I’ve posted several different kinds of pieces on this blog over the years. Sometimes, I post sermons or serious essays I’ve written and sometimes I just like to share one of my non-rabbinic interests. This post is of the latter type. It does not address any issue of lasting significance. But, it reflects a long standing interest of mine.
I love to travel, especially by car and I am fascinated by all things geographical. I particularly find highway signs to be fascinating. This can easily be traced to my childhood growing up in Massachusetts where the state highways feature what we fondly refer to as “entering signs”. You can find an interesting blog about those signs here: https://neckpickup.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/five-for-the-record-massachusetts-town-line-signs/ and at the end of this piece, you can read a sermon I wrote about the entering signs.
But, the entering signs were only the beginning for me. I have many pictures of state line signs that I have taken in travels across the country and I have a small photo album full of pictures that Ellen or one of the kids have taken of me standing pointing to state highway signs in many of the 5o states.
For now, though, I want to share two brief thoughts about highway signs that have been bothering me over the years.
First, Ohio. Anyone who has traveled in Ohio has noticed that the state highway signs feature an outline of the state surrounding the number of the route. It is easy to find an example on line if you’re not familiar with it. What fascinates- and bothers- me about these signs is that when there is a state highway number with 3 digits, the map of Ohio is elongated to insure that the numbers fit into the state borders.
This has always bothered me terribly. I understand that the digits need to be read clearly when traveling, especially at a distance, but it would seem to me that the geographic integrity of the state borders should take precedence over any matter of convenience. Obviously, the powers that be disagree. In fact, it was noted in one discussion on line (clearly, I’m not the only one interested in this issue) that even on two digit signs, the borders aren’t precise but are altered to insure visual clarity. I’m not satisfied.
I would much prefer that Ohio did something like Idaho or Minnesota or several other states do, including the outline of the state separately from the numbers so that it can retain its proper borders. That’s not going to happen though so I assume that any travel I undertake in the lovely state of Ohio is going to cause at least some sense of frustration.
OK, that’s one off my chest.
Now, one last story. For many years, there has been a standing joke in our family that has now been threatened. If you take US 23 out of Ann Arbor, heading south towards Ohio, you come upon a sign at one of the exit ramps which points the way to two towns. The sign simply says:
Every time we drove past that sign, I always tell the kids that my grandmother used to play cards with Ida Petersburg and now she has her own sign. Actually it was Ida Goldberg that my grandmother played cards with but that’s not the point. We always laughed.
Recently, though, I’ve noticed that heading northbound, the sign has been changed, it now reads
It is all that I can do to restrain myself from pulling off the road and painting a comma after Petersburg. I would never do this and would never advocate it, of course. But, I’d love to know if anyone else had that same temptation. Probably not. Still, the joke lives on.
That’s all for now. Just some thoughts after a long drive from Atlanta over the past two days. It may not be much but thinking about these two issues kept me awake over many miles.
And, by the way, here is the serious sermon I gave on this subject back several years ago. Happy traveling!
Rabbi’s Message – Parashat Masei 5768: The Signs on the Road
I want to confess publicly to an obsession. Up to this point, only my family and a small group of anonymous people on the internet who have the same obsession know about this. My obsession is harmless, I guarantee. It has to do with road signs.
Not any road signs, mind you, although I find websites that have collections of road signs fascinating. But my obsession is with one particular type of road sign: the signs I refer to are what I grew up calling “entering signs.” These are uniformly shaped signs which you see on every state highway in Massachusetts when you leave one town and enter another.
By the way, the way things work in Massachusetts and much of New England, the state is divided into cities and towns and every square inch of Massachusetts belongs to one town or another. You can’t be “between two towns” unless you’re standing with one foot on one side of the sign and the other foot on the other side. It confused me no end when I traveled in Israel for the first time. We left Jerusalem and headed towards Mevasseret Tzion on the bus, and I asked somebody where we were and they said: “Between Jerusalem and Mevasseret.” And I said, “Yeah, but where are we?” And they repeated the “between this and that” line again, and I finally gave up and realized most places in the world aren’t like Massachusetts where you go from one town to another. In some places in the world, you can really be between this and that place.
