You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Massei.
From Rabbi Mel Gottlieb
In Parsha Masei we read about 42 encampments that the Jewish people inhabited in their journey in the desert from Mitzraim to the Promised land. Why this lengthy journey, why 42 stops and the mentioning of each stopping place? Each encampment was a stage in the growth of the nation, a time of rehabilitating the slave people morally and spiritually and each stage of sanctity that they acquired in the desert they brought into the land of Israel. It also teaches us the universal truth that spiritual achievement is a lifelong journey filled with challenges till we reach the “promised land.”. Each of us today as well go through our own 42 steps as our ancestors did in their growth toward maturity. Each of us starts off with childhood experiences that we repeat till we take responsibility for our lives.(The Kabbalists point out that the number 42 is Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, 21+21, the Holy name of G-d that we discover at the end of our successful journey).
This spiritual journey differs from the material journey. What are some of the differences between the two? The spiritual journey differs not only in its goals but the very process and values attached to each movement toward the goal. The material journey is interested in results, in efficiency, the less effort needed to create the product the better. The end product is the major concern. Effort as a good in itself has no meaning in this world. The spiritual journey is about effort, effort has significance and value. It honors sincerity and the inner life even if the final achievement is not reached. The process toward the achievement is valued, as well as the awareness that develops through the journey. It is not as interested in the goal as an end in itself. Sometimes the goal even gets in the way of the present and inhibits alertness and awareness of our reactions.
The long weary progress of the Israelites through the desert is a paradigm of this truth. And the separate mention of each of the camping stages illustrate the importance of each individual stage in the journey. Not achievement alone is recorded here in the history of the spirit; but the painful seemingly endless process towards sanctity. Each motion of the heart towards G-d is cherished and valued for its own sake. The biblical imperative ‘to remember’ not only the triumphs of the past, but our trials and violations teach us that we learn from the so-called failures. We recognize that they have contributed to our insight and growth and acknowledge with gratitude their necessity.
As we read of the journey in the wilderness we recognize that this process of growth is often accompanied by pain. We might ask ‘why is suffering necessary?’ After all, pain can depress and inhibit growth.
There is pain that leads to growth and suffering that leads to regression. The childhood enslaved and liberated experience of our people resulted in characteristics of both deflation and inflation. We were slaves, hence deflation, leading to inferiority. And our early miraculous experience of redemption from Egypt also led to inflation, specialness, which led to entitlement and disappointment. We have inherited these psychic infusions from our ancestors And thus our journeys have to heal our childhood imprints….
When we become conscious (through pain) of why we suffer, and how we continue to be responsible for our suffering by acting from this childhood place, we find self knowledge, compassion, creativity, independence and meaning. A spiritual larger meaning always gives context to our suffering and growth. We move from the seclusion in the desert and culminate in ‘Arvot Moav’ (the last stop), a place of mixture and interdependence. The journey begins in the desert in isolation, reaches wholeness, stumbles, because the wholeness has to be brought into society, and finally winds up in the plains of Moav, a place of mixing (‘arvot’), and integration.
Our Sages suggest that each of us go through these 42 challenges till we reach enlightenment. We must face our deflation, powerlessness, our Mitzraim remnant, and the remnant of inflation where our great expectation can throw us off balance and become a barrier to development when we regard them as more important than what stands before us. When we insist on our inflated fantasies (as the ‘Chosen ones’), redeemed by G-d, we are flooded by feelings of resentment and self-pity by not achieving inflated fantasies. This clinging to the past psychic remnant creates the kind of suffering that is debilitating and inhibits growth. This type of suffering interferes with our potential to change. It may take 42 steps till we finally utilize the suffering in a positive way, to use the pain for transformation, to reach a place where we can find a larger context of meaning. This permits us to translate deficits and losses into potential for new development. We can no longer maintain the façade that we clung to, the false hopes. The suffering finally forces us to create a new attitude, a change in outlook, to translate losses into potential for new development, and recognize that the past is behind us. We grow up, and live in the present not from our childhood powerlessness and fantasies. Each of the 42 stops were necessary to move us in this direction. Each stop necessitated another experience of growth that we had to master. Our psyches are so complex, ferociously wanting to hang on to the old and not embrace the new, till we make progress along our journey with all the mishaps along the way; these mishaps become our teachers. Thus, not only our joys, but our suffering become our teachers.
Sometimes it is a trauma, a crisis that moves us forward, but for many of us it is the daily grind of facing the present life challenges that promote our growth . Often it is in our opening up to others, acknowledging the beauty of the human beings that we meet when we begin to feel grateful and connect to a larger secure home base, something beyond our own ego needs. We begin to feel part of the whole, all interconnected, under the blessing of G-d.
We begin to let go of our old childhood self, fearful of change, as life requires us to do so if we are to truly “live”. We begin to experience that when we let go of our old selves, it is then that we discover something new. To engage in life we must die many times to the old; our people went through 42 death and renewal experiences at each stop, experiencing growth through these painful and joyous moments. Meanings emerge over time. We then see anew, discovery becomes more available, as we don’t habitually look to reactively and obsessively impose old meanings on things.
Suffering is often the first opening we have into deep curiosity about what is going on around and within us. Suffering leads to questions of meaning and purpose in life. It transforms us when faced in a way that reveals the truth. This propels us into opportunities for development. The journey in the desert teaches us that we can accept and discover meaning even in loss and trauma, and in encounters on all levels of existence.
Suffering is useful when it awakens us to our responsibilities, our own attitudes, thoughts and actions. Much of our suffering resides in our attitudes. Without the capacity to see how we often create a lot of our own difficulties we remain morally and spiritually adrift. The only real freedom from suffering is to welcome it as a potential learning dynamic. It can allow us to write a new story about the events in our lives. When we cross the platform from self protectiveness to openness we have changed our story. Without suffering it is unlikely we would have discovered this, our interdependence, humanity and purpose.
The journey of 42 stops in the desert allowed our people to experience struggle, and to see the part that was self created and its origin, and why we cling to it. It awakened them to self-knowledge and to greater meaning. Our attitudes and actions recreate realities. When faith emerges through our journey we believe that life’s experiences cannot be overwhelming because they all move toward greater integration when held in the proper framework. Helping others, hope, and meaning help in the struggle against loss and pain. Suffering becomes a bridge into interaction with others. Hashem Echad becomes palpable as we realize we are all interconnected in this gift of life, all specific parts of the whole. May your spiritual journeys lead to growth, fulfillment, and beautiful contributions to our world!
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Retribution and Revenge
Near the end of the book of Bamidbar, we encounter the law of the cities of refuge: three cities to the east of the Jordan and, later, three more within the land of Israel itself. There, people who had committed homicide could flee and find protection until their case was heard by a court of law. If they were found guilty of murder, in biblical times, they were sentenced to death. If found innocent – if the death happened by accident or inadvertently, with neither deliberation nor malice – then they were to stay in a city of refuge “until the death of the High Priest.” (See Num. 35:28) By residing there, they were protected against revenge on the part of the goel ha-dam, the blood-redeemer, usually the closest relative of the person who had been killed.
Homicide is never less than serious in Jewish law. But there is a fundamental difference between murder – deliberate killing – and manslaughter, accidental death. To kill someone not guilty of murder as an act of revenge for an accidental death is not justice but further bloodshed; this must be prevented – hence the need for safe havens where people at risk from vigilantes.
The prevention of unjust violence is fundamental to the Torah. God’s covenant with Noah and humankind after the Flood identifies murder as the ultimate crime:
“One who sheds the blood of man – by man shall his blood be shed, for in God’s image man was made.”
Blood wrongly shed cries out to Heaven itself. After Cain had murdered Abel, God said to Cain,
“Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground!”
Here in Bamidbar we hear a similar sentiment:
“You shall not pollute the land in which you live; blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no atonement for the blood that is shed in it – except through the blood of the one who shed it.”
The verb ch-n-ph, which appears twice in this verse and nowhere else in the Mosaic books, means to pollute, to soil, to dirty, to defile. There is something fundamentally blemished about a world in which murder goes unpunished. Human life is sacred. Even justified acts of bloodshed, as in the case of war, still communicate impurity. A Kohen who has shed blood does not therefore bless the people. David is told that he may not build the Temple “because you shed much blood.” Death defiles. That is what lies behind the idea of revenge. And though the Torah rejects revenge except when commanded by God, something of the idea survives in the concept of the goel ha-dam, wrongly translated as ‘blood-avenger.’ It means, in fact, ‘blood-redeemer.’
A redeemer is someone who rights an imbalance in the world, who rescues someone or something and restores it to its rightful place. Thus Boaz redeems land belonging to Naomi. Redeemers are the ones who restore relatives to freedom after they have been forced to sell themselves into slavery. God redeems His people from bondage in Egypt. A blood-redeemer is one who ensures that murder does not go unpunished.
However, not all acts of killing are murder. Some are bishgaggah, that is, unintentional, accidental, or inadvertent. These are the acts that lead to exile in the cities of refuge. Yet, there is an ambiguity about this law. Was exile to the cities of refuge considered a way of protecting the accidental killer, or was it a form of punishment – not the death sentence that would have applied to one guilty of murder, but punishment nonetheless? Recall that exile is a biblical form of punishment. Adam and Eve, after their sin, were exiled from Eden. Cain, after killing Abel, was told he would be “a restless wanderer on the face of the earth.” (Gen. 4:12) We say in our prayers, “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.”
In truth both elements are present. On the one hand, the Torah says that “the assembly must protect the one accused of murder from the redeemer of blood and send the accused back to the city of refuge to which they fled.” (Num. 35:25) Here the emphasis is on protection. But on the other hand, we read that if the exiled person “ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which they fled and the redeemer of blood finds them outside the city, the redeemer of blood may kill the accused without being guilty of murder.” (Num. 35:26-27) Here an element of guilt is presumed; otherwise why would the blood-redeemer be innocent of murder?
Let us examine how the Talmud and Maimonides explain the provision that those who are exiled must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. What had the High Priest to do with accidental killing? According to the Talmud, the High Priest “should have asked for mercy [i.e. should have prayed that there be no accidental deaths among the people] and he did not do so.” The assumption is that had the High Priest prayed more fervently, God would not have allowed this accident to happen. Whether or not there is moral guilt, something wrong has occurred and there is a need for atonement, achieved partly through exile and partly through the death of the High Priest. For the High Priest atoned for the people as a whole and, when he died, his death atoned for the death of those who were accidentally killed.
Maimonides, however, gives a completely different explanation in The Guide for the Perplexed (III:40). For him the issue at stake is not atonement but protection. The reason the man goes into exile in a city of refuge is to allow the passions of the relative of the victim, the blood-redeemer, to cool. The exile stays there until the death of the High Priest, because his death creates a mood of national mourning, which dissolves the longing for revenge – “for it is a natural phenomenon that we find consolation in our misfortune when the same misfortune or a greater one befalls another person. Amongst us no death causes more grief than that of the High Priest.”
The desire for revenge is basic. It exists in all societies. It led to cycles of retaliation – the Montagues against the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet, the Corleones and Tattaglias in The Godfather – that have no natural end. Wars of the clans were capable of destroying whole societies.
The Torah, understanding that the desire for revenge as natural, tames it by translating it into something else altogether. It recognises the pain, the loss and moral indignation of the family of the victim. That is the meaning of the phrase goel hadam, the blood-redeemer, the figure who represents that instinct for revenge. The Torah legislates for people with all their passions, not for saints. It is a realistic code, not a utopian one.
Yet the Torah inserts one vital element between the killer and the victim’s family: the principle of justice. There must be no direct act of revenge. The killer must be protected until his case has been heard in a court of law. If found guilty, he must pay the price. If found innocent, he must be given refuge. This single act turns revenge into retribution. This makes all the difference.
People often find it difficult to distinguish retribution and revenge, yet they are completely different concepts. Revenge is an I-Thou relationship. You killed a member of my family so I will kill you. It is intrinsically personal. Retribution, by contrast, is impersonal. It is no longer the Montagues against the Capulets but both under the impartial rule of law. Indeed the best definition of the society the Torah seeks to create is nomocracy: the rule of laws, not men.
Retribution is the principled rejection of revenge. It says that we are not free to take the law into our own hands. Passion may not override the due process of the law, for that is a sure route to anarchy and bloodshed. Wrong must be punished, but only after it has been established by a fair trial, and only on behalf, not just of the victim but of society as a whole. It was this principle that drove the work of the late Simon Wiesenthal in bringing Nazi war criminals to trial. He called his biography Justice, not Vengeance. The cities of refuge were part of this process by which vengeance was subordinated to, and replaced by, retributive justice.
