A short time before my father died I asked him where he saw himself in the context of his life. I said, "Dad, if you drew a line and the starting point of the line represented your birth and the line's end symbolized your passing, where are you now?" My father's response was somewhat startling. He said "Now, I see myself as a little past the middle."
My father's sense of self in the context of his life's journey at the age of 84 contrasts markedly with the wisdom we find expressed by one of our great sages who taught us to view every day as if its our last,no matter how old we may be, so that we will always be in a state of 'teshuva', repentance.
"Location, location, location!" In the world of real estate, all that matters is location. The emphasis on location can be equally compelling in our spiritual journey. Nowhere does that become more clear than in the parsha this week of Shlach Lecha. Our ancestors were in the wilderness, on the threshold of the Promised Land. Moshe sent the spies, all men of distinction, to explore the land and bring back a report in anticipation of the invasion. Ten of the twelve men brng back a disheartening report. They speak of the difficulty of the conquest and of the harshness of the country. In response, the People lose heart. They cry and lament their situation. They despair of enterring Israel. And with that the fate of the Generation of the Wilderness is sealed. They are condemned by G-d to wander and ultimately die in the wilderness, never to enter the Promised Land they rejected in their cowardice.
The core error made by the spies and the people who believed them was that the wilderness offerred an alternative home, and a safe one at that. True, they were a nation in transition, but they had so many comforts. They had the manna to eat and waters to drink. They were protected by G-d's pillar of fire by night and Cloud of Glory by day. They had Moshe and Aharon to lead them and the Mishkan as a house of worship. Why risk enterring the Land of Israel? Why compromise a good thing for something that seemed risky at best?
Israel's mistake was a mistake in location. They did not realize where they were. They thought they were in a spiritual haven in the wilderness. They thought "what we have is plenty good." They did not understand that as good as the 'midbar' seemed it was never meant to be their dwelling place. Israel the people need Israel the land. Just as their could be no nation without the Torah, their could be no nation without its homeland of Israel.
The Torah, in the first part of the book of Bamidbar focused on forming the People's identity. All the emphasis on the counting, according to family and tribe, the travels by position and flag, the order of society including the Levites and their tasks, were meant to help the Israelite define in clear and certain terms "who am I?"
"Who am I?" is a question of deep and abiding importance for a nation and its constituents. One needs to have an unequivical sense of one's own identity to fulfill ones purpose in the world.
But "who am I?" is only one of two compelling questions vital to our People's health and wholeness. The other, equally significant, is "where am I?". Unless a nation and its members know where they are in the context of their life and history they will be equally compromised in fulfilling their call. Israel knew who they were. But the sin of the spies indicates they did not know where they were!
In the sections of the Torah that follow the story of the sin of the spies and its horrific consequences we have several laws given to us. All involve knowing our location. The first two deal with the laws of donating wine and oil for libations for individuals who bring a sacrifice, and the taking of challa from the dough to give to the kohain. Both laws only apply once the people are in Israel. In the wilderness, where this generation was to die, the laws were irrelevant. Knowing where one is is central to the mitzvah's observance.
After those laws we are told of the requirement to bring special sin offerings if we violated a Torah law unintenionally. In each of those cases, the sin typically occurs when a person does not know where s/he is. S/he is missing some vital information on their situation that causes the unintentional sin. And then we have a story of the man who violated the Shabbat in the wilderness and who, in the end, was stoned to death for his sin. Here too, the man did not recognize his location, in this case, his location in time. He failed to accept that he was living in the Sabbath.
And finally the reading ends with the portion of Tzizit, which we say twice a day in the sh'ma. Tzizit are not like tefilin. Tefilin are holy, they contain the name of G-d on parchments. We wear them on our head and opposite our hearts. They are meant to remind us who we are. Tzizit are not holy. Our Sages taught the blue dye, the 'techailet' of the tzizit is meant to remind us of the blue of the sea, and the sea of the sky, and the sky of our call to fulfill G-d's laws. Tzizit are meant to remind us as to where we are, our fragility in life and our calling. They answer the question "where am I?"
Where am I? is a question we need to constantly be asking ourselves throughout our life. We need to ask it in terms of our physical space and in terms of our space in time.
In terms of our physical space how tragic that those who live outside Israel build a home and life without even feeling the absence of Eretz Yisrael. The comparison to the Generation of the Wilderness and their willingness to forgo settling the land with its challenges for the spiritual and physical comforts of foreign soil is too compelling to dismiss.
And even those of us who live here in the Holy Land, do we realize its kedusha. I see litter everywhere. Garbage on the street. Yes, people desecrating Yerushalayim with schmutz. How can that be? How can we live here and be so mindless. We too fail to comprehend where we are!
And just as important we need to ask "where am I?" in the context of our lives.My father's optimism about life as he neared death is inspiring, but it won't serve us well if we delay doing what we need to do in our lives because we feel we have time.
Life moves on, years pass. We have work to get done, growth to accomplish. We cannot postpone the changes we need to make, our improvements forever. The time for most of us is here and now. For most of us the excuses of youth are past. We need to know our location and respond with the urgency it warrants.
"Where am I?" is a question each of us has to ask ourselves and grapple with on a regular basis. To live well and meaningfully we need to know our location, both in space and time. Its the way to the Promised Land, both for us as individuals and for us as a People.