Matos-Masei: Journeys

As we come to the end of the fourth book of the Torah – Bamidbar (Numbers) – the Torah recounts the forty-two journeys of the Jews in the desert.  “Forty-two” is the number that represents elevation and ascent, and the journeys of the Jews in the desert were an elevation and ascent preparing them to enter the land of Israel.  Not all of their journeys were peaceful – in fact, most were filled with strife and disunity (only one – by Mt. Sinai – was an encampment of true unity) – but by the end of the forty years in the desert, the Jews were no longer questioning Moshe nor thinking about returning to Egypt.  It was clear that they had a national purpose and that they were sticking to the goal.  For example, even though the tribes of Reuven and Gad preferred to live on the east bank of the Jordan River rather than in Israel itself, they agreed to fight in front of the rest of the Jews in order to conquer the land, and only afterward to return to their families.  This was a sign that they had learned from the earlier example of the “spies,” and knew how to put the national purpose ahead of their own private needs.

Rashi brings a parable from the Midrash (Tanhuma Masei 3) to illustrate the journeys of the Jews:  On the verse (Num 33:1-2), “These were the journeys of the Jews who left the land of Egypt…Moshe recorded their travels and their encampments according to the world of God,” Rashi comments as follows.  “This is similar to a king whose child was ill and he took him on a journey to heal him.  On the way back, his father recounted their journeys, saying, ‘Here we slept, here we cooled off, and here you had a headache, etc…”  Rashi’ purpose is not to wax poetic, but rather to make the Torah clear to a five years old, so that even he understands the simple level of the Torah.

The desert, being an inhospitable and dry place, represents the lack of Godly illumination that describes that world that we live in.  When God created, He first contracted His infinite light in a process called the tzimtzum, or great “contraction,” in order to create of world the gives us free choice.  If the entire universe were properly illuminated with spirituality, we would have no trouble making the right choices, and we would always choose the Godly path.  In fact, Godliness is so hidden in this world that it often appears as if the right decision is not the spiritual choice, but rather something else.  For that reason, we have the Torah to guide our path.

But, if there were no Godly revelation whatsoever in the world, it would also limit our choices, since we would not know that we could choose a Godly direction at all.  So, God infused the creation with a small ray of Godliness, descending from His infinite light transcending the tzimtzum, to give us a taste of Godly revelation in the world.  This thin ray of spirituality is enough to allow our soul to connect with God and ascend, spiritually.  The tzimtzum is what the beginning of Rashi’s parable hints at – “Here we slept” alludes to the desert, the creation after the tzimtzum, with little or no Godly illumination.  When man sleeps, he is unconscious and his mind does not function, and so the Jews in the desert were in exile.  “Here you had a headache” refers to the confusion and “false leads” that bombard us as we traverse the journeys of life.  These false starts and faulty directions are meant to test us on the path, and they provide an intellectual “headache” and confusion as we try to find our way through the “desert.” Ultimately, though we learn how to recognize them and navigate our way to safer places.  Finally, “Here we cooled off” – even in the middle of the desert, one can find a watering hole, an oasis of green and moisture.  While traversing the desert of life’s challenges, we must take time out to learn Torah, to soothe our soul with the cooling waters of Torah, to renew our sense of purpose and rejuvenate our spirit.   In this way we understand that all of us undergo forty-two journeys in life, from the “desert,” totally lacking any Godly revelation, to the “promised Land,” where spirituality permeates the physical world.

For a longer more detailed version, go to

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol 28, Page 390-398

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