This is not just ancient history. Almost as soon as the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War came to an end in 1989, brutal ethnic war came to the former Yugoslavia, first in Bosnia then Kosovo. It has now spread to Iraq, Syria, and many other parts of the world. In his book The Warrior’s Honor, Michael Ignatieff wondered how these regions descended so rapidly into chaos. This was his conclusion:
The chief moral obstacle in the path of reconciliation is the desire for revenge. Now, revenge is commonly regarded as a low and unworthy emotion, and because it is regarded as such, its deep moral hold on people is rarely understood. But revenge – morally considered – is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honour their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between the generations; the violence it engenders is a ritual form of respect for the community’s dead – therein lies its legitimacy. Reconciliation is difficult precisely because it must compete with the powerful alternative morality of violence. Political terror is tenacious because it is an ethical practice. It is a cult of the dead, a dire and absolute expression of respect.
Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, New York: Henry Holt, 2000. p. 188.
It is foolhardy to act as if the desire for revenge does not exist. It does. But given free rein, it will reduce societies to violence and bloodshed without end. The only alternative is to channel it through the operation of law, fair trial, and then either punishment or protection. That is what was introduced into civilisation by the law of the cities of refuge, allowing retribution to take the place of revenge, and justice the place of retaliation.
 Brachot 32b; Rambam, Hilchot Tefillah 15:3.
 I Chronicles 22:8.
 Only God, the Giver of life, can command us to take life, and then often only on the basis of facts known to God but not to us.
 See Ruth, chapters 3-4.
 See Lev. 25, where the verb appears 19 times.
 See Amnon Bazak, ‘Cities of Refuge and Cities of Flight,’ in Torah MiEtzion, Devarim, Maggid, Jerusalem, 2012, pp. 229-236.
 Makkot 11a.
 See Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
 New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1989.
From the Hebrew College
Matot Masei — Meeting God “In the Straits”
By Rabbi Ebn Leader
With Parashat Masei—The Journeys—the Torah concludes the story of the Israelite people. While the Torah includes one more book, dedicated almost entirely to the parting words and death of Moshe, the story of the people ends here, in the plains of Moav.
The vision of a promised land is central to the biblical story beginning with the narratives of the ancestors in Bereshit. Still, this “allotted haven” (Devarim 12:9) is never reached. (This is true of the Torah. The book of Joshua, which is included among the prophets but not in the Torah per se, does tell a story of entering the promised land.) Rather than ending the story with the fulfillment of this long-held aspiration and hope, the narrative ends in the desert; this parasha summarizes the people’s story as an ongoing journey, always shifting, always subject to change.
“When they were thrown by one place/state of being
(translating from the Hebrew root סעה [so’ah] rather than נסע [nasa])
They found rest in another.
And when they were thrown by that one,
They found rest in another…”
(This is the repeating structure of Bamidbar 33:5-49.)
An ongoing journey–
Always with God, and never with stability.
Always with longing, never with fulfillment.
Always shifting and moving, with no guarantees regarding the next stop or the next upheaval.
As the Torah often reminds us, at every stop along the road, these wanderers had to reconstruct God’s home in their camp. This was done even as some of these places—at least based on the names the Israelites gave them (Bitterness, Desire’s Graves, Terror, Shadow Land and others) —were not comfortable stays… The book of Bamidbar thus teaches us the challenging practice of creating a place for God at every stop of the journey, cultivating the trust that—“Wherever you call out my name, I will come to you with blessing” (Shemot 20:20).
This last parasha of the book of Bamidbar is always read on one of the shabbatot of the three weeks between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av. These three weeks are known as the “time in straits” (Yemei Bein HaMetzarim) and are designated as a time of mourning. Liturgically, this mourning is oriented towards the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples in antiquity. Yet already the earliest Rabbinic description of the practices of these weeks includes longer lists of historical tragedies attributed to these dates (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6) and these lists got longer and longer throughout the generations. These growing lists of tragedies reflect the understanding that this spiritual practice of mourning is oriented towards suffering in general rather than towards one specific historical tragedy.
The Maggid of Kozhnitz (R Yisrael Hapstein, 1737-1814) in articulating a practice for these weeks, focuses on the challenge of being present with God in a reality that shifts and changes, and particularly in the difficult and painful stops along the road. The three weeks “in the straits” become the practice ground on which we train for this challenge whenever it appears in our lives. During this time, through memory and ritual, we focus on our experience of loss and suffering, striving to create a communal setting for engaging with the presence of God even in the midst of suffering.
“During these days, holiness is covered and disguised within transformation. Therefore, during this time you should dedicate more effort than you usually do to engaging with the holiness of the Creator. You should put all your strength into extracting light from darkness, transforming the transformation, and discovering the holiness hidden within it” (Avodat Yirael, Pirkei Avot 4:7).
All of being is God’s presence, though the form of that presence which we experience is constantly transforming and changing. The forms of presence that we find difficult may feel like God’s absence or rejection, but they are divine no less than the forms we find inspiring. We do not always get to choose if we will encounter God as an experience of beauty or an experience of pain. But we can always choose our response to God’s presence, our response to every moment of life. Will I see in this moment a gateway to deeper connection with God, an opportunity to expand my awareness and sense of interdependence, or will I shut down in facing this moment, and retreat into my feelings of pain, despair and alienation? For different people, different experiences offer easier access to the divine. While difficult experiences might make it feel impossible for one person to connect to God, for another person those are the moments that a feeling of real connection opens up. But whether I am capable of acknowledging it or not, every moment is an invitation. As the Kozhnitz says elsewhere – “What I really don’t understand is—how is it possible to disconnect from the blessed Creator? Most people seem to think the opposite. They find the possibility of connecting to God confusing…” (Avodat Yisrael, Pirkei Avot, 4:5). Learning to recognize and respond to these invitations is a spiritual practice that requires great effort and dedication. According to the Maggid of Kozhnitz, this is the spiritual practice of these three weeks. During these weeks we set our experience of destruction and devastation at the center in order to practice living in the straits, living into the shifting forms that divinity takes as we go through our lives, and particularly living into those forms that we find painful and distressing.
We live in a time of radical changes. Over the next few decades the very balance of nature that we once took for granted will shift in dramatic ways for the worst. Our future actions may still have some impact, but our past and current treatment of the environment have already set some processes in place that will not be reversed. Such a global crisis may bring the best out of some people, but it also brings the worst out of others, as we are already witnessing. For our generation, could there be any spiritual practice more necessary than learning to recognize and be with God in the straits?
From Rabbi Mel Gottlieb- AJR/CA
‘If you are on a journey, and the goal gets farther and farther away, then the journey itself is the goal.’ Joseph Campbell
This week we read the double Parsha of Matot-Maasei. In Maasei we read about the journey from Mitzraim to the Promised Land. It contains 42 stops, in physical locations not easily recognizable, before they reach the Jordan river. Hence, our Mystical Masters discern that this is not a physical journey at all, but the outline of a spiritual journey from a place of restriction and brokenness toward a progression to greater wholeness, to a discovery of Soul and connection to G-d. The number 42 is symbolic of the Holy name of G-d. Eh’yeh asher Eh’yeh, ‘I am that I am’ revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush. Ehyeh in gematria is 21, and the double name 21+21=42. Thus, this numinous journey is one that leads to connection to Soul. So, what are the secrets of this journey toward wholeness? What is the purpose of the separate mentioning of each stopping place? It shows a manifestation of G-d’s kindness. The purpose of these wanderings was to rehabilitate the people morally and spiritually, to enter the Holy land with strength. So, each stage of the journey is lovingly named. Just as the Jewish people went through 42 stops along the journey our commentators suggest that each of us go through these trials and growth steps as well in our lives.
Each of the 42 encampments was a stage in the growth of the nation, and each stage of sanctity that they acquired in the desert they brought with them into the land of Israel. The long and weary progress of the Israelites thru the wilderness is a paradigm of this truth. And the separate mention of each of the camping stages illustrate the importance of each individual stage in the journey. Each stopping place has value. In each place we learned something and grew. Our own lives, and the trials we face and grow from confirm this. Accordingly, it is the journey not the goal or destination that is emphasized here for in the history of the spirit, it is the painful seemingly endless process towards sanctity that is the essential part of our growth. Faith is developed in the Midbar; a deep belief that life’s experiences cannot be overwhelming because they will all move toward greater integration when held in the proper framework.
The journey begins in Mitzraim, and continues in isolation in the desert; in each place that we travel to (the 42 stops) we find some greater wholeness throughout the trials that we encounter there; greater insight and understanding, but not completion. We stumble along the way and often regress; the wholeness must be brought into society, and we finally wind up in the plains of Arvot Moav (mixing), from isolation to integration, to the 42nd stop to Eh’yeh. Just as the Jews went through the process of growth, each of us encounter trials that bring us to growth and discovery of our unique purpose, and we feel blessings of gratitude for our creation.
Abraham was taught the same: “Leave your home and go to a land which I will show you.” His destination was not specified. Moshe too, treks through the desert but never reaches the Promised land. For it was the journey, the willingness to sacrifice, to move ever onward in search of G-d that was demanded and treasured ever after as the archetype of spiritual adventure. The realization of this brings optimism and true wisdom; Each of us today as well go thru the exodus from Egypt experience, the 42 stages to reach Eh’yeh-wholeness. Each of us start off with childhood experiences that we repeat till we take responsibility for the results that we contribute to. We start off in the seclusion of the desert but wind up in ‘Arvot’ Moav, the plains or ‘mixture’ of Moav, connoting interdependency and connection. “Each of us is born into the midst of things and dies in the midst of things.” says Rav Dessler. Everywhere is imperfection, incompleteness, ambitions unrealized. But from the spiritual perspective this is no deterrent at all. Each motion of the heart towards G-d is cherished and valued for its own sake. “We are not responsible for completing the task, neither are we free to desist from beginning it.’ (Avot 2:16).
There is, of course, a natural comfort in the mind’s capacity to forget the fearful past, the trials, the so-called failures. But this consolation would be questionable if loss of memory also leads to loss of the insight of the trial, and the gratitude that we passed thru it. We have the freedom to make new meanings, especially of opening ourselves in times of pain and suffering to the roots of our compassion. When we choose the bridge from self-protectiveness to compassion and self-knowledge, we change the world. Without human suffering it is likely that we would never find the bridge. Our suffering, our actions bring us to conditions that provide just what we need to awaken to greater compassion and consciousness. It enables us to overcome the resistance of our wish to be in control-which sets us apart. This life is assigned especially for our learning, for awakening, for consciousness and for repairing our world. So, everything is just as it should be if we do not resist it, and pain has its purpose to awaken us to questions of meaning and purpose in life. We also must learn to step back from creating our own suffering. Without this capacity, we are morally and spiritually adrift.
What is the difference between a material and a spiritual journey? The former emphasizes results and efficiency; the latter focuses on process and effort. A material journey is mainly interested in results, in efficiency, the less effort needed to create a product the better. The act must be completed to achieve its goal, to have an impact. Effort as a good has no meaning in the material quest; as a matter of fact, the more one can reduce effort, streamline the project, the more successful it is. A spiritual journey is about effort, awareness and potential, and a meaning that often develops through suffering. The spiritual journey is not as interested in the goal, in completion; sometimes the goal gets in the way of the present and inhibits alertness and awareness of our reactions. The effect of intention alone is considerable, the sincere purposeful movement of spirit effects the inner life and the universe. A smile brings forth another smile! In spirit each moment, each effort has value. The movement of the spirit, sincere and purposeful, affects the inner life, even if the final achievement in the outer world is lacking. It is the ‘Journey toward wholeness,’ that is meaningful.
The process is therefore the significant variable in the journey: As our sages say: “It is the ‘Yegia’ (effort) that G-d adores, not the ‘Totza’ah’ (result); the latter is in G-d’s hands or variables beyond one’s control; and the disappointment of not reaching one’s goal has more to do with our ego’s desire than our soul’s nascence.
Another ingredient in the spiritual process is pain (‘lfum tzaara agra’).Why is pain necessary in this spiritual process of growth? After all it can depress and inhibit growth. Yes, there is pain that leads to regression and suffering but also pain that leads to growth.
There are two forms of suffering that lead to depressing separateness and alienation. One I will call ‘deflation’, and the other ‘inflation’. Deflation is when we feel ‘lesser than’ and inflation is when we feel ‘better than.’ In our early history we suffered from both forms of suffering, and it has impacted us. First, we were slaves in Egypt which led to powerlessness (deflation), a feeling of not believing in self power, dependency on others, giving power to them to solve our problems rather than taking responsibility. And then G-d’s intervention, ‘leading us out of Egypt’ leads to a sense of specialness, of entitlement, (inflation) with high expectations and the inevitable disappointment and resentment that often follows. Despair, resentment, envy, and self-pity interfere with our discovery of meaningful compassion and enlarge self-importance.
But there is also a positive dimension of pain that leads to growth: the pain may lead to alertness. And a need to ask why?? Thus, it leads to potential meaning and a reaching out to G-d, or a secular spiritual path. Suffering is often the first opening we have into deep curiosity about what is going on around and within us. Suffering leads to questions of meaning and purpose in life. This propels us into opportunities for development. Although we may resent the pain and hate those whom we blame for it, we cannot learn about ourselves without it. Jews believe that there is a reason for our initial life circumstances, that our fate is an expression of a principled universe. We can accept and discover meaning even in loss and trauma, in encounters on all levels of existence. We must understand how and why adversity can sometimes lead to transformation and at other times to only more suffering; how it can lead to a sense of purpose, through new self-awareness and insight. Moreover, good fortune and bad fortune are irrelevant. We can learn from both. Bad fortune can be the means to shape character. Both good and bad fortune can strengthen our character. We must pay less attention to what is happening to us and more to our own reactions to it. This will make sense out of pain and see it as a new opportunity for development, a new learning experience. Forget the goal, pay attention to the present, make a full effort to be open, in the flow, alert, calm and focused. And remember, an attitude that we can learn from every experience brought to us by G-d is a requisite; this faith makes life less stressful and, indeed, a blessing.
Our spiritual journey teaches that suffering is useful when it awakens us to our responsibility for our own attitudes and thoughts and actions. Our journey will move us to search for meaning which sustains our soul. Within suffering there will always be the gifts of self-awareness, awakening, and compassion. Suffering is transformative when faced in a way that reveals the truth. We can be victims or free to engage within our limitations. The gift of suffering in youth, as well, is a first step in a lifetime of purpose and meaning. A life without adversity cannot develop this. However, it takes more than pain or trauma to bring about the death of an old self; it takes a change of attitude, action, effort, courage. We change the world with movement from self-protectiveness to compassion and self-knowledge; it is unlikely without human suffering that we would reach the promised land of wholeness and compassion, and connection to others. Common suffering also creates a bridge to other people on the planet, a spiritual bond, Hashem Echad. We become bearers of the message that suffering can become the basis of creativity, from narrowness to universal meaning, to consciousness that we are all interconnected.
When we become conscious that we are all on a ‘spiritual journey’ we will find self-knowledge, compassion, creativity, independence and meaning. We will move from a state of ‘habitual wanting’ to a state of ‘habitual having.’ We will move from isolation in the desert to a place of mixing ‘Arvot Moav’ integration. We will discover that we are parts of the whole, all interconnected.
We will then be in a movement from ego consciousness, the pursuit solely of pleasure and material gain, to soul consciousness; from Mitzraim, ego-boundedness, ‘why me,’ to enlightenment and meaning. A danger may arise when our ‘Great expectations’ throw us off balance and become a barrier to development when we regard these fantasies as more important than what stands before us. When we insist on our fantasies, we become flooded by confusions, feelings of resentment and self-pity. We see ourselves through the lens of our childhood complexes. We focus on the goal and not the process, and the present. This is the type of suffering that interferes with the necessity to change. To become venerable and to use pain for transformation, we must expand and support our desire for growth and clarity within a larger context of meaning, usually in a spiritual context, whether religious or secular, that permits us to translate deficits and losses into potential for new development.
It is important to recognize that when we let go of our expectations and wishes-our old self- then we’ll discover something new. If we do not do this ourselves , a crisis, or pain can shake us out of our habitual attitudes and demand that we change. At this point a supportive community can support our growth journey. To engage wholly with life, we must die many times. Just as the Jews in the desert in their trials. Resistance to this growth journey is our wish to be in control- which sets us apart. Only when we keep ourselves from imposing old meanings do we encounter something new. We must not move compulsively from one thought to another but allow ourselves to be free to look at the serendipitous events that always surround us if we are ‘awakened’ to spirit. Our Sages teach that this life that we are living was designed especially for us, containing lessons that are not arbitrary, but quite personal. Our tradition informs us that all life is a journey to be learned from and contains a benign core.
Friends, until we take responsibility for our own subjective lives, we repeat the same mistakes we learned in our childhood days in the Midbar, blaming others for our faults. When we face our greatest fears directly, we will discover that we have more courage than we ever imagined. And our difficulties, our trials will become the sources of our development. We can then move from the Midbar to Arvot Moav, from useless to useful suffering. Along this spiritual path lie the gifts that lead us from pain and separation to transformation and connection, to self-determination. We will retain the ability to extract meaning from each of our experiences. We will see ourselves as the authors of our stories; we will look into the mirror and see our capacities and potential created in the image of G-d.
We will see the part of our story that we’ve created and its origin and why we cling to these patterns. Then one day we will awaken to self-knowledge and larger meaning and feel the 42nd stop within us. When faith emerges, we will believe that life’s experiences cannot be overwhelming because we have discovered G-d in this extraordinary journey called life. We will have discovered that the determined soul on a spiritual journey, the same path that our ancestors took can create a coherent story from suffering into unity, purpose, and compassion.
Restorative Justice from Numbers to Now
BY RABBI DANIEL NEVINS
What does restorative justice look like? The Torah pauses Israel’s journey toward the Land to consider this complex question. Forty years of desert wandering have come to their end, and only the thin ribbon of the River Jordan divides the Israelites from their promised land. As the distance remaining falls to footsteps, urgency mounts to establish values and norms for sovereignty and justice.
The Land will test the people—with power and wealth, with conflict and war. They will become responsible for self-policing—how will they handle divisive and ambiguous cases such as manslaughter? One person has caused terrible harm to another and their family. Perhaps they never intended to kill, but still, they have caused tragic loss of the most permanent sort. What consequence can restore a sense of justice for the offender, the victims, for society and for God?
Numbers 35 includes an extended passage dedicated to this presumably minor concern—the treatment of killers accused, but not convicted, of murder. The Torah declares that Israel must establish six cities of refuge, three within the Land, and three in Trans-Jordan, to which unintentional killers may flee (vv. 1–29).
The cities of refuge are unlike anything known to modern society. They signal that a person who unintentionally kills another ought not escape significant consequences. After all, they have killed someone, and so they must live in exile for an indefinite period, until the death of the High Priest. The purpose of their exile is not mere punishment but also rehabilitation. There they will have time to ponder the impact of their negligence on the victim even as they reestablish themselves in a new community.
First, they are put on trial. If found guilty of murder, the Torah prescribes execution. But the Torah immediately sets a high evidentiary bar for determining guilt for murder. There must be two eyewitnesses to the crime; one will not suffice (v. 30). Shedding the blood of an innocent person is said to “pollute the Land.” This biblical concept goes back to the story of Cain and Abel, when God declares that Cain will be cursed by the land that “opened its mouth” to absorb the blood of his brother (Gen. 4:11). Here too the Torah warns that improper killing, even as a punishment, can pollute the Land and lead Israel into exile (Num 35:33).
If a killer is executed with insufficient evidence or imperfect process, then the Land becomes polluted. Conversely, if a wealthy killer is found guilty of murder, but is given the opportunity to buy back their freedom, this too pollutes the Land. Likewise, a person found guilty of manslaughter, not murder, is not allowed to buy their freedom (v. 31). They too must seek exile in the city of refuge, or else the Land will be polluted. The purpose here is to purify the Land by repairing the moral damage caused by violence. Restorative justice in biblical terms is not only about restoring the soul of the offender, but also about restoring the entire society to a just basis. Without such restoration, the only option is national exile.
Twice the Torah prohibits the taking of kofer, the ransom paid to avoid punishment, which is from the same root as kapparah or kippur, atonement. But can one truly atone for violence with money? It might be tempting for the killer to offer, and perhaps for some aggrieved families to accept, payment in place of punishment. Indeed, the Rabbis allow the giving of kofer in other circumstances, as when an ox gores a person. The owner of the ox must pay kofer to atone for the loss (M. Bava Kamma 4:5). But a human who kills a human has committed either murder or manslaughter, and money alone cannot atone for their violent act. As the Talmud notes, both verses are necessary, one for murder, and one for manslaughter (BT Ketubot 37b).
Money can be a tool for restitution of financial damages, and it can be used positively for charitable purposes. But when money allows wealthy offenders to evade consequences, a protection unavailable to poor offenders, then justice is denied. Taking kofer is akin to a bribe, and bribery erodes the moral fiber of a society.
Kofer has another sense—denial. A person who denies owing a debt to another is kofer bakol—in total denial. A person who denies the unity of God is kofer be’ikar—in denial of the essential truth. In later rabbinic texts, kofer comes simply to mean a heretic. We see that an initial positive association of kofer with kapparah, atonement is pushed aside for more negative associations with denial and heresy. Why might this have happened? Atonement implies introspection, remorse, and responsibility. Denial indicates the opposite: brazen disregard for the lives and property of others.
In recent years Americans have begun to pay more attention to the intersection of race, poverty, and incarceration. There is a persistent and pernicious differential in the treatment of criminal offenses by people depending on their class and color. White offenders are more likely to be reprimanded over minor offenses that for people of color would garner harsh treatment such as arrest and even physical assault. Wealthy defendants can post bail and mount effective defenses while poor defendants are left to languish in jail and then prison. Money corrupts criminal justice, creating a two-tier system where some citizens suffer severe consequences while others are able to escape with impunity.
Because criminal justice in America is often more punitive than restorative, and because it plays out so differently for people of privilege, we have a crisis of confidence. Poor people lack the resources to post bail and to mount competent legal defenses. Even brief incarceration can cause cascading calamities of unemployment, mental and physical illness, homelessness, and consequences for entire families. We are in a crisis, but we have an opportunity to reform our criminal justice system and point it back toward the higher ideal of restorative justice.
In warning Israelite society not to accept kofer for violent crimes, the Torah anticipates the role that wealth may play in shielding offenders from the consequences of their misconduct. In this and other contexts the Torah warns the people of Israel not to pervert justice, but to apply it equally. The cities of refuge are an early example of restorative justice. They honor the lives of the victims by forcing offenders into exile. They treat all offenders equally, regardless of class, and prevent wealthy people from buying their freedom. And for the offenders, living out their uncertain sentence in exile, the cities of refuge are an opportunity for reflection and remorse. In place of kofer, denial, they provide the time and structure to achieve something precious and deep: kapparah, true atonement.
The cities of refuge may not be practicable today, but as a metaphor for equal justice and restoration, they are timely. The Torah is not interested in the wealth or standing of the victim of the crime, and it offers no avenue for wealthy offenders to evade responsibility. It honors the life of the victim and forces even unintentional offenders to experience dislocation so that they can reflect on the harm they have caused. This is what restorative justice looks like.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
JOURNEYS: WHERE IS YOUR SPIRIT HEADED?
Narrative, interpretive, and spiritual. That’s the theme of this week’s Torah reading. In Biblical Hebrew, the word for journeys is masei.
Parshat Masei maps the journeys of the Israelites (Num. 33:1-36:13). From Egypt to the shores of the River Jordan, the Israelites wander the wilderness. Travelling for forty years, they make forty-two specific stops. Maybe it’s not exactly forty years. Sometimes, in Biblical Hebrew, forty days or years just means “a long time.”
We readers have followed the Israelites’ adventures. Using imagination, we’ve travelled along with them. But Masei invites us into our own journey, too. A journey of interpretation.
We begin with the peshat, the text’s simple narrative meaning. Here, for example, is a typical translation:
They travelled from Kadesh and camped at Hor HaHar, at the edge of the land of Edom. At the word of God, Aaron the priest climbed Hor HaHar. There he died, forty years after the Israelites left Egypt, on the first day of the fifth month. Aaron was 123 years old when he died at Hor HaHar. The Canaanite king of Arad heard. He was dwelling in the Negev in the land of Canaan, when the Israelites arrived.
They travelled from Hor HaHar and they camped at Tzalmonah. Then travelled from Tzalmonah…Punan…Ovot…Iyei Ha-Avarim at the border of Moab…Divon Gad…Almon Divlataymah…Avarim Mountains near Nebo…the plains of Moab at Jericho-on-the-Jordan. (Num.33:37-49).
If you’ve followed the story, you know it’s the beginning of the end. Forty years have passed. Aaron has died. The Israelites have become fearsome warriors. Moses will give a final teaching at the plains of Moab. He will see the land from the summit of Mt. Avarim. At Mt. Nebo, he will die. Joshua will lead the attack on Jericho, mixing magic with military might.
This is an amazing passage — in the literal definition of “passage” as a “section of text.” But it’s also about “passages” in the sense of “journeys.” And it helps us readers journey from one storyline to the next.
