The Numbers:13 Project
They set out from Dophkah and encamped at Alush. Numbers 33:16
My friend Ron Wolfson, a most extraordinary Jewish educator, captivated audiences twenty-five years ago by recalling a staple of his youth. It was the “TripTik,” and in the days before GPS, it was the best way to get from point A to point B on America’s highway system.
(It may yet be the best, and TripTik is still a service of “Triple A,” the American Automobile Association.)
The notion behind TripTik was brilliant. Your AAA representative would compile a spiral-bound collection of maps tracking your route in short stretches. If you were to stay on an interstate for 100 miles, you might get a single map with all 100 miles highlighted. But if the exit meant for you put you on a series of different roads, you might have three or four maps for that section of the drive, some covering only a mile or two. By following the yellow-lined road, you could get from your driveway to your destination with ease. Plus, the flip side of each map had lots of information about services, stops and sights.
Ron appropriated the notion and applied it to “Jewish journeys.” He suggested that people usually knew where they were but didn’t always know how to get where they were going. Maybe they wanted to be more comfortable in synagogue. Maybe they had intellectual curiosity about Jewish ideas. Maybe they were looking to feel a part of the community. Maybe they wanted to help repair the world. If educators, including rabbis, could produce a TripTik for people who were on the road, they would likely arrive at their desired destination. And they could choose a direct route, a scenic route or a combination of the two.
My car has a navigation system, and I don’t remember the last time I used paper maps, but I see the value in appreciating the journey and not just the destination. The screen in my car shows me landmarks and exits, but it also urges me to keep up with the estimated arrival time. GPS is all about efficiency, not adventure.
Back in the day (never mind when that day was), my wife and I drove cross-country on our way to live in Los Angeles for a couple of years. It was an adventure, to be sure. We have stories we can still tell – a traffic ticket on Oklahoma delivered by state trooper out of central casting; a motel diner in Oldham County, Texas with a young waitress persuaded her best years were behind her; a chance encounter with a Jew from Flagstaff who begged us to send him bagels; the most elaborate McDonald’s we had ever seen in Barstow. The names are enough to evoke a memory.
And though the longer narrative of places we lived seems more formative, the singular lessons of those brief stops are vivid. “You’re in a heap of trouble,” is not just a movie line. Sadness can be a lifelong affliction. All Jews are responsible for each other. After a long ride across the desert (and before the next leg), you really do deserve a break today.
It is the same for Ron’s Jewish journey. The ordinary circumstance of the resident is the extraordinary experience of the traveler. An invitation to Shabbat dinner. A sermon during a family bat mitzvah. An encounter with a fellow demonstrator at a rally for a just cause. What resonates as home for the denizen is a special event for the visitor.
From Natchez to Mobile, from Memphis to St. Joe, there is a lesson at every stop. Maybe it is a life-lesson (don’t speed in Oklahoma) and maybe it is just a cute anecdote (begging for bagels). From Dophkah to Alush, from Libnah to Rissa, every place on the journey has a story. And the story from that place becomes another enhancement of the next traveler’s TripTik.
The short version of a long trip may celebrate the facts, but it doesn’t accomplish much else. The itinerary from point A to point B, on the other hand, encourages questions and spurs curiosity. That’s important when recalling a journey – your own, your friends’, your peoples’.