These are the journeys of the people of Israel, which went forth out of the land of Egypt with their armies under the hand of Moses and Aaron. And Moses wrote their starting places according to their journeys by the commandment of the Lord; and these are their journeys according to their starting places. …Numbers 33:1-2
This week’s Torah reading, Masei, begins with a bit of a travelogue. Eleh masei v’nai Yisrael, “These are the journeys of the people of Israel.” And the Torah goes on to record the 42 stages the Hebrew nation went through on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.
Why should we care about having a copy of the itinerary? As the Slonimer rebbe points out, the Torah is a document for the eternities—the teachings of the Torah are supposed to be for all generations. The travelogue seems to be really only of interest to those who went on the trip. Why should the rest of us care?
The Midrash sees God as being nostalgic, wanting to recall “the good old days.” The Midrash says it’s like the case of a king whose son was sick. He took him to a certain place to be cured. On the way home, the father recounts the journey: here we slept, here we cooled ourselves, here you had a headache. So God told Moses to recount all the places they went.
I’m kind of reminded of going through old papers and coming across an old expense report, and being reminded of a long trip…Hong Kong to Singapore to Phuket to Taiwan, and I’m reminded of little adventures that happened along the way.
But somehow I don’t see the Torah as God’s trip down memory lane. The message needs to be more significant for us, people in this generation.
The Chasidic commentary Degel Machaneh Ephraim comes to our rescue. Degel Machaneh Ephraim explains that the 42 journeys of the people of Israel correspond to the journeys that we each take as we go through life.
Where does the journey of the Jewish people start? It starts in Mitzrayim, in Egypt. Mitzrayim literally means a strait, or a narrow place…similarly our lives start when we come out from the womb, through the Mitzrayim, the narrow place of the birth canal.
And where does the journey lead? For the Israelites in this week’s parsha, the recounting of places ends with a set of instructions for what to do after crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. And where does the journey of our lives lead, but to the Promised Land, Olam HaBa, the world to come.
It’s not just the beginning and the end that are significant. When someone passes away, if I gave a eulogy which said nothing more than “he was born August 6, 1885 and he died August 6, 2005,” no one would be very happy with it. Well, other than the fact that people might be blown away by the fact that he lived 120 years, we want to know what he did with those 120 years.
The destination is NOT the only thing that’s important. The journey itself is of deep spiritual significance.
According to the Kabbalists, when Adam and Eve sinned from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, good and evil got all mixed up in the world. Good got mixed in with bad. The nitzutzot hakedusha, the “sparks of holiness” got all mixed up with the kelipot, the husks or shells, the refuse. Each of those 42 stops the people made was at a place where there was an opportunity to separate the good from the bad, to restore the holy sparks to God. That the people only stayed a few days in some places and a few years in others corresponds to the amount of holiness that needed to be raised back to God, perhaps also to the difficulty of the task in different places.
The Torah does NOT just say, for example, “the people went from Elim to the Red Sea to Sin to Dophkah. Instead it says “And they moved from Elim, and camped by the Red Sea. And they moved from the Red Sea, and camped in the wilderness of Sin. And they took their journey out of the wilderness of Sin, and camped in Dophkah.” Why the repetition? Because it emphasizes the movement, when it repeats “they moved from,” meaning they progressed. Our lives also move in stages, we may be sitting at one stage and be there complacent for a long time, before something comes along and gets us to move, to progress.
Jewish mysticism teaches that our mission is just like the mission of the ancient Israelites: to elevate the sparks of holiness that are found in the world all around us, mixed up in with the secular, the profane, even the vulgar. How do we elevate those sparks? We do it by doing mitzvot and ma’asim tovim, good deeds. When you give a smile to someone who is down, you are raising a spark of holiness. When you’re in the checkout line at the supermarket and you put a dollar in the charity box for a food program you are raising a spark of holiness. When you light Shabbos candles, you are raising a spark of holiness.
But life is not all pleasantly raising sparks of holiness here and there as we wander through the world. Life gives us plenty of challenges and crises along the way. Life is constantly testing us. When confronted with a challenge, will we struggle to find the spark of holiness and raise it, or will we be overwhelmed by darkness and lose it?
Look at the path the Israelites followed in going from the impurity of Egypt to the arrival at the Promised Land. The Torah mentions they stopped at Rephidim—where the people whined and complained about lack of water. They stopped at Sinai, where they had both the zenith and nadir: they received the Torah, and they engaged in idol worship. They camped at Kibroth-Hattaavah, where they complained about being bored with the mannah falling from heaven and many died from gorging themselves on quail.
I’d like to go back to the stop at Sinai for a minute. It’s probably no coincidence that the place where the people reached their peak is the same as the place where they hit their low. I’ve pointed this out before, but I’m always struck when I visit Jerusalem about how close together are the symbols for heaven and hell. Heaven—symbolized on this earth by the Beit HaMikdash, by the Temple—is only a few hundred yards from Hell, as symbolized by GeiHinnom, the valley of Hinnom.
There is a truly remarkable passage in the Zohar which says there can be no true worship unless it issues from darkness, and no true good except it proceeds from evil. The reisha, the first part, of that statement, that there is no true worship unless it issues from darkness, is perhaps easier to understand. It is said there are no atheists in foxholes. Many of us have had the experience of having our most profound prayer experience when we were having one of our darkest moments, as it says in the Psalm 130, mima’a’mikim karaticha Adonai, “I have called to you from the depths, O Lord.”
But how can we say there is no true good except it proceeds from evil? For an example I’d like to go back to what I mentioned earlier that the length of time for each of the journeys may have corresponded to the amount of holiness to be raised, or the difficulty of the task. One of the most holy and difficult of tasks that many of us engage in is raising a family. Yet even this very holy activity, procreation, proceeds from what the Talmud calls the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. If we didn’t have a sex drive there would be a lot fewer children on the planet. When we get married and have relations with our spouse we are elevating a spark of holiness that is mixed up with energy from the other side.
Unlike the journeys of the people of Israel, in our personal lives we can have multiple journeys going on at the same time: the journey of our family, the journey of our career, the side roads we find ourselves detoured on occasionally. With God’s help, the journey of family is one filled with most holiness, and therefore one of the longest—and as an example and inspiration to us, I congratulate Dr. Phil and Inge Horowitz on celebrating 50 years of raising holy sparks together.
Eleh mas’ei b’nai Yisrael, these are the journeys of the people of Israel. Forty-two holiness-raising journeys from a narrow place to the Holy Land. Where are you on your journey of forty-two stages? How are you standing up to the tests? How many nitzutzot hakedusha, holy sparks, have you raised lately?