We readers will miss Aaron. But we will cry for Moses. And then quickly travel into excitement as Joshua’s story begins.
That, of course, assumes we are looking ahead. But for now, let’s linger on the details of the journey. Specifically as they are recounted in Biblical Hebrew.
Hebrew is a deeply metaphorical language. Partly, metaphor is a practical necessity. We don’t have enough word-roots. So every root does at least double duty. The root meaning “camp” also means “grace.” “Face” shares a root with “inside.”
Place names grow out of these ordinary verbs and nouns. So they, too, have many meanings. “Plains” can be read as “blending” or “responsibility.” “Jericho” is the “fragrant” place of the “moon.”
With a different translation, the same words tell of a different journey. A mystical one, perhaps. A spiritual one.
Consider this translation a glimpse into sode. A secret, hidden, esoteric meaning.
They travelled from holiness and paused at the cosmic mountain at the edge of the earth.
Aaron, the priest, ascended the cosmic mountain with a kiss from God. There he died, many years after the Israelites escaped the narrow place.
(Aaron died at the age of 123 on the first day of the month of Av. The local king heard and was humbled. “I will go down.” He dwelt in land of humility, where the Israelites were arriving.)
They traveled from the cosmic mountain, and were graced with the image.
Then they left the image behind and were graced with interiority. They moved on from interiority, but lingered at foundational principles.
Then they let go of foundations and camped at the edge of transcendence. At the boundary that brings forth the foundations. They camped in a world without form.
They left even the formless world and were graced with heights of transcendence before prophecy. Then they travelled on from heights of transcendence. Where foundations emerge, they lingered. At twilight, at the setting of the moon.
Esoteric indeed! Metaphors for spiritual development saturate this passage. Interiority. Formlessness. Transcendence. What does it mean?
I can’t tell you the definitive meaning. There’s no one secret to be revealed. But I can say what the passage means to me today.
Many years ago, I began a spiritual journey. For me, it wasn’t a deliberate decision. It simply crept up on me as I became a self-aware teen.
Holy guides taught me the basics of practice. These were my parents, teachers, camp counsellors, professors, clergy, friends, congregants, therapists. For many years, I journeyed with them. But some died, and others moved on. As did I, over and over again.
Each new practice offered an image of the spirit. Philosophy saw it focused in reason and imagination. Kabbalah revealed it as infinite. Yoga showed the power of its attention. Spiritual direction studies taught about its posture of open listening.
And each time, I clunkily mastered a new discipline. Gradually, the work shone a light on a hidden dimension of interiority. As I knew and felt myself more deeply, I let go of a rigid practice. Having internalized foundational principles, I simply acted as myself. As a broader, more skilled version of myself.
Occasionally a vision shows me the edge of transcendence. Often I question familiar concepts. If everyone agrees about something, I think, that’s a clue it might be wrong. But I haven’t reached beyond the world of forms.
Instead, I linger at twilight. At edges, where consciousness blurs. And in that place of listening, questioning, paying attention, and trying to act, I wait. For a glimpse of the next stage of my spiritual and intellectual journeys.
Before reading and translating this passage, I would not have told my story in this way. But it seems a true telling.
Use your imagination. Let yourself interpret these words, too. Travel with the Israelite characters. Feel into the story of their journeys. But feel into your own story as well. Take some time to reflect on your passages. Where did you begin? Where have you pitched your tent and lingered?
Do you know where you’re going?
Bamidbar (Numbers) 33:2
וַיִּכְתֹּ֨ב מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־מוֹצָאֵיהֶ֛ם לְמַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־פִּ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וְאֵ֥לֶּה מַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם לְמוֹצָאֵיהֶֽם׃
Moses recorded their departures for their journeys as directed by God. These were the journeys of their departures.
Reb Levi Yitzchak Berditchev
Kedushat Halevi, Masei
[Reb Levi Yitzchak asks: Why does the verse first say “departures for their journeys” and then say “journeys for their departures?” Why is the order reversed?]
Every separate departure and encampment occurred at the command of G’d…. The purpose of this journey through the huge and frightening wilderness was to identify the holy sparks that had fallen and were concealed in each place. And to liberate these sparks, so the sparks could depart from the klipiot (material shells) where they were concealed and rise up and be reunited with their Source….
This is why the children of Israel camped in some places for just a little while and in other places longer. It was according to how long it took to liberate the sparks in each place….
This was the essential purpose of their journeys, to free these sparks to depart to their Source.
From My Jewish Learning
Lessons for Regional Planning
The biblical “migrash” principle provides a response to urban sprawl.
BY JON GREENBERG
Green Spaces: A World Not Of Our Making
In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses: “Command the Children of Israel that they shall give to the Levites, from the heritage of their possession, cities for dwelling; and open space all around the cities shall you give to the Levites. The cities shall be theirs for dwelling, and their open space shall be for their animals, for their possessions, and for all the amenities of life (Numbers 35:2-3).”
The subsequent verses specify the dimensions of this area that was to surround the Levite cities, as a belt 1,000 cubits wide, and then as 2,000 cubits wide (2,000 cubits is equivalent to between 3,000 and 4,000 feet or 914 to 1219 meters).
Rashi explains the apparent contradiction and further describes the uses of this area: “He assigned two thousand (cubits) for them around the city, of which the inner thousand was for open area and the outer (thousand) for fields and vineyards.” The commentator Sforno adds that this open space also enabled city residents to have “beehives, dovecotes, and other such items.”
Biblical Zoning Regulations
The Torah uses the Hebrew term migrash to describe this “green belt.” What is a migrash? Onkelos translates it as revah, or space. But why does the Torah require an open space around cities?
The answer is surprisingly practical. The Talmud explains that the inner belt serves to beautify the city; residents may plant trees there, but may not use the area for construction or agriculture. Rather, it is to remain open parkland. The city itself is “zoned” for construction, and the outer belt for agriculture. The Talmud forbids converting land in any of these three zones to uses reserved for the others.
With this practical explanation in mind, we should not be surprised that the majority of the rabbis involved in the Talmud’s discussion of the migrash concluded that this law applies to all Jewish towns in Israel, and not just to those reserved for the Levites. Maimonides accepts this opinion as settled law (Hilkhot Shemittah V‘Yovel, 13:5).
Do Jews observe the laws of migrash today? To address this question, we need a bit of historical perspective. After the destruction of the Second Temple, we lost political sovereignty and were exiled from our land. For almost 2,000 years, we were not able to realize this mitzvah (commandment) because we lacked our own sovereign cities in the land of Israel. We were aliens in other people’s lands.
When many of our people returned to our land in the past century, Jews began once again to build cities and farms in Israel, and a new society took shape. Vigorous and creative debates about how to observe other mitzvot of the land of Israel under modern conditions deepened our appreciation of shemittah, the jubilee year, and other neglected agricultural laws. These discussions continue to produce novel modern solutions to ancient problems.
However, the mitzvah of migrash has not yet become part of the conversations of Israeli rabbinic authorities or regional planners. Returning it to today’s Jewish agenda is one of the challenges facing those who are concerned about Torah and the environment.
A major exception is the great 19th-century German writer Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch took a broad view of the implications of the mitzvah of migrash for both social relations and land use. He viewed this mitzvah as promoting the development of a society that combines urban sophistication and rural connectedness to the natural environment — “an urban population engaged in agriculture.”
Rabbi Hirsch also sees the mitzvah of migrash as a limit to the urban sprawl that would otherwise be inevitable: “Clearly these laws place an obstacle to the growth of large cities at the expense of the surrounding country which otherwise is so very prevalent. Not even the open spaces of the city, or any part of it, may be used as building sites.”
The Garden City Movement
The commandment of migrash in the Torah inspired the “garden city movement” founded in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard in the United Kingdom. A garden city was intended to be a self-contained community surrounded by a green belt, with carefully planned regions of commerce, living, and recreation. Howard himself established two such garden cities in England, which remain successful today. His ideas influenced the planning of other cities around the globe, and also influenced the British urbanist Sir Patrick Geddes in the planning of Tel-Aviv, Israel.
In the 1950s when Beersheba, the largest city in Israel’s Negev region was developed, it was built according to a ‘garden city’ plan, with small housing units generously spaced apart. However, the regional climate soon proved unsuitable for such urban planning, and neighborhoods gradually became more developed and crowded as the garden city theory was abandoned. Eventually, criticisms of the effectiveness of the ‘garden city’ arose, and many modern architects developed ideas radically different from those of Sir Howard.
Today, the applicability of the garden city philosophy is contested, but the mitzvah of migrash remains part of our eternal Torah. The mitzvah of migrash was a wonderful institution for our agrarian ancestors, but how could it be practiced today, when nearly 11 million people live west of the Jordan River, and the Earth’s population is approaching 7 billion?
In industrialized Western countries, 98 percent of the population works away from the land, in manufacturing and service jobs. In 2005, the United Nations reported that the majority of people in the world today live in cities.
Migrash as Ideal
As city dwellers, we can certainly grow from internalizing the principle of migrash, even without apportioning an actual green belt. Migrash moderates some of the negative effects of city life, such as the alienation of a person from nature and from the source of the food they eat. That’s why migrash comes from the root legaresh, to divorce or separate, because it separates one urban area from another in an attempt to marry Jews to the natural existence God gave them in the land of Israel.
Our disconnection from nature is one of the root causes of environmental degradation, causing people to abuse resources, spread pollutants, and plan poorly for the future of our planet. A civilization can radically damage the natural world when it does not see itself as part of that world. Which city residents actually know the river to which their sewage flows during the common occurrence of storm-related flooding?
A society can squander natural resources when it is not aware how it uses them. How many of us know exactly where our electricity is produced and how the plant transports the coal for its production? And when a community does not realize its dependence on certain natural processes (such as the growth of rain forests, the reproduction of fish schools, the flow of clean water aquifers) it is unlikely to prioritize their unhindered continuation.
Judaism does not emphasize abstract, quietistic contemplation of God’s greatness. Rather, appreciation of God develops from the physical performance of mitzvot in God’s world, and leads back to appreciation of God and the world. Thus, restoring our awareness of nature and our place within it will invigorate our efforts to solve environmental problems, inspired by the mitzvot of the Torah.
This commentary is provided by special arrangement with Canfei Nesharim. To learn more, visit http://www.canfeinesharim.org.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Mattot – Mas’ey
By: Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
The Road to the Future Through the Past
Torah Reading: Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
Haftarah Reading: Jeremiah 2:4 – 28; 3:4
This week, we read the double Torah portion of Mattot-Mas’ey, completing the book of Numbers, bringing to an end the wandering of our people in the desert as they realize the fulfilment of the original Divine promise – arrival to the Land of Israel – the land flowing with milk and honey. As a pretty central part of the Jewish narrative, we might expect that the Torah portion would focus on what our ancestors may have seen as they stand at the entry to the land – the quality of the land, the beauty of the horizon, the people, what might happen once they cross over into the land. Yet, as the final chapters of desert wandering unfold, what is described is very different. Instead, the opening words of Parashat Mas’ey begin: “These are the travels of the Israelites who went out from the land of Egypt, with their armies, by the hands of Moses and Aaron. And Moses wrote down their goings out and their comings forward according to the word of the Lord; these are their comings forward and their goings out.”
In the verses that follow, the Torah narrates how our people left one place, camped in another; left that place, and camped in yet another – recalling each of the 42 stops in the desert on the way to the Promised Land.
Why, at this point, does it mention when they left Egypt? It should have just said when they went to the Land of Israel. After all, if I were to take a trip from Los Angeles to Dallas and wanted to share my experiences along the way, I would not say ‘this is what happened to me on my trip from Los Angeles’. It is more likely that I would say ‘this is what happened to me on my way to Dallas’. So, why then does this parashah take us back to Egypt and the image of the slavery, degradation, plagues and the like?
This question occupies the minds and the imagination of biblical commentators of all generations and the possible answers find new expressions in different time periods and commentaries. In the midrash of Bamidbar Rabbah (compiled in the medieval period and consisting of interpretive messages from the text) alone, three possible answers are given: recalling each of the camps helps recall the myriad of miracles God brought in the desert when there was no source of food/water, shelter, or protection; listing the name of each and every camp was to remind us of our own mistakes in the wilderness in the doubt, the kvetching (complaining), the lack of faith in Moses and even God; and the purpose was to enhance to critical values, hakhnasat orhim (hosting guests) and gratitude – God cared for us throughout the forty years, so we should be willing to host guests in our own homes, and provide for shelter to those in need. And, just as we would expect our guests to show appropriate gratitude for our efforts to care for them, so we should be grateful to God for the hospitality that God provided.
Rabbi Meir Loeb ben Yechi’el Michael Malbim (1809-1879, Eastern Europe) – known simply as the Malbim and famous for his commentary on the entire Bible answers the question in another way. After all, he says, while the people were in Egypt there were constant reminders of where they were and what was happening to them. And, at each of the 42 stops they made in the desert, they were immersed in experiences that, at times reminded them of their enslavement and persecution at the hands of the Egyptians. According to Malbim, the purpose of the long journey was to rid the Jews of exactly the contagious and dangerous elements that could threaten their fulfillment in the Land of Israel. At every stop they discarded, as it were, another part of their defilement to be ready for what was to come.
The question is similarly asked in another way by the Eastern European commentator known as S’fat Emet. Commenting on the verse, “Moses wrote down their goings out and their comings forward according to the word of the Lord; these are their comings forward and their goings out” he wonders why it is that the order is reversed from the beginning of the verse (which refers to the goings out and their comings forward) to the end of the verse (which refers to the comings forward and their goings out). His answer it seems is that the “coming forward” depends on “goings out” from Egypt.
Only after going out of Egypt and leaving pieces of it behind in each subsequent stop can the Exodus ultimately be complete and the Israelites move forward into the land of Israel. Likewise, in our individual journeys, each of us has those places (physical, emotional, and spiritual) that we have been. And, like our ancestors in the desert, some of those places have left us with our own anger, fears, resentment, disappointment and challenges. But, also like our ancestors of so many years ago, unless and until we look to where we have been and face ourselves honestly and humbly, we cannot possibly let go that which blocks us from growing and experiencing our own journey’s promise.
As we journey through this week and into this Shabbat, I pray that each of us and all of us can revisit the places we have been and leave behind that which impedes our meeting in the Promised Land.
From Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Reflections on Torah Portion Mattot-Masei – Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Teaching in Exile
This week’s Torah portion is a double portion. The reason we have double portions is so that during a Jewish leap year, when there are 13 months instead of 12, we can “unpack” the double portions so that each Shabbat in a leap year has its own Torah portion. This double portion end the book of Numbers (Ba-Midbar – “in the desert” in Hebew).
Many of themes in these two Torah portions have to do with final matters before the Israelites enter the Land of Canaan. One of these matters is the concept of the “cities of refuge” that will be established in the land. A person who has killed someone accidentally but negligently is still subject to the family of the deceased sending out an “avenger” (go’el ha-dahm). The perpetrator can flee to a city of refuge and have his case adjudicated. If the killing were deemed completely accidental, the person is free to go. If it turns out that the person committed willful murder, the court hands him over to the blood avenger, who slays the perpetrator. If the killing was negligent, but not intentional, the person can stay safely in the city of refuge until the current High Priest dies. At that time, the Blood Avenger is relieved of his duty to avenge the blood of his kinfolk, and the perpetrator can leave the city safely.
This law clearly seems to prevent something rampant in pre-modern times, and still in force in many places today: the vendetta. If a person from one tribe, group, gang, mob, etc., kills a person from another group, the offended group feels it has the right and duty to kill any member of group of the perpetrator. Destructive feuds follow. This law limits the avenger to only the perpetrator, and introduced the intervention of a court to adjudicate the case. The avenger is, of course, an executioner, but only of someone who has committed intentional murder.
The Talmud takes this wise and fairly straightforward law into unforeseen territory. The Bible says in Deuteronomy 4:42, where the matter is reviewed, that that person guilty of negligent homicide can flee to a city of refuge “and live”. The Talmudic rabbis ask what it means “to live.” Obviously, he goes there to live and not to die; that is the purpose of the law. “To live” must mean something else. The rabbis decide (as recorded in Tractate Makkot 10a) that a person cannot live without the study of Torah, so if a person is exiled to the city of refuge, his teacher must go with him. And where the teacher goes, the whole yeshivah goes.
This reading of the text is, of course, contested, and there is no case recorded case of rabbi and the yeshivah following a negligent killer into the exile of a city of refuge. They are probably referring to something deeper. What is the deeper thing here? Something that every real parent, teacher, healer, therapist, life coach, mentor, true friend, etc. knows: you can only guide if you are willing to go into the exile experienced by the person for whom you are caring. The empathy and insight required for true guidance requires that the guide somehow can peer into the soul of the student not be defended from what one sees there.
One of the finest treatments of this theme, in my opinion, is the film “Good Will Hunting”. As the Robin Williams character enters into the soul-realm of the Matt Damon character, we see both are transformed. Neither is unscathed. The scathing is necessary, like lancing an infection to release the pressure and drain the abscess. The idea of the rabbi accompanying the sufferer into exile is a common theme in Chasidic literature.
The experience of exile is core to the human condition, just as is the presence of those who can lead us out. Sometimes a person, sometimes a film, a book, a song, a poem. Sometimes the Torah.
The Complexity of Human Rights (Matot-Masei 5776)
The book of Bamidbar comes to a close that is very strange indeed. Earlier in the parsha of Pinchas we read of how the five daughters of Tzelophehad came to Moses with a claim based on justice and human rights. Their father had died without sons. Inheritance – in this case, of a share in the land – passes through the male line, but here there was no male line. Surely their father was entitled to his share, and they were his only heirs. By rights that share should come to them: “Why should our father’s name be disadvantaged in his family merely because he did not have a son? Give us a portion of land along with our father’s brothers” (Num. 27:4).
Moses had received no instruction about such an eventuality, so he asked God directly. God found in favour of the women. “The daughters of Tzelophehad are right. You shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers and transfer the inheritance of their father to them.” He gave Moses further instructions about the disposition of inheritance, and the narrative then passes on to other matters.
Only now, right at the end of the book, does the Torah report on an event that arose directly from that case. Leaders of Tzelophehad’s tribe, Menasheh, son of Joseph, came and made the following complaint. If the land were to pass to Tzelophehad’s daughters and they married men from another tribe, the land would eventually pass to their husbands, and thus to their husband’s tribes. Thus land that had initially been granted to the tribe of Menasheh might be lost to it in perpetuity.
Again, Moses took the case to God, who offered a simple solution. The daughters of Tzelophehad were entitled to the land, but so too was the tribe. Therefore, if they wish to take possession of the land, they must marry men from within their own tribe. That way both claims could be honoured. The daughters did not lose their right to the land but they did lose some freedom in choosing a marriage partner.
The two passages are intimately related. They use the same terminology. Both Tzelophehad’s daughters and the leaders of the clan “draw near”. They use the same verb to describe their potential loss: yigara, “disadvantaged, diminished”. God replies in both cases with the same locution, “kein … dovrot/dovrim,” rightly do they speak. Why then are the two episodes separated in the text? Why does the book of Numbers end on this seemingly anticlimactic note? And does it have any relevance today?
Bamidbar is a book is about individuals. It begins with a census, whose purpose is less to tell us the actual number of Israelites than to “lift” their “heads”, the unusual locution the Torah uses to convey the idea that when God orders a census it is to tell the people that they each count. The book also focuses on the psychology of individuals. We read of Moses’ despair, of Aaron and Miriam’s criticism of him, of the spies who lacked the courage to come back with a positive report, and of the malcontents, led by Korach, who challenged Moses’ leadership. We read of Joshua and Caleb, Eldad and Medad, Datham and Aviram, Zimri and Pinchas, Balak and Bilam and others. This emphasis on individuals reaches a climax in Moses’ prayer to “God of the spirits of all flesh” to appoint a successor – understood by the sages and Rashi to mean, appoint a leader who will deal with each individual as an individual, who will relate to people in their uniqueness and singularity.
That is the context of the claim of Tzelophehad’s daughters. They were claiming their rights as individuals. Justly so. As many of the commentators pointed out, the behaviour of the women throughout the wilderness years was exemplary while that of the men was the opposite. The men, not the women, gave gold for the golden calf. The spies were men: a famous comment by the Kli Yakar (R. Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, 1550 –1619) suggests that had Moses sent women instead, they would have come back with a positive report. Recognising the justice of their cause, God affirmed their rights as individuals.
But society is not built on individuals alone. As the book of Judges points out, individualism is another name for chaos: “In those days there was no king in Israel, everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Hence the insistence, throughout Bamidbar, on the central role of the tribes as the organising principle of Jewish life. The Israelites were numbered tribe by tribe. The Torah sets out their precise encampment around the Mishkan and the order in which they were to journey. In Naso, at inordinate length, the Torah repeats the gifts of each tribe at the inauguration of the Mishkan, despite the fact that they each gave exactly the same. The tribes were not accidental to the structure of Israel as a society. Like the United States of America, whose basic political structure is that of a federation of (originally thirteen, now fifty) states, so Israel was (until the appointment of a king) a federation of tribes.
The existence of something like tribes is fundamental to a free society. The modern state of Israel is built on a vast panoply of ethnicities – Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Jews from Eastern, Central and Western Europe, Spain and Portugal, Arab lands, Russia and Ethiopia, America, South Africa, Australia and other places, some Hassidic, some Yeshiva-ish, others “Modern”, others “Traditional”, yet others secular and cultural.
We each have a series of identities, based partly on family background, partly on occupation, partly on locality and community. These “mediating structures”, larger than the individual but smaller than the state, are where we develop our complex, vivid, face-to-face interactions and identities. They are the domain of family, friends, neighbours and colleagues, and they make up what is collectively known as civil society. A strong civil society is essential to freedom.
That is why, alongside individual rights, a society must make space for group identities. The classic instance of the opposite came in the wake of the French revolution. In the course of the debate in the French Revolutionary Assembly in 1789, the Count of Clermont-Tonnerre made his famous declaration, “To the Jews as individuals, everything. To the Jews as a nation, nothing.” If they insisted on defining themselves as a nation, that is, as a distinct subgroup within the republic, said the Count, “we shall be compelled to expel them.”
Initially, this sounded reasonable. Jews were being offered civil rights in the new secular nation state. However, it was anything but. It meant that Jews would have to give up their identity as Jews in the public domain. Nothing – not religious or ethnic identity – should stand between the individual and the state. It was no accident that a century later, France became one of the epicentres of European antisemitism, beginning with Édouard Drumont’s vicious La France Juive, 1886, and culminating in the Dreyfus trial. Hearing the Parisian crowd shout “Mort aux Juifs”, Theodor Herzl realised that Jews had still not been accepted as citizens of Europe, despite all the protestations to the contrary. Jews found themselves regarded as a tribe in a Europe that claimed to have abolished tribes. European emancipation recognised individual rights but not collective ones.
The primatologist Frans de Waal, whose work among the bonobos we mentioned in this year’s Covenant and Conversation on Korach, makes the point powerfully. Almost the whole of modern Western culture, he says, was built on the idea of autonomous, choosing individuals. But that is not who we are. We are people with strong attachments to family, friends, neighbours, allies, co-religionists and people of the same ethnicity. He continues:
A morality exclusively concerned with individual rights tends to ignore the ties, needs and interdependencies that have marked our existence from the very beginning. It is a cold morality that puts space between people, assigning each person to his or her own little corner of the universe. How this caricature of a society arose in the minds of eminent thinkers is a mystery.
That is precisely the point the Torah is making when it divides the story of the daughters of Tzelophehad into two. The first part, in parshat Pinchas, is about individual rights, the rights of Tzelophehad’s daughters to a share in the land. The second, at the end of the book, is about group rights, in this case the right of the tribe of Menasheh to its territory. The Torah affirms both, because both are necessary to a free society.
Many of the most seemingly intractable issues in contemporary Jewish life have appeared because Jews, especially in the West, are used to a culture in which individual rights are held to override all others. We should be free to live as we choose, worship as we choose, and identify as we choose. But a culture based solely on individual rights will undermine families, communities, traditions, loyalties, and shared codes of reverence and restraint.
Despite its enormous emphasis on the value of the individual, Judaism also insists on the value of those institutions that preserve and protect our identities as members of groups that make them up. We have rights as individuals but identities only as members of tribes. Honouring both is delicate, difficult and necessary. Bamidbar ends by showing us how.
 The word “rights” is, of course, an anachronism here. The concept was not born until the seventeenth century. Nonetheless it is not absurd to suggest that this is what is implied in the daughters’ claim, “Why should our father’s name be disadvantaged?”
 These two passages may well be the source of the story of the rabbi who hears both sides of a marital dispute, and says to both husband and wife, “You are right.” The rabbi’s disciple asks, “How can they both be right?” to which the rabbi replies, “You too are right.”
 Kli Yakar to Num. 13:2.
 See most recently Sebastian Junger: Tribe: On homecoming and belonging, Fourth Estate, 2016.
 This is the argument made most powerfully by Edmond Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville.
