This Shabbat, we begin the reading of the book of Bemidbar, the book of Numbers. 

         Bemidbar has always been my favorite book of the Torah for two reasons. The first reason is because the book is so eclectic. Bemidbar contains intriguing narratives, fascinating rituals and legal material that are intertwined throughout the book. 

         But the second reason that I love the book is because it is about one of my favorite pastimes: traveling. The word bemidbar actually means “in the wilderness” and that aptly describes this book which details so many of the experiences our ancestors had as they travelled through the wilderness on their way to the promised land. The book ends with a detailed itinerary of the many stops which led the Hebrews to the border of Canaan. 

         That last section of Bemidbar always leads me to think about the itinerary of my own life and how important it is for all of us to note the places we have been in our lives. What places are important to us and what have learned in the places we have been? What places are so “sacred” in our lives that we consider traveling to that place as a “pilgrimage”?

         When I think of places of pilgrimage in my life, I naturally first think of traveling to Israel. I have been to Israel 13 times and each time I return, I feel that sense of anticipation and excitement as would be appropriate for a sacred place. 

         Israel is a sacred place for me as it is for so many. A trip to Israel is a spiritual journey and one which allows us to connect on so many levels with our Jewish history, tradition and culture. 

         But Israel is not the only sacred place in my life.

         Each year, I make a trip back to Boston, my hometown. The most important reason for this trip is to visit the cemeteries in different parts of the Boston area where my parents, grandparents, great grandparents and one of my great great grandmothers are buried. 

But, the cemeteries are only a part of the journey. My visit is a pilgrimage in many ways. I have a certain route I like to follow: driving on roads we took when I was a kid even if it makes the route to the cemeteries longer. I always include stops at restaurants or stores where I can eat some of the foods I ate while growing up and at places along the shore where I pull my car over to take a deep breath of the ocean air which brings back so many memories. 

         We all have sacred places in our lives and while we yearn to return, we sometimes take an indirect route to get there. 

         This week, I visited another place which has become sacred to me.

         My wife, Ellen, and I just returned from spending a week visiting national parks in Utah. I had made that trip with our son two years ago and absolutely fell in love with the scenery around Zion and Bryce Canyon and I wanted to return and to share it with Ellen. 

         We began at Zion which is absolutely gorgeous, hiking through the trails and marveling at the scenery. 

         And then we moved on to Bryce Canyon.

         When I visited the last time, I felt that Bryce Canyon was the most remarkable place I had ever seen in my life. I was spiritually moved by the experience (see my post from June 2022 on this website) and I eagerly anticipated the opportunity to return. 

         We entered the park towards evening and pulled into the parking lot at an area called Sunset Point. Bryce Canyon National Park is unique in that the road to enter the park is unremarkable and one pulls into one of the parking lots near the entrance without any hint at the view which is to come. 

         We parked the car and began to walk the short walkway up to the observation point. As we walked, I suddenly found myself slowing down. I realized that I needed the time to mentally and spiritually prepare for the moment of seeing the canyon again. I thought about how I planned for this trip for more than a year and all of the anticipation that I felt before returning. I kept my head down not wanting to see the view before I was ready.

         Just before reaching the point of seeing the canyon, I stopped and took a deep breath before continuing. And, only then, did I allow myself to lift my eyes and see this astounding sight. 

         It was every bit as astounding as I remembered it. I felt the same sense of humility as I looked at the giant hoodoos, the rock towers and formations which make can make one feel so small and yet help us to realize once again with awe the beauty of the world which God has created.

         If you’ve been to Bryce, I’m sure you can relate to this. If you haven’t, think about a place that you love, that you find meaningful and uplifting when you return to it. Perhaps you have also had this feeling of the need to take some extra time before experiencing that place again and the joy and sense of the sacred you feel when you enter. 

         It is without question that, for a Jew, a visit to Jerusalem and the Western wall is a pilgrimage like none other. But it is also true that for all of us, there are sacred places throughout our world, places which move us, places which elevate or humble us, places we seek to return to and, when we do, which we approach with a sense of awe and wondrous anticipation.

         I found one of those places at Bryce Canyon. I don’t know if I will ever return to that sacred place. But, if I do, I’m sure I will make the walk from the car last a long time to spiritually prepare for what I am about to see. 

         That is the nature of a pilgrimage. The preparation is an essential part of the journey. 

         And with that we begin the reading of the book of Bemidbar and follow along as our ancestors take the last slow steps before the end of a long journey. 

3 thoughts on “PILGRIMAGE

  1. Wonderfully expressed Rob. Although I have not visited that cemetery recently where your parents reside as well as some of my ancestors, I have fond memories of being there with my dad.

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