Parshas Masei (5774)
One of the most fundamental ideas in Judaism is that everything that is recorded in the Torah carries within it an important lesson for life.
In fact, the word “Torah” itself illustrates this point. Torah is often translated as “Bible” or “Law” or “Scroll”, but these are incorrect translations. Torah shares the same etymological root as Horeh (“parent” in Hebrew) and Moreh (“teacher” in Hebrew) and means “teaching” and “instruction”. The Torah is G-d’s instruction book for optimal living.
This being the case, we need to ask ourselves when studying any passage in the Torah – no matter how esoteric and strange it might seem – what is the lesson I can learn from this and apply to my life?
And there is no better place to start asking this question than this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Masei, which begins with a list of the forty-two journeys that the Jewish people travelled through the desert from the time they left Egypt until they reached the Land of Israel (see Numbers 33:1-49).
Why did the Torah need to record all these journeys that our ancestors travelled? What is the message for all of us living in North America more than 3300 years after these journeys took place?
In the first commentary of Rash”i on this week’s Torah portion, he quotes Rabbi Tanchuma who answers this question with a parable:
“This can be compared to a king whose son was ill and he took him to a distant place to cure him. Once they started back, his father began to count all of the journeys. He said to his son, ‘Here we slept. Here we felt cold. Here you had a headache, etc.’”
The Gur Aryeh explains that just as the king recapitulated for his son all that he went through on his son’s account, to show his son how much he loves him, so, too, does G-d recapitulate for the Jewish people all the journeys that they took together through the desert, to remind them of His great love for them.
The Baal Shem Tov teaches that the forty-two journeys recounted in this week's Torah reading parallel the lives of each and every Jew. Birth is equivalent to the exodus from Egypt, and from that point a person makes forty-two journeys in life, until he reaches his own “Promised Land” (the World to Come).
In the desert, each of the forty-two encampments provided the Jewish people with a unique spiritual challenge for them to overcome. By way of illustration, the Baal Shem Tov points to one of the forty-two encampments of the Jews in the desert, Kivros HaTa’avah (lit. ‘burial of craving’; the graves of [those possessed by] craving). There the Jews buried those who were punished as a result of their lust for meat (see Numbers 11:30-35).
This encampment had the potential to bring the Jews to an elevated spiritual state, one in which they could "bury craving." But the Jews did not rise to the challenge, and so the forces of evil were able to bring about the outcome described in the Torah.
This parallels our own lives. Each of the forty-two journeys that we have to travel through life provides us with a special challenge and opportunity for growth that is uniquely designed and tailor-made for us. We of course have free will, so that we can either make the right choice and grow from the challenge or we can let it overtake us and bring us down.
The Tzror Hamor explains the recording of the forty-two journeys in yet a different light. He writes that G-d recorded all these journeys that our ancestors travelled through the desert in order to help us strengthen our bitachon (trust) in the Ultimate Redemption.
Knowing that we have gone through so much persecution and exile throughout the centuries and millennia, G-d wanted to show us that just as our ancestors spent forty years “exiled” in the desert, enduring all kinds of hardship and persecution along the journey, yet they made it to the Promised Land, so, too, will we ultimately emerge from the long and bitter exile to merit the final redemption with the coming of the Messiah.
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, a disciple of Rabbi Elijah of Vilna and spiritual leader of East European Jewry in the early 1800's, was once heard to comment prophetically that the Jewish people would have to go through ten successive exiles before the Messiah will arrive - these include Babylon, Spain, France, Germany, Poland and Russia - and that the last stop would be North America.
On this last leg of our journey through the exile, when we can almost hear the footsteps of the Messiah who will be here any day, may we all be strengthened and comforted knowing that the end of all our tzaros (troubles) is near, and the good times are close at hand.