Parshat Be’halot’cha

Why Do You Need a GPS If You Have the Cloud of Glory?”
By Dr. Joel Gereboff, AJRCA Professor of Bible and Rabbinics


The other week I was watching one of my favorite TV shows, Antiques Roadshow.  Like the people who bring the items in for appraisal, I am always amazed when the expert and appraiser indicates that an item that was bought at a flea market for $15 turns out to be worth 1000 times that value at $15,000,00.  And the detailed knowledge of the experts blows me away as well.

During that episode that was being held in Charleston W. Virginia, a person came in with an atlas published in 1863.  After briefly commenting on the atlas in general, the expert turned to the page with a map of Virginia and proceeded to comment on the fact that what would soon become the state of W. Virginia was still contained within Virginia, though a set of lines were already in place delineating the future boundaries of the state.  That sort of knowledge can be garnered from reading old maps and books of them. It also turned out the atlas was worth a great deal of money.

From the time I was a child I have always enjoyed looking at maps.  Of course, we had to study them in elementary school and onwards in classes on “geography,” a subject I suspect is no longer taught in a course unto itself.  And as I got older, and especially after I had received my driving license, I continued to read maps, particularly before going on trips.  I must admit I can pour over a map for a great amount of time, observing various details from topography, to population of cities indicated by the boldness and size of the letters for it, to tracing various streets and routes to see where they lead.  Growing up in Little Rhodie, as I learned from the song, the smallest of the 48 (yes the song predates the admission of Hawaii and Alaska to the Union, states that are not part of the map of the contiguous US), I perhaps was not overly challenged to master the various state and US routes that traversed it. But even then there were all sorts of odd ball places to which one could travel, some not by the most direct routes at all.  And of course one quickly learned it is much quicker to get to Newport from Providence by driving through Massachusetts than by staying in RI the whole way.

But of course maps, especially road maps, are now for many a thing of the past.  The AAA still carries them, but in short, in the era of the GPS, why would anyone want to have to open and then fold on the creases a map to determine where they were going?  So not being a total luddite, I decided to Google to see what has been written about maps vs. GPS, and lo and behold, a series of articles came up.  While no one denies the convenience of a GPS, especially when travelling in foreign countries where road signs may either be in scripts one cannot read or few and far between, Steven Kurutz, a New York Times reporter recently addressed the relative merits of GPS vs. printed maps.  He of course noted the many positives of GPS, but he also identified at least four values to working with maps.  1.  Using a GPS removes serendipity, because in choosing the single most efficient route to your desired destination, it excludes other routes and destinations one might not realize they desire to see. (Of course you can get off the derekh, the way, even with a GPS, but then you have to listen to Siri recalculating.) 2. Maps require travelers to work together when one is driving while the passenger is reading the map and navigating.  They build teamwork. 3. Driving with a GPS encourages a passive form of journeying as one sits back and drifts through the terrain.  By contrast, driving by map, engages people actively in their environment.  It makes them observe road signs and be in the moment. 4. While GPS may eliminate a big source of travel stress, getting lost, it also removes some of the thrill and personal challenge.  Using a map builds a person’s confidence that they can get around the world.  Of course, Kurutz and others who have written on the subject concede that using a map presumes you know where you are at the moment for otherwise it is just a jumble of street, routes and other insignia—a GPS blue dot, at least, almost always, makes clear your present location.

This week’s Torah portion, Be’halot’cha, makes reference to what was in fact a far better version than a GPS for helping travel even in the significantly unmarked terrain of the desert.  Bamidbar 9:15-23 details that the children of Israel journeyed forth and encamped based on the movements of the Cloud of Glory.  According to this passage, “Whenever the Cloud lifted from its location on the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out accordingly, and at the spot where it settled, there the Israelites would make camp.  At a command of the Lord the Israelites broke camp, and at the command of the Lord they made camp; they remained encamped as long as the Cloud remained over the Tabernacle.”  What a moreh derekh (a tour guide)!  Of course the Israelites had to break down the camp, pack everything up and then unpack when they arrived wherever the Cloud indicated. But they did not have any real challenges about getting lost.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on this portion of the Torah, however, observes that in fact certain virtues were needed and developed by this mode of travel. For the text indicates that the duration of an encampment was never known from the start.  As the text states, “When the Cloud lingered over the Tabernacle many days, the Israelites observed the Lord’s mandate and did not travel on.  At such times when the Cloud rested on the Tabernacle for but a few days, they remained encamped and broke camp at the command of the Lord.  And at such times as the cloud stayed only from evening to morning, they broke camp as soon as the Cloud lifted in the morning.”  Rabbi Hirsch observes that this unpredictability, which at times meant one would remain in a place for a long time without any sense of knowing the duration of that encampment,  was not meant “to subject the people to the stresses of prolonged wanderings as it was to teach them patience and endurance over long periods of time.”  In a sense, the Israelites were often in a position opposite to the child of asking, Are we there yet? for they had no idea how long they would be there.  Patience and endurance to which I would add as another payoff of this mode of travel, flexibility, are character traits that whether one is navigating through the world by a GPS or by an old fashioned printed map surely are most helpful to insure we get where we are going safely and also enjoy the journey while we are on it.  Whether we are traveling a particular road between locations, or traveling the road(s) of our lives, may we all do so with a sense of patience, endurance and flexibility and be sure to enjoy the trip no matter where you may end up going.


Shabbat shalom.


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