It was the bane of one’s life. Friends had been away somewhere, usually overseas. Now they were back and excitedly invited us over. They had to tell the story of where they had been. That in itself was already boring enough, but it generally came with holiday photos, a few years later with film slides, then the amateur movies, and more recently videos.
The only way to get your revenge was to reciprocate with your own holiday stories and pictures, though nowadays the problem has diminished because travel is so commonplace and even those who never leave home watch the travel programs on the TV.
So how are we to respond to today’s Torah portion of Mass’ei, with its catalogue of the journeys of the Children of Israel… from Rameses to Sukkot, from Sukkot to Etam, back to Pi Hachirot, then to Marah and eventually to the east of the Jordan?
The list covers 42 stopping places. In some cases all we get is a name, not even a hint of anything interesting that might have happened there. It sounds even more boring than the holiday snaps and movies of a few decades ago.
But this is the Torah, and the Torah is supposed to be edifying. Maimonides will not let us think otherwise. Every narrative in the Torah, he says, serves a religious purpose. In this case, it reinforces our belief in miracles, for the desert had no natural resources and all that kept the people alive was the miraculous manna that came from heaven every day.
Sforno explains the narrative as a compliment to Israel. Yes, there were many occasions during the 40 years when they grumbled and rebelled. They were fed manna: they wanted onions and garlic. They wanted water: it was not always available. But underneath it all, they were still good people.
The wandering seemed to take for ever, yet they continued to follow God and to have faith that the journey would be worth while.
There is something for us to learn there. We look at Jewish history and wonder why our dream of a quiet life is taking so long, why the redemption is so protracted. But very rarely does a Jew say, “Jewish history is moving too slowly; I don’t want to be a Jew anymore!”
It’s quite a long time since Jews turned their back on their people in any numbers. Generally we put up with the journey and remain excited about the destination. We may quarrel with God, but we recognise that the pace of history is out of our hands, and that God has said, “I the Lord will hasten it in its time” (Isa. 60:22).
So – back to the holiday itineraries. If they are less edifying than the narrative of the journeys of the Children of Israel it is because they are in a sense the byways, not the highways of our lives.
The real question is not about where we go on our holidays, but where we go in life. If we look back over where life as a whole has taken us and can find no serious lessons in it, that’s when we have a problem.