Many see this time of sheltering in place as a waste. That we were on a path and along came COVID-19 to derail our trajectory. But, what if it was the case that this journey, though not direct, was worthwhile. That the shortest distance from A to B IS a straight line, but a longer path certainly has its benefits, too.
I have learned that what may seem like a tangent to some, may actually be necessary. And, what people on earth have taken a detour like the Israelites? We were an enslaved people who were given freedom and led into the wilderness. After 2 years of traveling, we were charged with the task of entering the Promised Land.
But, we were not yet ready to enter the land. When God initially offered us the opportunity, in Parashat Shelach, we questioned the directive, afraid that we might not yet be able to face the unknown across the border. We doubted our own strength, and asked Moses if we could send spies to the land first to see what we might get ourselves into. And then, 10 of the 12 spies came back with unfavorable reports. Yes, at first, we doubted our own ability to succeed in conquering the land!
We were green. Immature. Not just as individuals, but as a people despite God’s directive. So, God required us to wait almost an entire generation before allowing us to enter the land.
In this week’s Torah portion, in the second verse of the first chapter of Deuteronomy, we learn a key fact: “It is 11 days from Horeb [Mt. Sinai] to Kadesh-Barnea [the entrance to the land]” (Deuteronomy 1:2).
In other words, what could have been an 11-day trip actually took the Israelites another 38 years to complete! 40 years in the wilderness in total, the tangent of the Israelites took them 38 years! So, were those 38 years a waste of time?
The Torah doesn’t provide much description about what happened during the extra 38 years of wandering—other than a basic itinerary. From everything we know, though, the Israelites, knowingly or not, were preparing for the role of entering the land.
The tangent was a necessary part of our preparation. During 38 years of living life in a tight-knit community, with the laws of the Torah, one would presume that the community began to gel—become more unified, organized and mature. As individuals and family units, our forebears would come to rely upon one another and benefit from each other’s skill sets in the wilderness. They would begin to test their strength against the elements, and learn to trust one another. They would celebrate lifecycle events together and begin to more and more readily identify as a people. The time was not spent just waiting. They traveled together, and gained skills that prepared them for life in the holy land.
Sometimes in life, what seems like a tangent or a diversion actually is a time of preparation. If we now turn to our own lives, we may readily think about a diversion in our lives, or some sort of place where we feel we are stuck in a holding pattern. We may feel this place is a waste of our time. The challenge is to vision this negative energy through the lens of our forebears—might that which we consider a holding place not be a waste of time, but instead is a training ground, a time of skill building, that is actually preparing us for what is just around the corner?