walking without pretext

parshat lech lecha

In his book, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, by Thomas Cahill the concept of pilgrimage does not appear.  I am surprised, because pilgrimage is seminal to the Jewish narrative and calendar.  Three times a year Jews made the trek up to Jerusalem on their major festivals called Regalim (foot festivals).  The very word for festival; Hag comes from the same Semitic root as the Arabic Hajj which means  pilgrimage and is the core of a Muslim’s life.  Many of us were introduced to English literature with a reading of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, which is about pilgrims on the way to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral… telling tales.  Every Christian and Muslim understood the obligation of pilgrimage as a core component of a life well lived.

Pilgrimage does not rate as a gift of the Jews, because pilgrimage has disappeared from mainstream Judaism and our collective culture. [UJA Missions, Birthright and tourist trips don’t count… too much baggage, pre-arranged accommodations, supervision/guidance and too little walking]

It may be, that we Jews lost our taste for pilgrimage when it was adopted by competing religions.  Certainly the fact that so many Jews were slaughtered during the Crusades would not have endeared them to this variant of active vacation.  The anti-Semitism associated with pilgrimage kinda takes the bounce out of your step. The triennial pilgrimage may have also fallen into disuse after the destruction of the Temple and associated exile.  A pilgrimage is a trip away from home, the yearning for a return to Zion and aliyah is a return home.  Pilgrims buy a return ticket.

In a book that I just finished  and will quote more extensively below, the author Gideon Lewis-Kraus suggests that Jews for the most part don’t do pilgrimage: “because pilgrimage has largely been for sedentary people, so the Jews of the Diaspora didn’t have much use for it. The last thing they needed was yet another reason to keep moving.”

It seems to me, that we lose if we ignore pilgrimage… the institution, the tradition, the narrative and most of all the state-of-mind. … and it all started with Abraham in Genesis 12.

1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.

This is usually translated as “Get thee out (from your country and your birthplace and your father’s house. . . .)” But it literally means, “Go to yourself.” Rashi, understands lech lecha to mean: “go for yourself”. Lecha, he explains, means “for your benefit and for your good”. The Siftei Chachamim writes that lecha actually means li’retzoncha, according to your desire or will. According to the Pri Ha’aretz, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk  “Go to find your true self. Go to develop yourself to its utmost. Go where? To the land that I will show you. To the place of the origin of Man’s body and soul.”

I am particularly intrigued with the concept of pilgrimage, because of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s book; A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful.  Kraus; a secular Jewish writer in his early 30’s living a bohemian life with other expats in Berlin decides on a lark one early morning at a bar to go on a 500 mile Christian pilgrimage to the El Camino de Santiago. He becomes addicted to pilgriming and on completion of the Camino, does The Shikoku; a multi-site pilgrimage of 88 temples associated with the Buddhist monk Kūkai (Kōbō Daishi) on the island of Shikoku, Japan.  His third and last pilgrimage is to Uman where he joins Hasidim (and his estranged gay-Rabbi father )  to visit the Beslever Rebbe’s grave.

In his irreverent, sometimes hilarious and always thought provoking musings, he struggles to find the essence of pilgrimage and, to my mind, reveals what we may be missing.  Here are some excerpts that try to provide a pretext for taking a pilgrimage…

“There are a lot of reasons, and that’s part of what this book is about, figuring out what it means to want to make a pilgrimage, and then what it feels like to be on it, and what it does and doesn’t do to your life afterward, but it all has something to do with leaving your home, leaving comfort and responsibility behind, and putting yourself and your usual desires aside to concentrate on doing this difficult, painful trip that a lot of other people have done for a long time, and to be in the company of other sufferers who are doing it now. While you’re on it, everything feels so simple, even if you’re in pain, and you make these instant friendships based on a shared sense of need and vulnerability, and it’s a sense of need and vulnerability that are beyond explaining— there’s no real need to be able to say why you hurt or why you’re doing it, you just sort of trust that everyone is doing it for some reason or another and that’s enough.” It occurred to me it was strange that I’d brought my father to do exactly that— to explain himself— and what he’d ended up showing me was that these explanations are always evolving. [p 323]

