With these words, we conclude reading the Book of Exodus this Shabbat. A book of the Torah that begins in slavery, walled in by the constraints of Egyptian oppression, concludes with the vast Wilderness in front of the Jewish people and the promise of journeys ahead. A book that sets out with the individual names of the children of Israel concludes by speaking of the collective, the House of Israel.
It is significant to point out that the translation here is “journeys” in the plural, not the singular. The final words in Hebrew read b”chol mas”eihem. Our ancestors were led on their journeys by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. There was a visible, even tangible sign of God”s presence and protection, as well as a guide for the path ahead.
Rashi points out that the phrase “in all their journeys” applies not only to the time when the Israelites were on the move, but also to their time of resting. “The place of their encampment is also referred to as a ‘journey.”… Encampments are referred to as journeys because from the place of encampment they traveled again.”
While the Tabernacle, cloud and pillar of fire of our wilderness wanderings came to rest thousands of years ago, the wandering of the Jewish people continues to this day and beyond. It is hard to imagine a place on earth where our people have not passed through — sometimes staying for a relatively short sojourn and sometimes building complex and layered societies. And yet, whether for short or long stays, each place where our people have wandered was only one temporary stage in our collective journey.
“Yalkut Yehudah,” a commentary by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ginsburg, whose journey began in Russia in 1888 and came to an end in Denver in 1946, expounds as such on this verse: “Even when Jews think that they have settled in a place where they have known only peace and tranquility, and they regard it as one where they have finally settled down, ‘that is also known as a journey.” They should bear in mind that this, too, is merely a way station and that they may be forced to wander again.”
There is no doubt that this assessment of Jewish history aptly portrays the often tragic reality of our past. Considering Rabbi Ginsburg”s dates and locations, it can be seen in even more stark lines how the sense of “always having a suitcase packed” would be natural.
However, an additional lesson within this verse on both the individual and collective level is that our journeys are what shape us into the people/nation we become. When recently teaching a group of Christians about the cycle of reading Torah over a year”s span and then immediately beginning again, I was struck by the profound truth that wherever we are in the text, we are always continuing the journey.
As the story of our people continues to unfold, we remind ourselves that “every step of the journey is the journey.”