If you have driven through or near South Dakota, you have probably seen the billboards for Wall Drug: “Free ice water! Five-cent coffee!” Wall, South Dakota, was established as a railroad station for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, a link on the chain of railroad connecting the country, a system that my spouse Naomi’s family helped build.
Founded in 1931, Wall Drug originally used the promise of free ice water as a way to attract customers. Today, Wall Drug is a tourist attraction in its own right. Driving from Los Angeles to Boston, Naomi and I arrived at Wall Drug, ready for free water, cheap coffee, breakfast and the American kitsch that the road trip app promised. It did not disappoint. We had spent the previous day at Badlands National Park and the Pine Ridge Reservation, an area known to the Lakota people as Mako Sica. Our Lakota tour guide told us stories inspired by and connected to the land. His stories about the moon connected me to midrashim about creation and Rosh Chodesh.
Our time in the Badlands connected us to our national history of displacement and trauma, while our time in Wall, South Dakota, connected us to family history. Sharing this story with you, recording it in this teaching, is a way of integrating it into my own narrative and marking it as something to pass on to future generations.
Similarly, the second of this week’s double Torah portion, Matot-Masei, the final portion of the book of Numbers, calls us to listen to and integrate the stories of our biblical ancestors with our own. It begins:
These were the journeys of the Israelites who came out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their journeys as directed by YHVH. These are their journeys, according to their starting points (Numbers 33:1-2).
The text then lists 42 journeys—or segments—of the Israelites’ overall journey from Egypt to the border of Israel. The language, for the most part, is absent of any real description of what happened along the way, either while the Israelites were on the move or while they were stationary. Instead, we see small glimpses of the experience. We learn that while the Israelites were leaving Egypt, the Egyptians were burying their dead. We learn that Elim was a place with 12 springs and 70 palm trees. We are reminded that in Rephidim the Israelites didn’t have any water. The text reads like a map, like the road atlas on which Naomi and I traced the routes we took on our cross-country road trip, rather than like the complex history it represents.
Why does the text recount these journeys in this way? What can we learn from the routes taken by our ancient ancestors?
For the Kedushat Levi, an 18th-century Hasidic master, each segment of the overall journey was an opportunity to uncover and uplift holy sparks that had fallen and been covered in each location. The journey from Egypt to Israel was not just a matter of geography—it was a spiritual journey. Each segment of the journey, as enumerated, provided an opportunity to practice recognizing and reclaiming holiness, to embody a relationship with God and with the world.
The Kedushat Levi reminds us that our journeys have a larger context in which they take place and that to move forward we must keep in mind both the overall vision of what we are trying to achieve and the smaller movements it will take to get there. He further explains that this process is the reason why the Israelites spent so much time at one place and not as much at another—sometimes it takes more or less time to uncover the holiness in a place.
Many of us are on the journey of being and becoming anti-racist. We are moving from a place of being complicit in white supremacy to one of pushing back against the way in which it shapes our own thinking and the way our society functions. What is the world we imagine at the end of this journey? What are the smaller steps we are taking to move us there? How will we tap into the kedusha, the holiness, of this work?
Commenting on these verses, Rashi brings a teaching that the enumeration of the journeys demonstrates God’s love for the Israelites. He shows that after the decree that we would wander in the desert, the Israelites only made 20 journeys in 38 years. The pace, Rashi says, was an expression of God’s love. He makes clear that the desert journey was composed of movement constant enough to be ever-present, yet infrequent enough to allow for rhythms of daily life to be established.
Building a just and equitable world requires an awareness of the need to move forward, and a lived experience of being grounded enough in the place that we are to do the often-destabilizing work of transformation. This work often requires staying put, sitting with the world we are in long enough to notice, grieve, wrestle with and uproot the oppression.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch imagines an actual revisiting of these journeys, opening the possibility of seeing what is behind our Torah text, experiencing some of what our ancestors might have felt and connecting to the divine. Connecting to our ancestors can be a fraught process, a wandering into the unknown that includes the possibility of joy and grounding and pain. He writes:
One can surmise how many other traces of the wanderings and sojournings of our forefathers may have been preserved in these places in the wilderness for the immediate and more distant future, and what opportunities these could have offered to the children and the grand-children of the generation of the wilderness to visit the places where God revealed Godself in God’s wondrous guidance. Visiting these places, future generations could contemplate the authenticity of God’s presence on earth so eloquently expressed in the history of their forebears.
In his book “Decolonizing Wealth,” Edgar Villanueva discusses the importance of learning about and grieving the source of a family’s wealth as prerequisites to healing the trauma that the amassing of that wealth caused native communities. We didn’t intend for our road trip to be part of this process, and certainly not our carefree trip to Wall Drug. Yet, visiting the places of displacement and pain on that trip has been part of my own process of learning, grieving and beginning to reckon with my own privilege. This same principle is evident in communal tours of the American South and trips to The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
Wherever you are in your journey to liberation, however you locate yourself in the project of building a just and equitable world, may the work of connecting to ancestors be deep and healing, a source of grounding and strength.
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