But the thing about this sense of order is that it’s provisional, this sense of coherence that it’s evanescent. This makes it a bounded experiment in the as if, a few weeks of coming to terms with difficulty and disappointment— and cost— in terms of their necessary existence. It’s a vacation to a land where life has meaning— the meaning of moving forward, of getting to Santiago— and things, in the broadest sense of the term, make sense, in the broadest sense of the term. Its fixed points allow you to deal with the fact that everyone is in motion. It’s so easy to feel this way on the road because it’s provisional. This is its strength and its limitation. It is to be used and discarded. Its remove from the past, from conflict, from real life affords you the chance to form relationships with wonderful people from whom you expect nothing, whom you begrudge nothing, whom you owe nothing, people who haven’t ever had the chance to hurt you, and probably won’t, and if they do or you do you just walk away, you stay in motion. The stakes of communitas are low because everything is taking place in the present. The grace comes easy. And the sense of coherence that seemed so vital and inalienable while you were on the Camino, the sense that you’re simply spending your hours the way you’re spending them and, for the moment, not worrying too much about the costs, disperses into the air like incense the moment you’re no longer on the way. But a life cannot be lived, at least by most people, walking up and down the Camino, or walking the circuit of Shikoku until death. The real trick, then, is to find some way to recall these feelings of grace and coherence and meaning and forgiveness— for what we gain with this coherence is the ability to forgive, ourselves and others— when the as if has run its course, when Santiago is achieved and you are returned to a world where all is conflict and nothing makes itself plain to us, where there is no hope for miraculous intercession and the people you love most will hurt and disappoint you and you, in turn, will hurt and disappoint them. Where the ground is shifting and we rarely know where we stand. …. If you’re able to believe that there is a God and that God acts in the world, if it has never occurred to you that this makes theodicy a problem, if you have that true gift that is faith, you ought to count yourself inordinately blessed. For the rest of us, there is one Camino or another, and then, perhaps more important, there is the memory of that Camino. These are brief encounters with radical acceptance that we do our best to secretly save up in our hearts. [p 327]

The neutral word “pretext”— as opposed to the loaded words “reason” and “excuse”— suspends, for the moment, the question of moral responsibility, and makes way for the final fact that, as Wittgenstein says, we just do what we do. We’re all going to find pretexts for doing what we’re going to do anyway, for having our adventures and doing our demmij along a road in northern Spain, or in a broken-into temple in rural western Japan. There is no such thing as the life we deserve, just like there is no such thing as a prophylactic against regret. There is the life we live. There is the series of crises we do our best to muddle through. No sacrifice now will make the future effortless or the pain we will inevitably cause easier for others to forgive. The thing that can be so hard about my dad’s life, about anyone’s life, is that he caused so much pain and is somehow happy now. He is happy and has come to tell a story in which the pain he caused was worth it. But we all do our best, and we hurt some people and get hurt by others and what’s as terrible as it is wonderful is that we endure, we endure and find ways of looking back and, if we are able to manage the trick of perspective, if we are able to hold on to our memories of Santiago, we find a way for it to have made sense. [p 332]

These conversations always make me think of a line in Wittgenstein where he’s talking about the chain of reasons we give for doing something. If you ask someone “Why?” enough times— if every time they provide a “Because…” you respond with another “But why?”— they get to a point where no further account is available, where they are doing something that seems to them self-evidently worthwhile. You must then simply say, “I have hit bedrock. My spade is turned [i.e., turned back on itself, can dig no more]. This is what I do.”
People say, “I’m doing this because I’m in pain.” But the more I heard that, the less sense it made: the causal connection isn’t at all obvious. Nobody can say why this experience, rather than, say, a spa trip, or marathon training, ought to provide solace. I think Wittgenstein points in the direction of an answer. There’s something satisfying about having to throw our hands up, acknowledge our final inscrutability to ourselves. It’s a relief that there’s only so far we can take an explanation, and a comfort to be thrown back upon the nontrivial fact that we have preferences— preferences— that custom and idiosyncrasy and accident have given us the desire to do something instead of some other thing, or instead of nothing. It short-circuits the usual chain of accounting and gets right to the part where you have to shrug and say, “This is what I do.”  [p 223]

Sounds like lech lecha to me……

El Camino de Santiago


Filed under Bible, Judaism, Pilgrimage, Religion, social commentary, Torah, Totah, travel

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