 Frans de Waal, Good Natured, Harvard University Press, 1996, 167.
From Reb Mimi Feigelson
Thoughts on Parshashat Matot- Masei
THURSDAY, 24 JULY 2014 02:54 RABBI HILLEL GOLDBERG
THE Israelites were condemned to wander 40 years in the desert. Did they?
Following the failure of the spies to instill confidence in the free Israelite slaves that they could conquer the Land of Israel, G-d said, in effect: Free slaves cannot become free men.
They will have to die out.
It will take 40 years.
Which means: The stopping points of the freed slaves in the desert recall some awful developments, such as the places where the Israelites lost faith that they could conquer the land of Canaan.
At the journey’s end, how much of it should be recalled?
Should the places of failure be mentioned?
The truth is, most people revise their life story as they go along. Points of conflict or failure are forgotten, intentionally written out, dishonestly revised or simply not talked about.
“Revisionist history” is not just a historian’s or a politician’s enterprise. It is the occupation of many, perhaps most, people.
At the end of the Israelite journey in the desert, all of the encampments are recalled. Not one is omitted.
In fact, some of the encampments along the wanderings are mentioned for the first time only in the historical review.
No revisionist history.
THERE were 42 encampments during the 40 years in the desert. The first 14 occurred before the mission of the spies. The last eight took place during the 40th year, after the death of Aaron the High Priest, brother of Moses. So, during the “40 years of wandering,” which actually were 38 years, there were 20 journeys, less than one per year.
There was also backtracking. The Israelites backtracked seven times to bury Aaron in the designated place. All told, then, there were 49 stopping points.
The author of the commentary Sefat Emet considers each of the individual desert treks to be a stage of ascent from the 49th, next-to-last level of impurity to which the slaves in Egypt had sunk.
Traditionally, there are 50 levels of impurity, and if one reaches the 50th (bottom) level, one is incurable.
The Israelites were almost there. But with the exodus they turned around and began to ascend — 49 times. They conquered one level of impurity after the other.
Note: To reach the number 49, Sefat Emet is compelled to include the seven times that the Israelites backtracked.
A life story — be it of a nation or an individual — has to include all the steps. That inclusion — of the good, bad and ugly — does not necessarily add up to a negative picture.
The Israelites’ seven steps in reverse were part of the 49 steps of national ascent. Similarly, mistakes I have made are part of my life story, and may have actually been necessary for me to advance my life, or even to turn it around. Again, in viewing the Israelite nation at the end of its desert journey as having risen beyond all 49 levels of impurity, the backward steps and the encampments at times of failure are included in the count.
Y. Nachshoni summarizes, “At the end of one’s spiritual climb, a Jew must remember all that has happened to him since the start.”
PROBABLY the occasion in which this stricture is observed purely in the breach is the funeral.
As the old Yiddish saying goes, “All brides are beautiful, all dead were pious.”
To paint a person only by his good points is to deprive that person of the struggles he underwent, the challenges he overcome, the victories that did not come easy, the heroism he displayed.
To be perfect from beginning to end, head to toe, is not a compliment, because it cannot be true.
By recalling every encampment of the Israelite nation after it left Egypt, including those encampments when the Israelites rebelled, complained or lost faith is to paint a realistic picture.
Precisely on that score, it is an admirable picture, one to be inspired by.
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News
From the Maqam Project
From American Jewish World Service
Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman
Parashat Masei, the portion of journeys, begins with a recounting of the Israelites’ travels from slavery in Egypt to the borders of Israel. Yet within this re-telling of the Israelites’ trek comes a different journey: the path of a manslayer into exile.
An entire chapter of the parashah addresses the process by which an unintentional murderer is sent out of the community for his own protection. A person convicted of accidentally taking a life is sent to one of six cities of refuge. He lives there, guarded from his victim’s avenging relatives, until the natural death of the high priest.1 If an exiled murderer wants to return home, his only recourse is to pray for the High Priest’s death.
Why the connection between a powerful priest and an accidental killer? Strikingly, the Mishnah tells us that the high priest’s mother is also connected to the exiled manslayers.
…Therefore, the mothers2 of the high priests supply [the unintentional murderers] with food and clothing, in order that they won’t pray that their sons die.3
The image of the High Priest’s mother distributing food and clothing to exiled murderers is unexpected—and incomplete. The text does not fully capture the enormity of her project. Think of the logistics: one woman providing basic necessities for exiled murderers in six different cities. Did she have helpers? It seems that the High Priest’s mother ran the equivalent of a relief organization.
The Mishnah presents the mother’s role in a self-serving manner: she cares for the exiles because she knows it is necessary for the safety of her son. Yet could the High Priest’s mother have another motivation for dedicating her life of social prestige and privilege to those forced to flee their homes?
This story is reminiscent of one we’ve heard before. When baby Moses was endangered by Pharaoh’s decree to kill all first-born Israelite boys, it was an Egyptian princess, the daughter of Pharaoh, who sheltered and nurtured him. Both the mother of the High Priest and the daughter of Pharaoh were women of status who protected the lives of the vulnerable.
In the case of baby Moses, the Israelites were targets of direct oppression. They were taught that their lives were disposable in Egyptian society. In the case of the accidental murderers, the exiled are products of an imperfect legal system: the only means to protect their safety was exclusion. Pharaoh’s daughter and the mother of the High Priest challenged these political and social indignities, preventing the vulnerable from feeling like society’s refuse.
These women have something to teach us.
Around the world, millions of people are taught, purposefully and implicitly, by violence and poverty, by being denied access to education, health care and fair labor, that they are disposable.
Pharaoh’s daughter’s action toward baby Moses was in contradiction to the harsh and violent oppression of Egypt toward the Israelites. Through her aid, the mother of the High Priest brought dignity to the exiled and recognized the injustice of the social system that enforced his exclusion.
This week, the Israelites recount their passage from a place of slavery to a land of promise. Embedded inside is another narrative, the story of a woman embodying care and responsibility for the banished. She models for us the true journey of our people: creating a sustainable freedom with dignity for all.
1 Bamidbar 35.
2 The Mishnah, which refers to “mothers” (plural), indicates that the mother of the high priest could refer to more than one woman, due to the possibility of the appointment and subsequent replacement of a temporary High Priest. (See Pinchas Kehati’s commentary to Mishnah Makkot 2:6.)
3 Mishnah, Makkot 2:6.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
This is a link to Rav DovBer Pinson’s teaching about the Ana B’Koach prayer which is mentioned in commentaries for Parsha Massei
From Rabbi Zelig Golden
Journey to Our Land, Journey to Ourselves: Parsha Mase’ei
Rabbi Zelig Golden | July 17, 2009
In this week’s parsha, Mase’ei or “Journeys,” we recount the forty-two stages of our epic journey through the wilderness from the narrows of Egypt to the Promised Land. Then, G-d describes the perimeter of our physical land, and gives us our very first rule for how to relate to our land. G-d tells Moses: “open space all around the cities shall you give to the Levites. The cities shall be theirs for dwelling, and their open space shall be for their animals, for their possessions, and for all the amenities of life.” (Numbers 35:2-3). Later, the Talmud applied this rule to the land of all Israelites.
The Torah uses the Hebrew term ‘migrash’ to describe this “open space.” What is a ‘migrash’? Some define it as pasture, or functional agricultural land, while other sages, such as Onkelos translate it as ‘revah,’ simple, natural space. Either way, it is notable that the first requirement for how we are to settle our land is to carve out a part of the land and preserve it without building or planting on it.
Why did G-d require a migrash? Some argue that it was simply smart urban planning. Rashi dispells this notion, emphasizing that a migrash refers to an area consisting of a permanent open space serving as a place of beauty and respite from the city. Maimonides further expounds on this idea, stating that one may not make a migrash into a city, nor into a cultivated field (Mishna Torah, Zeraim, Laws of Shmita and Yovel 13:4-5).
So, even as we end the long journey through the wilderness, and prepare to build our cities, we understand the need to carve out untrammeled space to connect with nature, for there we can find the source of ourselves. As A.D. Gordon, the early labor Zionist explained, “Teshuvah, ‘return’ back to God,’ really means human’s return to nature. This is because teshuvah means going back to one’s point of origin, one’s source, coming back home after a period of absence.”
In our modern world of today, how shall we understand the law of migrash? Considering a historical perspective, we were literally exiled from ‘our’ land and repeatedly displaced from lands for almost two thousand years. Thus we were unable to practice migrash because we were alien people in other people’s lands. Even upon our literal return to ‘our’ land with the return to Israel, we have yet to implement migrash again. Some would say this is because of political and economic realities, which may be true, but on a deeper level I believe that we are currently unable to practice migrash because the mode of exile has become so deeply engrained in each one of us, as Gordon explained, “exile reflects the rift between the Jew and nature.”
Gordon’s perspective resonates with my own, that our inability to practice migrash, and our other land-based covenants such as schmita, is as much a symptom of our physical reality as it is a metaphysical one: “The Jews’ return to their land symbolizes human’s return to nature and cosmos, which is a necessary precondition for one’s regeneration and a Jew’s regeneration in particular and humankind’s regeneration as a whole.” Thus, it is my prayers that on whatever land we reside, may each of us end the journey of exile and begin to repair the rift between nature and us so that we may fully return to ourselves.
From Rabbi David Zaslow
I took the names of each of the resting places on the Exodus (Numbers 33) and translated them from the etymological origin of their Hebrew names. The names indicate the varying psychological states experienced by the Israelites, and can be applied to our own lives today…In each of our lifetimes we too make 42 journeys.
The 42 Journeys
Meta-Translations by Rabbi David Zaslow
They journeyed from Born of the Sun
and rested at Thanksgiving Harvest Shelters.
They journeyed from the Thanksgiving Harvest Shelters
and rested at You, With Them.
They journeyed from You, With Them
and rested at Towering Mouth of Freedom Caverns.
They journeyed from Towering Mouth of Freedom Caverns
and rested at Bitter Fountain.They journeyed from Bitter Fountain
and rested at Strong Trees and Rams.
They journeyed from Strong Trees and Rams
and rested at This-Is-The-End Sea.
They journeyed from This is the End Sea
and rested at Desert Where the Moon Was Worshiped.
They journeyed from Desert Where the Moon Was Worshiped
and rested at Who?s That Knocking?
They journeyed from Who?s That Knocking?
and rested at I Will Knead Bread.
They journeyed from I Will Knead Bread
and rested at Rest Our Weakened Hands.
They journeyed from Rest Our Weakened Hands
and rested at Ultimate Revelation.
They journeyed from Ultimate Revelation
and rested at Graves of Lust.
They journeyed from Graves of Lust a
and rested at Settled Abode.
They journeyed from Settled Abode
and rested at Wild Broom Juniper.
They journeyed from Wild Broom Juniper
and rested at Bursting Pomegranate.
They journeyed from Bursting Pomegranate
and rested at Moon White Bricks.
They journeyed from Moon White Bricks
and rested at Dew Drop Ruins.
They journeyed from Dew Drop Ruins
and rested at Community.
They journeyed from Community
and rested at Illuminated Beauty.
They journeyed from Illuminated Beauty
and rested at the Shaking In Fear.
They journeyed from Shaking In Fear
and rested at Assembly of Voices.
They journeyed from Assembly of Voices
and rested at Beneath and Under.
They journeyed from Beneath and Under
and rested at Remembering Abraham?s Father.
They journeyed from Remembering Abraham?s Father
and rested at Impact of Sweetness.
They journeyed from Impact of Sweetness
and rested at Oil of Eight.
They journeyed from Oil of Eight
and rested at the Bonds of Ethics.
They journeyed from Bonds of Ethics
and rested at Wells of the Sons of Twisting.
They journeyed from Wells of the Sons of Twisting
and rested at Inroad Hole.
They journeyed from an Inroad Hole
and rested at Goodness.
They journeyed from Goodness
and rested at Passage Over.
They journeyed from Passage Over
and rested at Giant?s Backbone.
They journeyed from the Giant?s Backbone
and rested at Palm Desert which is Holy.
They journeyed from Palm Desert which is Holy
and rested at Mountain on a Mountain.
They journeyed from Mountain on a Mountain
and rested at Shady Image Place.
They journeyed from Shady Image Place
and rested at Obscurity in Darkness.
They journeyed from Obscurity in Darkness
and rested at Bottle Rattling Ghosts.
They journeyed from Bottle Rattling Ghosts
and rested at The Ruins of Passing Over.
They journeyed from The Ruins of Passing Over
and rested at Waste and Fortune.
They journeyed from Waste and Fortune
and rested at The Secret of the Two Dried Fig Cakes.
They journeyed from The Secret of the Two Dried Fig Cakes
and rested at Mountains of Passing Across.
