The Geographic Cure in Judaism

There are people who can be defined by what they escape from, and people who are defined by the fact that they are forever escaping.
—Adam Phillips, Houdini’s Box: The Art of Escape

The Geographic Cure

I dream of doing a “geographic cure” one day. My idea of the cure is to travel from Barrow, Alaska above the Arctic Circle all the way down to Ushuaia, Argentina, (commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world). It’s a nice trip of over 19500 miles. There are no roads all the way to Barrow (only till Deadhorse at the end of the Dalton Highway) and there’s also a 54 mile gap in which roads fail to link Panama and Columbia, but it’s feasible if you include two short plane trips.

geographic cure ushuaiaThere are two cyclists who set out on this trip, from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia by bike (see Ribbon of Road), but even if I do it by car, I’m sure the trip will “cure” whatever ails me.

For those not familiar with the “geographic cure”, it’s been popularized by the Alcoholics Anonymous crowd as when a person moves or relocates to another place to resolve some emotional issue or addiction. AA states unequivocally that the cure doesn’t work because “Wherever you go, there you are”.

geographic cureIn other words, you carry around your emotional baggage wherever you go and unless you address the issues directly, you can move a hundred times or drive round-trip Barrow-Ushuaia and still remain with the same hangups. I’ve heard of many people who figured that if they get rid of a spouse and remarry, life will be wonderful. The reality is that they haven’t really changed and end off having to deal with the same problems in a new relationship.

Of course if the previous spouse is abusive then getting away might be lifesaving and necessary, but you’ll still need to address the emotional issues which caused you to marry someone like that in the first place, lest you end off marrying another abusive person the next time.

What does Judaism have to say about geographic cures?

Parshat Masei and the Geographic Cure

Parshat Masei, which we read yesterday morning, commences with the following words:

“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went forth from the land of Egypt according to their legions. Moshe wrote (motza’ayhem l’ma’asayhem) their starting points according to their journeys, at the bidding of Hashem, and these were (masa’ayhem l’motza’ayhem) their journeys according to their starting points.” (Ch. 33:1-2)

The commentators are puzzled by the reversal of the words within the same verse. The verse begins by announcing that the following are, ‘their starting points according to their journeys’ but concludes by saying, ‘these were their journeys according to their starting points’.

The Dubner Maggid – Jacob ben Wolf Kranz of Dubno (1740-1804), explained with the following parable:

There was once a widower who remarried, hoping his new wife would care for him and his orphaned son. It wasn’t long before the young orphan realized that his stepmother disliked him. She treated him disdainfully, shouting and beating him regularly. The boy complained to his father but there was no solution available for the near future.

Years passed, and the boy reached adulthood. One day, the father announced that he had met a wonderful girl from a distant city who came from a reputable and respected family. The girl would be the perfect match for the son. On the day of the wedding, father and son traveled together in a horse-drawn coach to attend the ceremony.

Not long after they began the trip, the son asked the driver, “How many miles have we now traveled?” The driver answered that they had traveled three miles. A while later, the son asked again, “How far have we traveled now?” The driver told him that it had been ten miles. Some time later, the father asked the driver, “How many more miles until we reach our destination?” and the driver told him that they had five miles to go.

The son asked his father, “Why is it that I asked how many miles we have traveled, but you asked how many miles we have yet to go?”
The father replied, “Your mind is only focused on getting far from your stepmother. I, however, am thinking about the joy you will experience once you meet your bride. You are counting the miles since we left. I am counting the miles until we arrive.”

The father was delighted that he was about to marry off his only son to a wonderful girl so that they could build their own family together. The son on the other hand, was not really as excited about the marriage as he was about getting away from the home of his sinister mother-in-law. The father was most excited about the destination, while the son was most excited about the departure.

Dubner Maggid explained that the Jewish People had suffered years of persecution in Egypt. Although the nation was excited about entering the Promised Land, first and foremost they were glad just to be out of the clutches of their nefarious oppressors. To them their forty-year sojourns were primarily travels, as they distanced themselves further and further from Egypt.

Moshe however, had a different perspective. To him, the nation’s spiritual growth and imminent entry into Eretz Yisroel was paramount. For the people the focus was on their starting point and how far they had gotten away. For Moshe the goal was the journey to their destination.

Wherever you go, there you are

In short taking a long trip to visit new places and meet new people is refreshing. It gives you a new perspective on life and helps you cope better with change. At the same time it’s vital to clarify in your mind why you are taking this trip across the world. Are you leaving to attain psychological, emotional or spiritual growth? Do you have clear goals to make yourself a better person? Wonderful! Enjoy your journey and hopefully you’ll return much improved.

But if you’re going on the trip just to get away from your old life, remember “Wherever you go, there you are”. Besides for spending money and time, you’ll be the same person you left.