The Art of Wilderness Travel
The eternal silence of infinite space frightens me.
Why do people travel? To get somewhere other than where they are. We travel for a variety of reasons. If we are trying to escape from a particular reality, then the new reality should be compelling and stimulating. If we are looking for an adventure, then we must prepare ourselves for the possibility of surprise and ambiguity. If it is to welcome a new life on a new shore, then we should pack accordingly. If we are leaving the comforts and entrenched habits of life where we are, we want to be sure of where we are going and why. When we upset the order of one life for a new vista, it better be worth the trip.
Why do people lead? To take people somewhere beyond where they are now. Leadership is more intentional than escaping reality. It involves shaping reality.
To call the book of Numbers a travel book would be to both trivialize it and make it relevant at the same time. It is a book about travel, no doubt. It contains all of the unexpected adventures, surprises, glitches, and anxieties we can expect from a quality travelogue. There is a destination and many stopping points. There is a change of food and conditions. There are a lot of complaints. Travel books without conflict make for very uninteresting reading. Numbers mentally transports us to a way of life rarely experienced by modern human beings. But it also begs the question: why did this ancient travel experience have to take place in the wilderness? And what does it teach us about leading in the wilderness?
When Will We Get There?
Not all travel is about the destination. It is also about living in a world without the same conditions and distractions. Travel of this kind forces us to linger; as we slow our pace – because speed is not going to get us there any quicker – we begin to take more notice of our environs. We stop fighting the need to get to a destination and simply allow ourselves to be fully present where we are. We become part of the place.
Hikers in a storm explained their moment of surprise at finding themselves in an unexpected life-threatening situation as the opportunity to become part of a place:
True wilderness certainly does not require large space. It does require commitment to a situation where wild nature is in charge, where tiny humanity is exposed to genuine risk…. With no distant distractions, we grew vividly aware of our world of greens, grays, browns and infinity of shadings in between. Here were ferns and sorrel and moss and lichened trunks that knew no world of people. We were guests in a room unaccustomed to company. We heard the eloquent silence.1Laura Waterman and Guy Waterman, Wilderness Ethics: Preserving the Spirit of Wildness (Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 1993), 37–38.
Silence. Solitude. Smallness. Nature humbles us with its vastness. In the stretch of desert wilderness between Egypt and Israel, we got to know God.2Geographer G.A. Smith, cited in Gray, Numbers.
Contemporary travel with a Bible connection leads us to Bruce Feiler, who, knowing little about the Bible, decided that the best way to learn about it was to simply take Abraham’s trek, visit Mount Ararat, and find Mount Sinai. Initially disappointed that the chances of finding the remains of Noah’s ark were slim, he concluded, nevertheless, that the travel itself had redeeming value: “Now that we were here, the truth seemed far less important. What was important, I realized, was the ongoing hunt, the often-eccentric never-ending quest to verify the biblical story, which itself masked one of the oldest human desires: the need to make contact with God.”3Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible (New York: William Morrow, 2001), 9.
The Israelites needed to spend so long in their environment to fully appreciate, with every fiber of their experience over more than a generation, that spiritual living requires a relinquishment of control to forces beyond the self. They needed the wilderness to teach them to be followers. On that level, wilderness is really only a metaphor for God. It is no coincidence that one of the names of God is Makom, Place. Listen to this powerful description of wilderness and then put the word “God” in its place:
What else is wilderness? Certain attributes come to mind: remoteness, inaccessibility, uncertainty, mystery. A wild place can be a difficult place, uncomfortable for humans. And we should seek to keep it that way, not try to make it safer, more comfortable, more like the civilization we leave behind…a dark illimitable country without bound, without dimension, where length, breadth, and height and time and place are lost.4Ibid., 35.
God, even more than wilderness, is distant and remote, mysterious and dimensionless. There is no way to limit and measure the wild. Human constructs of time and space are wholly inadequate. By making the wild more comfortable, we are asking it to bow to human needs. By leaving wilderness alone, we ask humans to minimize themselves and open themselves up to a world that transcends them in scope. To live with God is to live with this same enduring mystery but on a less tangible level. To lead is to help people experience this mystery and manage immense uncertainty.
It is difficult to lead when you cannot give your followers assurance of their fate. You must remain patient with them even as your own impatience mounts. Impatience was a hallmark of our wilderness journey and eventually became the sword upon which Moses fell. Vaclav Havel, in The Art of the Impossible, describes his crucible of impatience in what was an impossible job as leader.
Although I am trained in the dissident type of patience based on the awareness that waiting has a meaning, nevertheless…I have been seized again and again by a desperate impatience. I have agonized over how slowly things are changing….
I longed desperately for at least some of these problems to be resolved so that I could cross them off the list and put them out of the way. I longed for some visible, tangible, indisputable evidence that something was finished, over and done with. I found it difficult to accept that politics, like history itself, is a never-ending process, in which nothing is ever definitely over. It was as though I had forgotten how to wait, to wait in the way that has meaning.5Havel, Art of the Impossible, 105.
It is easy enough to believe that the wait and the travel serve no purpose or meaning, but then we read how the punishment of travel shifts from a burden to an education in a poem by Solomon Ansky (1863–1920), a poet and leader of Jewish socialists in Russia:
Wanderers, wanderers we are.
From land to land we wander far,
Driven by hunger and by dearth,
Embittered by sufferings and pain,
Over sea and hill and pain.
We outcasts of the earth.
Lost in the stream of life, we come,
Without a house, without a home,
No country ours by birth.
Beaten and spurned by everyone,
By the storm-wind carried on.
We outcasts of the earth.
Across forbidden frontiers thrust,
Trodden upon the wayside dust,
Without help or strength or worth.
Towards what goal it is we strive,
For what purpose do we live,
We outcasts of the earth?
Our exile has lasted for
Thousands of years, now and of yore,
Gave us one thing of worth –
Endurance in each and everyone,
To wander on, to wander on.
We outcasts of the earth…6See Nathan Ausubel and Marynn Ausubel, eds., A Treasury of Jewish Poetry (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1957), 200.
The gift of travel is the capacity to wander and to wonder. Survival is not only a technique; it requires faith, meaning, and endurance. It requires physical strength but also a toughening and tendering of the soul. Leaders frame the experience of ambiguity. They negotiate the transition, but also give us the language and suggest the appropriate emotional response to being in the wilderness.
In order to become willing nomads, we have to consciously leave the past. The Israelites were not very willing partners in this consciousness. In the same chapter of their salvation in Exodus, they complain; one chapter later, they tell Moses and Aaron that their lives were better in Egypt and that there were graveyards there, too. Their wilderness trek is punctured by multiple contradictory forces that both press them forward and have them look longingly backwards, as Michael Walzer observes:
The great paradox of the Exodus, and of all subsequent liberation struggles, is the people’s simultaneous willingness and unwillingness to put Egypt behind them. They yearn to be free, and they yearn to escape their new freedom. They want laws but not too many; they both accept and resist the discipline of the march. The biblical narrative tells this paradoxical story with a frankness not often repeated in the literature of liberation.7Walzer, Exodus and Revolution, 73.
Only by spending so many years in wilderness isolation were they truly able to put Egypt behind them. The more circuitous the route, the further back Egypt felt in the consciousness-shaping mechanisms that were necessary for transformation. They needed to get to a point of no return. The longer the time, the greater became the psychic distance between the past and the present. Forty years was the uprooting of one entire generation with the longing for Egypt and its ways.
As the book of Numbers draws to a close, the journey is not quite done. The very last verse of Numbers juxtaposes the giving of law with the Israelites’ long and wearying trek: “These are the commandments and regulations that the Lord enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho” (Num. 36:13). Even the geography is tantalizing. Moab and Jordan are still border countries, but Jericho is an oasis in the land of Canaan. It meant home was closer than ever.
