There aren’t many roads in the north of Scotland, which is a good thing, but does have its problems. The going had been fine past Loch Ness, then everything stopped: a tree had fallen a few miles ahead and it would take three hours to clear the carriageway. We weren’t going to reach our destination before Shabbat, and anyway we’d miss the ferry.
‘There’s an alternative route,’ said Nicky, staring at the map, ‘a mere detour of 137 miles.’ We rethought our plans.
What makes a journey into a journey, rather than a set of random directions? Is life itself a journey, or a series of misadventures?
‘These are the journeys of the Children of Israel who left Egypt,’ says the Torah; ‘Moses wrote down where they left and where they were headed, by the mouth of God.’ (Numbers 33:1-2)
Really? Was everything truly God’s intention, including thirty-eight years of wandering in the desert, the frustrations over food and water, the quarrels with Moses and even with the Deity itself? Surely not!
But that’s not what the words mean, noted Nachmanides. ‘By the mouth of God’ refers not to where the people went but to how Moses wrote it all down.
It’s a penetrating comment. Whether we see our life as a God-given journey or a haphazard scramble may be less about what happens and more about how we write it down, how we tell ourselves our story in our head and heart.
The other night Nicky and I, both exhausted, switched on the television to 24 Hours in A & E. An Afghan gentleman was brought in with dangerous levels of carbon dioxide and weakness in the limbs. The doctors told his weeping children it was probably Motor Neuron Disease.
His daughter spoke of how her father had loved his life as a fruit-picker in Afghanistan. Then came the Russian invasion: war everywhere. Her father went to London, always sending them money and occasionally visiting back home, until he could bring his family to Britain. Here he did menial work, making just enough to give his children a good education.
They kissed their dad as he was taken into intensive care. We are going to make sure he enjoys the rest of his life, they said.
Will they ‘write down his journeyings’ as: ‘He slaved away at miserable jobs far from the countryside he loved, and look what fate has dealt him’? Or will they say: ‘He sacrificed so much because he loved us so deeply. He brought us to safety and gave us a better life’? I’m sure it will be the latter.
And you and me? In what spirit do we tell the story of our life and the lives of those we love? The Talmud says that ‘everything is in the hands of heaven, except the fear of heaven.’ I take this to mean that we cannot necessarily determine what happens to us, but we do have some control over how we understand it.
Few of us are spared episodes at which we look back in sorrow or anger. But there’s all the difference between reviewing our whole life with regret, and reflecting on it in love. Probably we do a bit of both, depending on our mood. Of course, for some people there’s far more about which to feel justly pained. Even so, there are plenty of individuals who view with generous grace what must have been very tough lives.
‘I know I’m loved,’ were the last words of a young man I knew, before he was cut off in mid-life. He saw his hard journey as ‘by the mouth of God.’ Perhaps that’s the meaning of the rabbis’ phrase ‘died by God’s kiss.’
I’m deeply moved by people like that.