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 parashiyot of Numbers—Matot and Mas'ei. Bringing our examination of Sefer B'midbar (the Book of Numbers) to a logical conclusion, I have chosen to focus on Parashat Ma'sei.
Like an ancient trip-tik, 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; hills of Abarim before Nebo; plains of Moab by the Jordan near Jericho (Numbers 33:3-49)
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, Torah tells us that Moses made a point of recording each location where they camped (Numbers 33:2). 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 (Numbers 33:38-39), and that "Elim" had "twelve springs and seventy palm trees" (Numbers 38:9). 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 forty-two 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 forty-two places cumulatively represent the totality of the forty 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 forty-two 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 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 parashah:
"I have heard—in the name of the Baal Shem Tov [the founder pf Chasidism]—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)1
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." (Degel Machaneh Ephraim, p. 202, col. a)2
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 forty-two 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." (Anne Helen Peterson, "In Praise of Betty Draper, Difficult Women," Buzzfeed News, May 11, 2015)
But what the Baal Shem Tov (BeSHT) 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 the BeSHT, 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 Midbar.
Near the very end of Parashat Ma'sei and Sefer B'midbar, in noting the six cities of refuge—places set aside as sanctuary for man-slaughterers, as well as for the Levites—Torah casually mentions that there should be an additional "forty-two" cities designated for the Levites (Numbers 35:6). I find it intriguing that the number of those additional cities should correspond precisely to the forty-two encampments and journeys that Israel traversed from Egypt to the Land of Israel. Could 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?
Based on translations from Elliot R. Wolfson, "Walking as a Sacred Duty," in Hasidism Reappraised, Ada Rapoport-Albert, ed. (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1996), p. 199
Ibid., p. 202
Rabbi Steven Kushner is concluding his 35th year as the rabbi of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey.