In our Torah cycle this time of year, we read how for 40 years our ancestors trekked through the wilderness, far from cities and civilization. They trudged along without interstates, service plazas or travel agents. So it should come as no surprise that throughout their journey there were endless complaints, arguments and rebellions.
How different travel is today! I recently returned from leading a shul trip to Eastern Europe. We took planes, trains, a motor coach and even an old turbo-prop. (I was a bit nervous about that last part.) But it all went off without a hitch, traveling thousands of miles and an ocean away with ease. Such are the miracles of modern life.
Compare that with the short hike our ancestors took from Egypt to Israel. That was a journey of less than 300 miles, and it took them 40 years. You could make that flight today in under an hour.
Yet, we are so spoiled by the conveniences of modern travel that we kvetch even when our plane is delayed for just a couple of hours or when we are stuck on a runway, waiting for a gate to open.
But we should never lose sight of how lucky we are to experience the marvels of modern travel and the myriad of other blessings we usually take for granted.
Traveling to Eastern Europe was an eye-opening experience in so many ways. It underscored for me how fortunate we are to be among those Jews who survived the horrors that befell our people during the past century.
We traveled through countries and towns that were once filled with bustling Jewish communities. In many of them, all that is left are synagogues turned into museums, memorials emblazoned with the names of families who perished or a few inhabitants struggling to keep a shul and a community alive.
Sure, some places in Europe are experiencing a resurgence of Jewish life (ironically including Berlin), but they are only shadows of their former glory. And for every one of those communities, there are hundreds of decimated cities and villages where Jewish life once thrived.
You feel that most deeply when you visit Auschwitz. One can never find the right words to describe what Auschwitz is or what the horror of that place represents. Walking into the one remaining gas chamber, then casually walking out, you are haunted by the realization that right where you stand, so many of our fellow Jews had their lives snuffed out.
Amid that terrible darkness, some stories of bravery, heroism and perseverance emerged. A few attempted to fight back. Others somehow survived the terror and hopelessness. A few of the survivors even decided to return to the very communities from which they were driven out, though it is difficult to fathom how or why.
One such community we visited was Bratislava. A mostly empty shul remains where a few elderly Jews struggle to hold Shabbat services each week. And while staying there would probably not have been my choice, I can understand the painful decision the returnees faced.
Move somewhere else and allow another Jewish community to perish? Leave and watch another shul be turned into a museum? Stay and struggle to keep Judaism alive in your hometown, even if only for a while longer?
Then you realize how fortunate and blessed we are. We take our shuls and even our Jewish community for granted. We feel self-assured, believing that if we don’t support our synagogues, someone else will step in and do so.
But, of course, that isn’t the case at all. By maintaining and supporting our shuls and other important institutions, we work to ensure that Jewish life will continue here for generations to come.
This is the time of year when we think about where we will be for the High Holidays, which synagogue we will attend and whether we will continue to be a supportive part of our shul community.
If Bratislava has taught me anything, it is that we should never take our shuls or our community for granted. By supporting them, we are not just enriching our own lives; we are also giving back to our community by showing gratitude for the myriad of blessings that we, as the survivors of Jewish history, have been so fortunate to receive.
May we never lose sight of that privilege and sacred obligation. Amen.
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom