Are We There Yet? A Metaphor for Our Lives


We now come to the end of the Book of Numbers. As this is a non-leap year, there are several portions throughout Torah that need to be paired. Such is the case with the last two parshiyot of Numbers — Matot and Masei.

Like an ancient TripTik, the portion begins with a list of each location the Israelites traversed from Egypt
to Israel: Rameses; Succoth; Etham; Pi-hahiroth; Marah; Elim; Red Sea; Wilderness of Sin; Dophkah; Alush; Rephidim; Wilderness of Sinai; Kibroth Hattaavah; Hazeroth; Rithmah; Rimmon-Perez; Libnah; Rissah; Kehelath; Mount Shepher; Haradah; Makheloth; Tahath; Terah; Mithkah; Hashmonah; Moseroth; Bene-Jaakan; Hor-Haggidgad; Jotbath; Abronah; Ezion-Geber; Kadesh; Mount Hor; Zalmonah; Punon; Oboth; Iye-Abarim (Iyim); Dibon-Gad; Almon-Diblathaim; the hills of Abarim before Nebo; and the plains of Moab by the Jordan near Jericho.

I have listed these locations intentionally. They might not make for the most engaging reading, but that doesn’t mean that they’re unimportant. Indeed, the Torah tells us that Moses made a point of recording each location where they camped. For the casual reader, they’re just place-names. Dots on an ancient map. The verses we usually skip along the way to the “good” stuff. And while most of these places carry no commentary of what might have happened there, Moses does take a moment in his travelogue to remind us that “Mount Hor” is where Aaron, his brother, died, and that “Elim” had “12 springs and 70 palm trees.” And the mentioning of the Red Sea certainly is a hint to a pretty significant event. But well we know, every one of those locations was a memory albeit now forgotten.

There are 42 places listed. In some of them they encamped but for a few days. In others they stayed for weeks, maybe even months. And in some they lived for a year. Or more. These 42 places cumulatively represent the totality of the 40 years, what has come to be identified as a biblical generation. And so it is not surprising that our commentators, especially those from the Chasidic tradition, have come to see these 42 encampments and their subsequent departures and journeys as being symbolic of the stages of our lives. From Egypt to the Promised Land, from our emergence from “constriction” to the land where milk and honey flow, the stops in-between are the days of our lives, the moments that give us rest or stir us to move ahead, to grow, to become, to get to where we’re going.

I have often felt that the underlying premise of Judaism is to bring about a union — or, to be exact, a reunion — with the Divine. Recall how the Torah begins. We dwell in Paradise. With God. But alas, we are driven out of Eden, and ever since our goal has been to return. To go home. It should come as no surprise then that for the rabbis of the Talmud, the name for heaven is Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden). A coming full circle, this path is implied — in microcosm — in the teaching of Moses Hayim of Sudlikov on this week’s parshah:

“I have heard — in the name of the Baal Shem Tov [the founder of Chasidism] — the 42 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].”

In other words, each stop along the way is an essential step towards reaching the goal. We might not realize it at the time. We might never realize it. Moses 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.”

Thus, according to the Baal Shem Tov (as taught through Moses Hayim), some of those places may not seem like they are moving us forward, we might feel quite the opposite. But the spiritual process of “raising the sparks,” especially the sacred points that dwell in each of us, is not necessarily intuitive. It might appear to us that we are stuck, even going in reverse. So it must have felt for the generation of the wilderness, especially given the many times they gave voice to returning to Egypt. But these 42 stages are
necessary if we hope to get to the other side of the wilderness.

Anne Helen Peterson, in assessing the development of the characters of AMC’s award-winning television
series “Mad Men,” observes: “The beautiful and infuriating thing about ‘Mad Men’ … is its willingness to allow people to not change. Select few in real life have character epiphanies and three-act emotional growth that actually sticks. Most attempt change, fall back on old behaviors, frustrate themselves and others.”

But what the Baal Shem Tov is attempting to impress upon us is that things are not always as they appear. What might seem to one as lack of change is actually a profoundly more subtle stage of spiritual growth. The times in our lives that feel wrong might very well be precisely what God intends. The fundamental premise of all mysticism is that there is more to reality than meets the eye. For him, 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, that is, we hope to get to the other side of the wilderness.

Near the very end of the parshah, in noting the six cities of refuge — places set aside as sanctuary for man-slaughterers, as well as for the Levites — the Torah casually mentions that there should be an additional “42” cities designated for the Levites. I find it intriguing that the number of those additional cities should correspond precisely to the 42 encampments and journeys that Israel traversed from Egypt to the Land of Israel. Could the Torah be subtly suggesting to us that each stage of one’s journey out of Mitzrayim and into the wilderness has a parallel home in Paradise? Or could it simply be coincidence? Maybe the only way to know for sure is to consciously embrace one’s life as just such a journey?

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