They journeyed from Mountains of Passing Across
and rested at the Plains of a Fathers Seed.
They rested at the Plains of a Father?s Seed
by the Flowing Downward River, City of the Moon ?
from the House of Desolation
by Mourning Adversarial Meadow
on the Plains of a Father?s Seed.
Shabbat Parashat Mattot-Masei
July 21, 2012/2 Av 5772
By: Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat,
Lecturer in Rabbinics
Down the River
Torah Reading: Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
Haftarah Reading: Jeremiah 2:4-28:3, 3:4, 4:1-2
Last year on this week’s Torah portion, I was in Cancun, Mexico for a vacation. I was at a crossroads in my life and unsure how to move forward. I was deciding between two professional avenues and had been debating internally to no avail.
Then we spent the day tubing down a river. The river had a gentle, almost imperceptible current. Along the way, I discovered that the current was stronger than it seemed. I felt a huge difference between when I was swimming with the current or against it. When I was with the current, I moved swiftly stroke after stroke in one direction. However, at one point, I ended up too far to the side and got stuck in an inlet. To get out, I needed to swim against the current which was difficult. It took all my strength to get back to the main part of the river.
At the bottom of the river, I realized that one of my options felt like swimming with the current and the other felt like swimming against it. My choice became clear.
This week’s Torah portion is also at a crossroads. The double portion Mattot-Masei (which means Tribes-Journeys) concludes the book of Numbers. At the end of the each book of the Torah, three special words are recited — “Chazak chazak v’nitchazek” which means, “strong strong, and we will get stronger.”
I once learned a poignant lesson about the last word of each book of the Torah. The book of Bereshit (Genesis) tells the story from the creation of the world through the death of Joseph. The last word of the book of Genesis is b’mitzrayim (which means “in Egypt”). This word is a perfect segue into the book of Shemot (Exodus) which is all about the Israelites’ slavery and the Exodus from Egypt.
The last word of the book of Shemot (Exodus) is ma’saehem which means “their journeys” which leads beautifully into the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) which is about the people’s desert travels. The last word of Vayikra is Sinai, the Mountain on which the Israelites received the Torah. The last word of Bamidbar (Numbers) is Jericho, a place near the Jordan River which was one of the last stops along the trek. Finally, the last word of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is Israel, the ultimate destination.
Taken together, those five words: “b’mitzrayim (in Egypt), ma’saehem (their journeys), Sinai, Jericho and Israel” are a concise summary of the Torah. These words are like a current flowing through the Torah — pulling from one book to the other, moving the Jewish people forward.
In reflecting back on the day on the river, the current became to me a metaphor for God. Each of us has a divine current within our lives. As in the river, the current alone is not enough; we still need to swim. Likewise, the presence of God in our lives does not exempt us from taking action. Yet we can notice when our efforts feel like they’re in concert with or contrary to our inner current. Sometimes, we need to allow the current to take us in a direction we didn’t expect. God’s plans for us may be different than the course we mapped out for ourselves. Following God’s lead, we may find blessings we never could have anticipated.
As summer creeps towards fall, and Numbers moves to Deuteronomy, let’s swim along with the divine current within our hearts. Chazak Chazak v’nitzchazek: Strong, strong, and we’ll grow stronger.
July 29, 2011
Rabbi Kerry M. OlitzkySpecial to the Jewish Times
It is probably not coincidental that the doubled Torah portion of Matot and Masei is more frequently joined together than any other in the annual cycle of Torah readings. Some will say that it is a coincidence of the calendar.
I would argue that the Rabbis chose this combination because of its message — the oaths that are listed in Parshat Matot help prepare us for the recollections of the journey of Israel in Parshat Masei.
A perfunctory read of Masei suggests that it is a straightforward recounting of the journey of the ancient Israelites in the desert, a sort of after-the-fact itinerary. It reads like the same kind of retelling that anyone might do following their own trip.
One after another, “We went here and this is what happened.” But this is no simple slide show of scenic stops along a vacation route. Rather, it is really a recounting of the miracles that Israel experienced in the desert, contextualized by a redemption from Egypt at the beginning and the anticipation of a Land of Promise and beyond, at the end.
Much like our own lives, the journey of our ancestors was divided into segments.
In fact, there are 42 segments that are identified in this recounting, 42 opportunities to experience the Divine on the journey. Much as we do before we take a step into the future, we relive the past, how we got to this place.
What is most important is the lesson that this Torah portion teaches. Each step along the way is framed in reflection of the relationship with the Divine. Each step acknowledges the presence of the Divine — the participation of the Divine — in our journey.
What is striking, however, is that what would be the paradigmatic experience — the revelation at Sinai, which really acts as a measuring for everything else — is missing from the listing. One commentator, Rabbi Mordechai HaCohen, in his volume Al HaTorah, suggests that “once the Torah was given, it became timeless and cut loose from any one place: Every moment is its moment and every place its place.”
In effect, therefore, it became embedded in each step of the journey and didn’t need to be separated out. Once revealed, the Torah became the roadmap for the journey — as it is for us today.
The journey in the desert evolved. We didn’t know what we would encounter between Egypt and Israel. Our lives are an evolving journey. We know not what we will encounter between our narrow places of Egypt and our promised lands of destination.
More than many others, the presence of G-d — the actual miracles of G-d — is acknowledged throughout this portion. That is why the oaths in Matot are so important. They initiate our connection that is then realized in the recounting in Masei. The Israelites noted the miracles in their lives and shared it with us through this recounting across hundreds of generations.
We must do the same. As we experience the miracles of everyday living, we shouldn’t be afraid to share it with others or acknowledge the Source of these miracles as we share them.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Some Day Thing 2011
Or everyone’s wrong
These and these are the words of the living God [Eruvin 13b]
For three years Hillel and Shammai argued
Until a Bat Kol – a voice from heaven –
We were eavesdropping on Hashem’s messengers
This and also this [eilu v’eilu]
Hillel prevailed because he was either humble
Shammai was severe.
Hillel, I am told, led with kindness
Shammai led with potential
What it might be in the future
I was thinking —
We need Your wisdom
And we need it now.
The arguments haven’t settled out yet
It’s a someday thing
Someday somebody would get it
But until they do —
Lead with kindness
Both — eilu v’eilu —
Both opinions are Godliness
For the sake of heaven, they used to say
String beads, be compassionate, be humble,
We know they’re right.
There are so many stops on the way
42 to be exact
I can’t be sure any one is more meaningful
Than any other
I do know this:
Every turn necessary
Every stop significant
And if Sinai isn’t mentioned?
It’s not because we weren’t there.
I was there
You bet I was
And I’m going back again.
jsg, s’dot yam
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Energy of the Week: Parshas Masei
Rav DovBer Pinson
Short Trip in the Long Journey
Marking Short Term Goals and Destinations
This week’s Torah reading concludes the book of Bamidbar, known as ‘numbers.’ The literal translation of Bamidbar is ‘in the desert.’ The Torah recaps the journeys the nation of Israel took, beginning with an exodus from Egypt, and continuing with their forty year journey in the desert.
The opening words are; “These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt…. They journeyed from… and camped in…” (33:1-5)
In total the Torah marks forty-two journeys, each one of these journeys includes a movement and a resting point. Every journey includes an actual movement and a camping, and together they create a ‘journey.’ Their destination was the Promised Land, yet the forty-two journeys took them as far as the Land, and they did not (yet) enter.
Further along in this week’s Torah reading we learn about the forty-two cities that were given to the Levites, as they did not inherit a portion in the actual land of Israel as did the other eleven tribes. These cities of the Levites also served as cities of refuge, for those seeking immunity and in need of spiritual/mental/psychological healing.
The forty-two journeys of the desert represent and are parallel to, the forty-two cities of the Levites. Just as the forty-two cities offered shelter and a home for the wanderers in the land of Israel, both for the nomadic Levites, and those in need of shelter, the forty-two journeys of camping represent a resting point, and a place of shelter throughout the turbulent desert journey.
These forty-two journeys are representative of our movement through life. There is the big goal that we are constantly striving towards, our promised land, as it were. And then there are the smaller achievements we accomplish on the way. These smaller journeys are essential to the bigger picture, and each one is complete as a journey on its own.
Vayisu, vayachanu – And they traveled and they camped. Each small journey is a full cycle of movement and rest.
This is reflected as well in the ‘Ana B’koach’ – the ancient prayer that corresponds to the forty-two letter name of Hashem – that is used to assist us in transitions. To transition from one journey in life to another, we must include the movement and the resting place and then the journey will be a forward and upward movement towards our larger life goals.
The Energy of the Week:
Marking Short Term Goals and Destinations
This week is the energy of the small goal accomplishment. The energy of the one year plan as opposed to the life plan. In our lives we must have both, the overarching life goal – which is the big plan, and the smaller goals, those that we hope to accomplish this week, this month or this year. These goals are all moving towards the ultimate life goal, yet each one is its own journey, with its own set of hurdles, celebrations and plateaus.
At times, thinking of the larger life goals, we become overwhelmed, and the achievement of that goal seems an impossibility.
A person with a life’s desire to create a warm loving home and family who finds herself single, may feel that this life goal is out of reach and unattainable. But the journey towards the big goal is paved with smaller journeys, incremental steps that take us ever forward. For this person, setting a goal of dating at least one person a month would be the small journey.
This week take an accounting of your large life goal, and then set a ‘small goal’ which is aligned with the larger one but stands on its own.
Allow this goal to be its own journey – complete with movement and rest. Mark the accomplishment of the small goal as its own success before moving forward to the next journey.
From Rabbi Yolles 5770
In the second of this week’s portions we learn about Israel’s journey from exodus to reaching the Holy Land on shore of the Yarden (Jordan River). There are a total of 42 stations in this 40 year trek. The Kabbalah teaches us that this corresponds to the 42 initials of the words in ANA B’EKOACH, recited amongst other places before Friday night Lechad Dodi. Ana B’ekoach is construed on the ingathering of dispersed holy sparks; it follows that the journey in the terrifying empty wasteland of the dessert was for the purpose of the holy sparks drifting aimlessly without filling their purpose, fulfill Ha’shems space in creation with holiness.
Our journey in life that – everyone’s of us – consists of this 42 “stations” wherever Ha’shem brings us everyplace that we find ourselves in His greater plan for Tikkun olam. We have a purpose to fulfill, to fill Our station with their kiddusha of the needs of Nitzotot Hakedoshim that we bring home from wasted disbursal to their ultimate purpose.
A word of Torah studied, a word of tefillah (prayer) uttered, a word of comfort to the distressed, a mitzvah fulfilled, fills our world with holiness of the spark until they make the world fit the holiness of the rebuilt beit hamikdash for which we long so intensely in these weeks.
May HaShem give the most holy Shabbat of light and delight with all its berachot to all and in every way.
With Sincere love,
I highly recommend studying birth parshiot as a means to understanding one’s path in this life. I have learned a great deal from the commentaries on Mattos Masei, my birth parsha. Most of us have both inspiring and difficult sections in our birth parshiot. I am certainly no exception. The way I process the difficult parts is that they serve to highlight areas that need healing within ourselves. They can also point to ways we can bring healing to the world around us .
I was born on the 6th Aliyah, one half hour from the 7th Aliyah. So I pay special attention to these sections within Massei. My commentary for the Torah Circle Blog concerns the 7th Aliyah.
7th Aliyah – the Daughters of Tzelofchad part 2
I have always been drawn to the women in the Torah. It is fascinating to me that the Daughters of Tzelofchad were from the tribe of Menashe. Most commentators say that in Bereshit, the conflict among brothers over the question of the birthright ended with Menashe and Ephriam, Joseph’s sons. In most of the stories, the older brother was passed over in favor of the younger brother. Much ill will followed even to the point of violence.
At Jacob’s death bed, Ephriam received the birthright blessing over Menashe, the first born. Both accepted this judgment. But was there really healing?
It seems to me that the Daughters, by claiming their inheritance in the parsha Pinchas, finally settled the birthright karma. The parsha, Massei, develops this further. There were no brothers so Moses told them that they needed to marry within their tribe so that the inheritance would stay within the tribe. While I admire the Daughters’ holy chutzpah, and would benefit from their example, it needed to be tempered by the needs of the community – holy balance. With this settled, at the end of Bamidbar, the Israelites were ready to cross the Jordan river and enter the Promised Land.
Posted by Aryae
Rabbi Zvi Miller
What is the significance of the Torah listing the names of the remote places that the People of Israel passed on their 40 year trek through the desert?
One might think that we survived in the desert by staying close to cities, where we could purchase food supplies and water. However, the locations show that the route took us right through the heart of the blazing desert. There was no Hilton, supermarket, or even farmland for miles and miles.
