It has become a cliché that in life, we should focus on the journey, not the destination—we are advised to “enjoy the ride” and “pick more daisies.” It is easy to imagine ourselves within the quintessential image of this sentiment: a carefree, smiling person, basking in the sunshine, driving down an open road with car windows open or the top down, wind blowing through her hair.
The Torah could be read as endorsing this approach to life. From the expulsion from Eden, to God’s great call to Abraham to “go forth,” to the Israelites forty years of wandering in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land, the Torah appreciates life, and a life of meaning, as a journey more than a destination. Jewish tradition solidifies the centrality of this motif with our cycle of sacred biblical reading: Each autumn we start the Torah at the beginning of Genesis, reading consecutive portions of the Torah each week until we complete Deuteronomy—and right when you might think we will go on to the Book of Joshua and into the Promised Land, we go back to the beginning, starting the cycle again, with Genesis and another year of wandering.
We are seemingly a tradition of journey, not arrival. But as many passages of the Torah make clear, the journey is no joyride.
Just read Chapter 20 of the book of Numbers, in this week’s parasha, Chukkat, for evidence of the Torah’s clear-eyed, unsentimental understanding of what it is to be on a journey. The chapter begins with the death of Miriam, continues with a water crisis that induces yet more Israelite complaining and longing to return to Egypt, progresses to Moses and Aaron being condemned not to go with the people into the Land of Israel because of their handling of the grumbling, and concludes with the death of Aaron. In a mere 22 verses, Moses loses his siblings (his two closest companions), endures another round of rebellion, and finally—heartbreakingly—is denied the opportunity to personally fulfill the dream to which he has devoted his life.
While a journey can be liberating and even carefree at times, Numbers Chapter 20 captures a fuller, grittier reality—that the journey can be grueling, harsh, painful, uncertain, and unfulfilled. Yet, amazingly, Moses offers no response to these traumatic events. He is silent and, seemingly, undeterred.
What wisdom about traversing the wilderness of our own lives can we hear in Moses’ silence?
These days, I hear Angela Duckworth echoing from Moses’ persistent footsteps. Duckworth, the author of the New York Times bestseller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, studies human motivation and success.
In her short and riveting TED Talk, Duckworth recounts her research findings about people in challenging situations and what tends to make them successful within their particular context. In all of the groups she studied—cadets at the West Point Military Academy, new teachers working with at-risk communities, salespeople in private companies, and children in the National Spelling Bee—the “significant predictor of success,” she says, is not skill, physical ability, or intelligence. It is grit.
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