I truly am obsessed with these signs. I loved them as a kid and I used to keep a record on a clipboard of all the towns we went through; I can’t possibly quantify the excitement I felt when I saw a sign for a town I had never been in before.
And they’re very serious about them in Massachusetts. Even if you only briefly leave one town and enter another because of a bend in the road, you’ll see the sign ushering you out of one town and into the other. So, in what is known as the “hairpin turn” — a u-shaped turn on Route 2 in the Berkshires — you go out of one town, into another, and then back into the first one within about 25 feet; and there are two entering signs that help you track your progress out of North Adams into Clarksburg and back to North Adams. The two signs are right there on the curve, practically touching each other side by side. But you have to be precise. You have to know where you are.
Who are the Internet people by the way? A group which is putting together a slide show of entering signs contributed by similarly obsessed people. I added a significant number of photos during my recent trip to Massachusetts.
I did what I always had wanted to do. I got out on the shoulder of the road and took pictures of entering signs. Very soon after I started, I realized something critical: I didn’t have to take a picture of each sign. I only had to stop at every other one because I could take the picture of the sign from both sides and get both towns, the one I was leaving and the one I was entering. There were two sides to each sign: where I came from and where I was going.
Now that that’s off my chest, let me tell you what this has to do with the parsha.
There is a fascinating verse in this Torah portion, Numbers 33:2 — “And Moses recorded the starting points of their journeys as directed by God. Their journeys and their starting points are as follows…”
It is interesting that the first part of the verse mentions starting points and journeys, the second part mentions journeys and starting points. Why the change in sequence? You could explain it away as literary structure: a-b-b-a. But that is not enough for most commentators.
One Hassidic commentary explains it this way. For Moses, who could see the big picture, what was important was the destination, Eretz Canaan; even if he wasn’t going to get there, he knew the people would. For the people, the important point — since they didn’t have this deep love of the land — was getting out of Egypt. The Rabbi says that Moses wanted them to ask: “How close are we to Israel?” But they kept asking: “How far away are we from Egypt?”
So to Moses, the journey was more important than the starting point. For the people, the starting point was still more important than the ultimate destination.
It’s easy to criticize the attitudes of the people, not fixing their eyes on their destination. But I think that in certain situations, recognizing that you are still part of where you came from until the time you arrive at where you’re going is a healthy attitude. Looking forward is great in many ways. Seeing the sign down the road is critical. But it is just as critical to know that in the real world, things work like they do in Massachusetts: you’re not between two places, you are still where you are. And recognizing that until you reach the border you are still in the place you started is not such a bad idea.
My vacation is over. Rarely do I finish my vacation this early but, for a lot of reasons, I have finished my vacation. Summer, while it goes on for my kids, is effectively over for me. That means, of course, that the holidays are right on the horizon. I’m already thinking about next year’s programs and writing the High Holy Day sermons.
But that’s a necessity of my profession, it is not reality. We are observing today Rosh Hodesh Av and there are two full months to go before 5769, and one full month before the month of Elul, the month of Teshuva, of repentance and planning for next year.
It is not next year yet. It is still 5768 and I urge you to think of the midrash on that verse and my entering signs. It’s not time yet to think about the destination, it’s time to think about where you came from. It is not time yet to plan for 5769. It is not time yet to give up on 5768 because this year is still very much a reality. Please take the time this month and next month, as well, to realize we are still on this side of the signpost. With most of an entire book of the Torah to read, with the fast day of Tisha B’av and the time of redemption that follows, with time to enjoy the warmth and the long days, and with time to work on last year’s promises, you can still make this year the best of all years. And the world still can be redeemed before we cross the line into new territory.
Sometimes, planning too early for next year is a way of avoiding this year’s responsibilities.
The road to 5769 winds on. We may see the sign on the horizon but we’re not there yet. Don’t rush it. Don’t wait for it to come. Make this year the year of our dreams.
Robert Dobrusin, Rabbi
Copyright © 2008, Robert Dobrusin.
Permission is granted for distribution of this message providing that it is distributed in its entirety and with full attribution, including this copyright statement.