them up. And you absolutely will want to revisit those places. Because underlying all of these technologies is a question we ask ourselves all the time: how the heck did I get here?
It’s not merely the silent scream of men like me who don’t ask for directions. It is an existential question we need to ask. If I don’t know how I arrived here, how will I know where to go next?
In early morning prayers and on Friday nights we recite a devotional poem with a mystical back-story. It begins ana b’ko’ach (actually, v’ko’ach) and it is a plea to God to deploy the divine might on our behalf. The poem has forty-two words, and part of the mystical back-story is that each one stands for one of those stops in the wilderness. Chanting it can have the effect of making you conscious of the journey of your ancestors and remind you of the journey of your life. A friend of mine elegantly and eloquently delivered forty-two short talks to our congregation over the course of many years finding sweet and soul-searing vignettes about her own wilderness. (If you are reading this, friend, it is time to get them into a book already.)
One of the ways we mark this history of the United States is by the presidencies that guided us. It took 42 presidents to get us to the 21st century, and looking back we remember the stops we made through the history that occurred. Washington – we were so filled with determination. Lincoln – that’s where we lost your brother. Kennedy – my heart broke. Reagan – it began to mend. Pressed into the trip-tix are the Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase, the 13th and 19th Amendments, the Voting Rights Act, the ADA. And, of course, plenty of little sons and brothers peeing in the brush.
A road trip comes with instructions. History does not. A road trip predicts the journey by the destination. History is the other way around. But either way, at this time four years from now we will look at the written record, the trip-tix or our GPS and, inevitably, we are going to ask “how the heck did we get here?” May that question be about the blessings that are ours.