Getting lost might be just what we need


In April, I had the pleasure of seeing the Arctic Playhouse’s production of “The 39 Steps” (my spouse, Annie, was in the cast), a comedy based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film.

In the play, the protagonist must travel from London to the north of Scotland to clear his name, and, since it is 1935, he must find his destination on a map.  We then watch, with increasing hilarity, as he is forced to unfurl and unfold a map several feet long, twisting and turning it in every direction to discover how to proceed.

The scene is nostalgically funny because so many of us recall growing up in the 20th century, when being able to read a map (not to mention knowing how to fold and unfold it) was a necessity.

Today, of course, for both the directionally challenged and the directionally literate, the ability to read a map has all the functional utility as the ability to drive a horseless carriage.

All we need these days is a smartphone and an address, and we can get absolutely anywhere.  And even when we err, our phones (with a helpful, soothing voice) efficiently correct our mistakes by  “rerouting”  us to minimize the consequences of a wrong turn.

Indeed, our personal traffic deity is eternally vigilant, notifying us about what’s coming up, such as accidents and speed traps, as well as the time of our arrival, and, my personal favorite, the tantalizing possibility of a faster route.

Simply put, it’s an unqualified miracle.

But for every technological breakthrough, there’s always a cost.  And for me, what’s troubling is that I might never be lost again.

I realize, of course, that being lost isn’t much fun.  There’s the anxiety, the tension and the uncertainty; the possibility that it might be hours (or minutes that feel like hours) before I find my way.  In all likelihood, getting lost means that I’ll be late, miss my appointment and be inconvenienced.

And yet, even with all of its potential downsides, I fear that the near elimination of “lost-ness” will exact a psychic toll.  Think of all of the great novels and films that take us on a journey of self-discovery, that offer a narrative of losing and finding oneself on the road,  from Dickens (“David Copperfield,” “Great Expectations”) to Salinger (“The Catcher in the Rye”) to our most heralded films (Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider”).

These days, authors and screenwriters are all too aware that our heroes and heroines can never be realistically lost.  Thanks to their phones, they’ll always know where they are and, even worse, they’ll know where they are going.

As we head into the summer months, the theme of being “lost” feels particularly resonant.  We are, in our Torah cycle, in the midst of Bamidbar, a time when we are not only physically lost in the wilderness, but also spiritually lost, wandering aimlessly through crises of leadership and rebellion.  Moses is challenged on many fronts, with complaints about the food, the spies, the water, the lack of direction and even his new marriage.

In the wilderness, everything is off-kilter, and no one, not even Moses, seems to be able to walk with any certainty.

Our Torah makes it clear that every person, and every community, must first experience loss and anxiety before we find our way back to security and stability.

As the weather warms up, and as we spend more time outside (perhaps in the wilderness, perhaps not), perhaps we might all benefit from a few minutes, a few hours, or even a few days, without our miraculous satellite companions.

Perhaps we’ll visit a place we never intended to go, or experience the rush of not knowing what’s on the other side of the hill.

Enjoy the weeks ahead, the sunshine and the warmth, and be sure to visit a place you’ve never been before.

And who knows?  Being lost might be exactly what you were searching for.

RABBI HOWARD VOSS-ALTMAN is the spiritual leader of Temple Habonim, in Barrington.

D'var Torah, Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman, Temple Habonim