In this week’s Torah portion, Matot – Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13) we come to the end of the Book of Numbers. There are several portions throughout the Torah that are combined during a non-leap year, and this is one of them. In this message, I have chosen to focus on parashat Masei.
Like an ancient TripTik, the reading begins with a list of each location the Israelites traversed from Egypt to Israel. We can only assume that there is a reason why the text lists each location where the Israelites camped. There are forty-two places in all. In some of them, the Israelites encamped for only a few days. In others they stayed for weeks, maybe even months. And in some they lived for a year or more.
These places represent the stages of a journey that took forty years, a symbolic number which means “a really long time.” Many commentators, especially those from the Hasidic tradition, have come to see these forty-two encampments and their subsequent departures and journeys as being symbolic of the stages of our lives. On our own personal journeys from Egypt to the Promised Land, those places where we’ve been in our lives represent times when we learned something important, when we grew the most and became the people we are now.
The early Hasidic rabbi, Moshe Hayim of Sudlikov, wrote about this in his commentary on this week’s parashah:
“I have heard-in the name of the Baal Shem Tov [the founder of Hasidism]-the forty-two journeys of the Israelites are to be found in every person from the day of his birth until he returns to his world [at death] . . . Each individual’s birth should be understood within the context of the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent stages of life are journeys that lead from place to place until one comes to the land of the ‘supernal world of life’ [that is, the Shekhinah, the in-dwelling presence of God].” (Degel Machaneh Ephraim, p. 199, col. a)
Basically, each stop along the way is an essential step towards reaching the goal, even though we may not realize it at the time. Moshe Hayim continues:
“A person thinks he goes to a particular place to attain something he desires, but in truth that person is led to that place by God so that he may raise the holy sparks that have fallen and are sunk within the depths of the shells.” (Degel Machaneh Ephraim, p. 202, col. a)
In other words, in some of those places, it might appear to us that we are stuck, even going in the wrong direction. So it must have felt for the Israelites in the wilderness, especially given the many times they thought about returning to Egypt. But these forty-two stages were and are necessary if we hope to get to the Promised Land.
What Moshe Hayim is saying is that things are not always as they appear. What might seem to one as lack of change could actually be a more subtle stage of spiritual growth. Those places in our lives where we felt lost may very well have been important stages in our journey. The fundamental premise of all mysticism is that there is more to reality than meets the eye. The Baal Shem Tov and his students taught that we are being led on a journey, whether we know it or not, and what feels painful might very well be just what we need if we hope to get to the other side of the midbar – the wilderness.
R’ Moshe Tom