The only one way to survive in the desert with no food, water, or protection is by a constant miracle! For forty years, HaShem provided us with ample food, water, clothing, and shade. He revealed that every second of life – and all the provisions at our disposal – are gifts from HaShem.
While HaShem often “hides Himself” through nature; the sprouting of vegetation from the earth is no less miraculous than the manna that came from Heaven! Once we learn the secret that HaShem loves the People of Israel like His beloved child, we know for certain that He will take care of us and our needs.
Happiness is clarity of HaShem’s loving-kindness for each person. The more we focus on His love and appreciate His constant, incomparable kindness, the happier we will be. A child instinctively feels exuberant around his parents, because he knows how much they love him.
So too, when we are aware that HaShem is our Creator, we will be exuberant. Every second He surrounds us with love, care, and kindness; granting us health, life, understanding, air, tasty food, family and friends, a soul, the wisdom of the holy Torah, etc.
The only thing He asks of us is to reflect on His love until we shine with happiness and joy.
[Based on the Rambam and Ohr RaShaz]
From Melissa Carpenter
Masei: Drive Out the Old
Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you are crossing the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you must dispossess everyone dwelling in the land before you, and you must destroy all their carved symbols, and you must destroy all the images of their cast-metal idols, and you must demolish all their high worship-platforms. You must take possession of the land and you must dwell in it, because I have given the land to you to take possession of it. (Numbers 33:51-53; Masei)
reshet = to take possession of (land, a city, a house), to inherit; to dispossess, to displace someone from his property, to drive out
This instruction from God to Moses appears in the last Torah portion of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when the Israelites are camped on the bank of the Jordan River, ready to cross over into the “promised land”—where, unfortunately, other people are already living. If I take God’s instruction literally, I feel sorry for the Canaanites, who have lived there for generations. Surely some of them are righteous people, even if they follow a different religion, yet God wants all of them to be thrown out of the houses that they built and driven off the farms that they planted.
However, the divine instruction above could also be taken as an allegory for how any human beings who have reached the age of reflection can change their own inner lives, their own inner lands.
When you are crossing the Jordan into the land of Canaan—or, when you are crossing the dangerous boundary between your old, habitual, reflexive beliefs and a new way of thinking—
you must dispossess everyone dwelling in the land before you— you must uproot all the established mental habits you have lived by in the land of your mind—
and you must destroy all their carved symbols—and you must recognize the symbols and myths you learned from your parents and teachers, and question them even though they were carved into your childhood thinking—
and you must destroy all the images of their cast-metal idols—and you must discover which of your beliefs are idols set up by your parents or your society, and use the flame of your emotions to melt them down inside you—
and you must demolish all their high worship-platforms—and you must stop assuming that these myths and idols are of high worth, and cease to worship them.
You must take possession of the land and you must dwell in it—You must take conscious responsibility for your own mind, especially your own mental habits and assumptions, and you must live consciously—
because I have given the land to you to take possession of it—because God has given you a mind capable of self-reflection and conscious choice.
God’s instructions about dispossessing the Canaanites continue:
But if you do not dispossess those dwelling in the land before you, then those whom you allow to remain behind will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they will hamper you on the land in which you dwell. And it will be that what I intended to do to them, I will do to you. (Numbers 33:55-56; Masei)
But if you do not dispossess those dwelling in the land before you—But if you do not clear out the mental habits you acquired from other people—
then those whom you allow to remain behind will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides—then your old mental habits will blind you to new opportunities, and prick you with continual pangs of regret;
they will hamper you on the land in which you dwell—your unexamined reactions will make your life more difficult and constricted.
And it will be that what I intended to do to them, I will do to you—And if you do not change your thinking habits yourself, then disasters will drive you out of your mind.
These are the journeys of the children of Israel…(33:1)
The forty-two “stations” from Egypt to the Promised Land are replayed in the life of every individual Jew, as his soul journeys from its descent to earth at birth to its return to its Source.
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
These are the journeys of the children of Israel going out of the land of Mitzrayim (Egypt)… (33:1)
It would seem that there was only one journey which took the Jewish nation out of Egypt–their journey from Raamses to Sukkot. The other “journeys” listed in our Parshah were between points outside of the geographical borders of Egypt. Why, then, does the Torah speak of “the journeys” — in the plural — “of the children of Israel going out of the land of Mitzrayim”?
Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for “Egypt,” means “borders” and “narrows.” On the spiritual level, the journey from Egypt is a journey from the boundaries that limit us–an Exodus from the narrow straits of habit, convention and ego to the “good broad land” of the infinite potential of our G-dly soul.
And the journey from Mitzrayim is a perpetual one: what is expansive and uninhibited by yesterdays standards, is narrow and confining in light of the added wisdom and new possibilities of todays station. Thus, each of lifes “journeys” is an Exodus from the land of Mitzrayim: having transcended yesterdays limitations, we must again journey from the Mitzrayim that our present norm represents relative to our newly-uncovered potential.
(Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)
And they journeyed from… and they camped at… (33:1-49)
Our chapter opens, “These are the journeys of the children of Israel.” However, it then proceeds to recount not the journeys but the forty-two encampments at which they stopped during their sojourn in the Sinai Desert!
Yet these encampments were not ends unto themselves–only way-stations and stepping stones to advance the nation of Israel in their goal of attaining the Promised Land. So the stops themselves are referred to as “journeys”.
The same is true of the journey of life. Pauses, interruptions and setbacks are an inadvertent part of a person’s sojourn on earth. But when everything a person does is toward the goal of attaining the “Holy Land” — the sanctification of the material world — these, too, are “journeys”. Ultimately, they are shown to have been the true motors of progression, each an impetus to the realization of one’s mission and purpose in life.
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
And Moses wrote down their goings out to their journeys, by the command of G-d (33:2)
The journey from Egypt to the Holy Land was a one-way journey: the Israelites did not physically revisit their encampments in the desert. What, then, is the significance of the “return journey” made by the king and his child in the above-cited parable by the Midrash?
As the people of Israel traveled through the desert, they experienced their forty-two encampments as interruptions, even setbacks, in their progress towards the Promised Land. But on the eve of their entry into the Holy Land, they were able to “return”, to look back upon these encampments and re-experience them in a different light: not as a people venturing from slavery toward an unknowable goal through a fearful wilderness, but as a people who, having attained their goal, could now appreciate how each way-station in their journey had forged a particular part of their identity and had contributed to what and where they were today.
The great desert we each must cross in the journey of life is the product of what the Kabbalists call the tzimtzum (“constriction”): G-ds creation of a so-called vacuum within His all-pervading immanence, a bubble of darkness within His infinite light that allows man the choice between good and evil. For in order that our acts of goodness should be meaningful, there must also be the choice of evil.
Three conditions are necessary to create the possibility of free choice in the heart of man:
a) There must be a withdrawal of the divine light and the creation of the “vacuum” that allows the existence of evil.
b) It is not enough that evil exist; it must also be equipped with the illusion of worthiness and desirability. If evil were readily perceived for what it is — the suppression of light and life — there would be no true choice.
c) On the other hand, an absolute vacuum would shut out all possibility for choosing life. Thus the tzimtzum must be mitigated with a glow, however faint, of the Divine light that empowers us to overcome darkness and death.
Therein lies the deeper significance of the three stations in the Midrashs metaphor — “Here we slept,” “Here we were cooled,” “Here your head hurt.”
“Here we slept” refers to the withdrawal of the Divine vitality in order to create the tzimtzum.
“Here we were cooled” refers to the mitigation of the tzimtzum with a faint glow of divine light.
And “Here your head hurt” is a reference to the many contortions that cloud our minds and confuse our priorities, leading to a distorted vision of reality and misguided decisions.
All these, however, serve a single purpose: to advance us along the journey of life and to imbue the journey with meaning and worth. Today we can only reiterate to ourselves our knowledge of this truth; on the “return journey,” we shall revisit these stations and see and experience their true import.
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
To flee there anyone who slays a soul unawares (35:15)
Every transgression of the Divine will is a subtle form of “inadvertent murder”: “Murder” because it disrupts the flow of vitality from the Source of Life to the soul of the transgressor; “inadvertent” because a sinful deed is always contrary to the true will of the transgressor, who has been mislead by the distortions imposed by his animal self.
For the one who spiritually “slays a soul unawares” there have been set aside six spiritual “cities of refuge.” These are (as per the Sefer HaChinuch cited above) the “six constant mitzvot” that apply to every Jew, at all times, and in all circumstances, so that they are readily accessible to one who seeks refuge from his faults and failings, whomever he might be and wherever the desire to rectify his life might strike him.
But a haven is of little use if it is inaccessible or its location is unknown. As is the case with the physical cities of refuge, it is the communitys responsibility to “straighten the roads… to repair them and broaden them… remove all impediments and obstacles” and post signs at all crossroads and pointing the way to the haven of Torah.
To one of the family of her father’s tribe shall she be a wife (36:8)
Said Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel: “There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur.
I can understand Yom Kippur, because it is a day of forgiveness and pardon and on it the second Tablets of the Law were given; but what happened on the fifteenth of Av? Rav Judah said in the name of Shmuel: It is the day on which permission was granted to the tribes to intermarry. For it is written: “This is the thing which G-d has commanded concerning the daughters of Tzelafchad….”–meaning this ordinance shall remain in effect for this generation only.
(Talmud, Taanit 30b)
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
NUMBERS 33:1 – 36:13
Massei outlines the forty-two stops along the way on our wilderness journey.
SOMETIMES I THINK OF MY LIFE as one long interesting journey. Massei reminds me that every journey takes place in stages and each stage carries its own distinct blessing to be unwrapped and savored, its own messages to be gleaned and digested. The word Massei really refers to the “setting forths” we do. As each stage of a journey comes to an end, we pull up our stakes and move on, initiating a new adventure. At each stage of the journey I become aware of my own transformation. I’m never the same adventurer who set forth the last time.
Forty-two stops or stages along the Israelites path are enumerated and named. Each stopping point on the journey holds a blessing for us. The Ba’al Shem Tov reminds us, “Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the forty-two journeys of the children of Israel will occur to each person between the time he is born and the time he dies.”
We recount the itinerary of our wanderings in order to receive the lessons and blessings of each stage of our journey. As we become aware of the significance of each stage, we can receive its benefit. It is our awareness and appreciation that transform our story into a blessing.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER at each stage of our journey that we will encounter some obstacle or resistance. However annoying, difficult or devastating that obstacle is, its presence can call forth a particular power that lies hidden within us. The way in which the obstacle compels us to transform demonstrates the exact transformation our soul needs for its growth. In fact, the potentials that lie buried within us often require an appropriate challenge in order to be released and manifested.
It is more than a strange coincidence that the secret, unpronounceable name of God that can dissolve the obstacles in our lives has forty-two letters. Perhaps each letter represents one stage in our journey and the magic power of this name lies in its potential to embrace all the stages at once.
RABBI NECHUNIAH BEN HAKANAH, who lived in the second half of the first century C.E., wrote a special prayer with forty-two words, the initials of which comprise the forty-two letter Divine name. The first line is: “Ana B’choach Gedulat Y’mincha Tatir Tz’rurah” (Please, with the strength of your right hand, untie our tangles). Rabbi Nechuniah wanted to be able to pronounce the unpronounceable, to call out and call forth the reality of the whole in order to deal with the stubborn tangles that keep us stuck.
We move through our obstacles by knowing them in the context of our life’s journey. The spiritual challenge of Massei lies in seeing the big picture, even as we are stopped along the way by seemingly insurmountable resistances or difficulties. Those “impossible” challenges that we face represent the work of our soul’s growth. Understanding that the obstacles are the point of the journey may help us to manage the pain or despair that we may experience as we encounter these inevitable difficulties along the way.
AT THE TIME of my divorce years ago, the pain of my broken heart seemed unbearable. My tears filled up every crevice of my being and overflowed until I could barely imagine ever feeling happy again. At some point, a small wise voice spoke inside me and said, “In a year you’ll feel just fine, maybe even better than fine.” I believed that voice, embraced its promise and had a moment’s vision of myself a year from then, filled with joy. Then I saw the year ahead during which I knew I would be doing the hard work of grieving and healing from not only this divorce, but from every loss I had ever suffered. “Can’t I just skip this year?” I whined.
We learn from Massei that every stage is essential to the journey. There are no short-cuts; no way to skip over the challenges. Even what seem like mistakes or dead-ends or wrong turns along the way can provide us with the necessary raw ingredients for wisdom. Those ingredients must be prepared with self-compassion and unwavering attention, cooked with patience and humility, and served up with a sense of humor.
1 From Psalm 23
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