After so many chapters of leadership challenges, complaints, and subsequent punishments, the book of Numbers ends where it began: commandments and regulations. The order of the encampment in the first ten chapters is paralleled by the tightly constructed closing chapters on language, law, and the travel route. In between the organization of law, we find narratives of dissension that wear away the strength and potency of leadership: the challenge of the spies, the gossip among siblings, the mutiny of Korah, the Moabite seduction of Israelites, and the violence of Pinhas. Then again, in bookend fashion, the same book that began with a census closes with one; the text ends the chaos of the wilderness with the counting of the remaining Israelites. Again, the security of numbers and dates prevails over the reigning anarchy thick in the heart of the wilderness. But a hint is dropped at the conclusion of the census, even as the book ties its pieces together, indicating that life post-wilderness will never be the same:
These are the persons enrolled by Moses and Eleazar the priest who registered the Israelites on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho. Among these there was not one of those enrolled by Moses and Aaron the priest when they recorded the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord had said of them, “They shall die in the wilderness.” Not one of them survived, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. (Num. 26:63–65)
That Caleb and Joshua lived through the challenges of the wilderness experience and survived positioned them well to be future leaders. Indeed, it is not surprising that the next chapter of Numbers presents a succession plan for Moses in the form of Joshua, the spy who did not forgo his loyalty to the Promised Land upon his return. Once a successor to Moses is identified and presented publicly, the text turns to a recording of the wilderness travels itself. A list of points is penned along the map that the Israelites navigated together between Egypt and Jericho. This record of marches and campsites raises the age-old philosophical travel question of whether it is the journey or the destination that matters. Commentaries on the book’s end engage in a philosophical meandering on the art of travel embedded quietly in the long and tedious list of stops and starts. Among medieval Jewish commentaries on Numbers, there are the romantics and the non-romantics. The romantics care about the journey and what is learned or gained by each step and march forward. The non-romantics focus on the destination. Moses’ record was merely for historical value. Once there, little of the trip needed to be remembered. It is this undecorated rhythm and beat that accompanies us for forty-eight verses of geographic record: “The Israelites set out from Ramses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. They set out from Etham and turned about toward Pi-hahiroth, which faces Baal-zephon, and they encamped before Migdol. They set out…” (Num. 33:5–8), and so on and so forth. Many commentators were intrigued by this movement and saw in it a deeper sense of what traveling might be. Kli Yakar, Rabbi Ephraim Lunshits (a sixteenth-century Polish commentator), takes a different route, so to speak. He explains that what is recorded is the journey from here to there, the marches rather than the stops:
These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Lord. Their marches, by starting points, were as follows… (Num. 33:1–2)
By the time we reach the end of the list of forty-two locations forty-eight verses later, we feel the utter fatigue of this push. Rest stops along the way disappear. Once there and looking back, we care less about the events of each encampment as much as how each bit of travel, strung together, got us to this particular place, pushed us closer to Jericho.
Perhaps the constant dislocation had another benefit; it enhanced the need for home and the need to be rooted, making the Land of Israel ever more appealing in the eyes of a wandering people. The journey’s pain expanded the existential need for home. Rabbi Lunshits explains that the choice of terminology is not accidental. The essence of the journey is the travel, not the places of encampment along the way. The forty-two temporary lodging spots in those forty years were not many, according to Rabbi Lunshits, relative to the length of the trip. Each place had something to teach them about life in community.
The need to keep moving, to allow oneself to be changed by the propulsion of a journey, is integral to the Jewish soul and spirit. Travel is the first act of the first Jew: “Now the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Get up and go out of your country, and from your family and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you’” (Gen. 12:1). Go and keep going. Part of the process of becoming a Jew was to take a journey. The charge that Abraham embraced as an individual was mimicked by an entire nation. To go where they had not been. To cut off the ties of the past and to endure the challenges that the journey presented. All of this would merit them the Promised Land and the gift of nationhood. Those who survived were wiser for the journey. They became more expansive in the process. They realized that what keeps a nation going is literally that it keeps going, or, in the words of Michael Walzer, “the wilderness had to be a new school of the soul.”8Walzer, Exodus and Revolution, 53.
The charge Numbers leaves leaders with is the very same one that the ancient Israelites received. Discover yourself in the wilderness of a future you know not. Go outside to go inside. Grow where the wild things are. Learn from that which almost kills you. Leave the past and discover God. Limit the complaints. Learn to lead others in the wilderness by organizing chaos. Be flexible enough to ride the chaos when all attempts at organization fail. Have contingency plans. Create a destination postcard. Do not try to lead alone. Learn to trust yourself and others in situations of uncertainty. And do not, under any circumstances, give up. You will get there.