By Rabbi Jonathan Hughes
The pain was excruciating. It suddenly dawned on me why nearly every other tourist zooming around the island on a moped was covered in leg bandages.
You see, when you stopped and attempted to dismount these particular bikes, one’s calf inevitably came into contact with the exhaust pipe and your next sensation made hell seem like a lukewarm bath. My leg was literally melting!
At the time, I was a 20-year-old touring the sun (and rain) – soaked islands off the cost of Thailand. I was with an old schoolfriend and I recall visiting a litany of Buddhist shrines, sampling local cuisine and shopping in traditional Thai market places.
It was the ultimate journey a couple of young guys could make. Travelling by ourselves, free from our universities, parents and social peers, the Far East was our oyster for an entire month.
It’s true to say that we tend to define our journeys in terms of the distance travelled, the sights seen and the money spent – perhaps even the leg scars endured.
But this particular trip schooled me about the concept of a journey in a rather unexpected way. You see, I wasn’t always a religious rabbi. I was brought up in Reading, Berkshire, in a secular home by a non-Jewish nominally Protestant father and a Jewish mother. Yet I had for some time felt drawn to Judaism, although I was virtually totally ignorant of its teachings. After I started at university, I felt a yearning for meaning and began researching my long-lost Jewish heritage.
On the Thailand trip, I brought with me an absorbing book about Judaism’s take on the natural world and God’s hiddenness. It followed me everywhere. As the sun set in Phuket, while lazing in a hammock overlooking the seas of the Gulf of Thailand, even while riding on an elephant though the jungle in Chiang Mai, this book and its insightful spirituality took me far away.
It took me to the holy city of Jerusalem, through the Talmudic academies of Ancient Babylonia, to the synagogue and rabbinic study halls, capturing a fascinating chain of tradition spanning three millennia that irrevocably changed humanity’s ethics forever. It took me back home.
This week’s sedra tells us. ‘kedoshim tihiyu’ – ‘you, the Jewish people, shall be holy’. I discovered that our travels often distract us from holiness and introspection, from assessing who we really want to become and where we truly want to go. That little book on that particular adventure taught me that holiness is worth pursuing and that our greatest journeys lie within.
Jonathan Hughes is a rabbi at Richmond Synagogue, the United Synagogue’s city rabbi and ambassador for University Jewish Chaplaincy