One of the perks of growing older is a role reversal in which parents find themselves the object of concern to their children, who worry excessively about their elders’ physical well-being. In our case, one expression of this anxiety is our children’s annual insistence that we escape the frigid Milwaukee winter for a milder clime, where there is less likelihood of slipping on icy sidewalks and hurting ourselves. In truth, there is something to be said for blue skies, bright sunshine and gentle breezes. Traveling to and from these earthly paradises, however, is quite another thing. Airport check-ins, long security lines, even longer treks to distant departure gates and sitting many hours confined to narrow seats is no picnic for senior citizens. Most challenging of all is contending with planes that don’t take off when they’re supposed to, cancelled flights and weather systems that rarely cooperate with one’s plans. Which brings me to our most recent excursion. My husband, shlita, and I were finally on our way back home from our winter exile.
Our itinerary called for us to return to Milwaukee via Dallas, with ample time between connecting flights. Much to our delight, the plane that was to take us to Dallas arrived in a timely fashion, and we watched the inbound passengers deplane, eagerly anticipating that we would soon be on our way. We were about to board when the gate personnel announced a short delay due to the fact that they couldn’t get the cargo doors open; hence, baggage couldn’t be loaded or unloaded. Fifteen minutes, an hour, two hours, three hours passed and still no luck. I told my daughter, who was checking in regularly on the old folks’ progress, that she should consider dispatching our grandchildren to the scene. Without a doubt, they would have figured out how to get those doors open in a jiffy. The cynic in me was pondering how we could get a man to the moon but couldn’t open a cargo door on a routine domestic flight. When it ultimately became clear that we weren’t going to make our connection in Dallas, we frantically sought an alternative way to get home. We were fortunately able to book a flight to Chicago that had been cancelled earlier because of an unexplained water leak and was rescheduled to leave eight hours later. With Hashem’s help, we would be landing in Chicago at 1:30 a.m. and then face another two hours of travel time on the ground to Milwaukee.
In an attempt to find a silver lining in this cloud, my husband gleaned a Torah thought that he shared with the shul community the following Shabbos. In Judaism, he explained, the journey trumps the destination. The journey is made up of our hishtadlus, our step-by-step efforts to live each day according to Hashem’s will, being faithful to His precepts. By contrast, the destination, and whether or not we arrive there, is Hashem’s department. My husband pointed to the tefillah that is said at the conclusion of learning a tractate of the Talmud: “They toil and we toil; we toil and are rewarded, while they [the nations of the world] toil and are not rewarded.” This statement is puzzling, because the nations of the world are frequently compensated for their hard work, and just as often Jews aren’t. However, what is meant is that even when we don’t produce, even when we aren’t “successful” and don’t achieve our “goals,” we still receive reward. This is because it is the journey that ultimately counts. In the final analysis, every step along the way is what is precious in Hashem’s eyes and what He seeks to recognize. This insight is captured in the Torah’s description of Amalek, the arch-enemy of Israel whom we are commanded to hate and destroy.
The verse describes Amalek’s detestable and unprovoked attack on Bnei Yisrael as “asher karcha baderech,” meaning that “they happened upon you along the way.” Many commentaries draw our attention to another meaning of the word “karcha”: “cooled you off.” This can then be rendered as “beware of Amalek who cooled you off” to the vital role of “derech,” the importance of the journey that is so integral to Jewish life. In worldly matters, one can spend a lifetime pursuing a goal, a business venture, a literary achievement or medical discovery, and in the event the goal is not reached, all is lost. The hapless individual is then defined as a “failure.” Our gratitude, as articulated in the aforementioned tefillah, is for the blessing of never having to confront this futility. Given this insight, our trip home took on new meaning. In retrospect, were we grumbling and indignant or in a pleasant mood? Did we use our time productively or wastefully? Did we see the Hand of hashgachah pratis or attribute everything to happenstance and “bad luck”? We certainly learned something about the definition of friendship from our devoted friends, the Horowitzes, who ventured out to Chicago in the wee hours of the morning to pick us up and didn’t return home until 4:00 a.m. We were also most grateful for our own beds, as well as our children, grandchildren and community. We were home, at long last, the lengthy journey notwithstanding. But it was precisely our long and complicated journey that made our homecoming all the more special.