Masei and the Journey of Our Lives

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.  - Ernest Hemingway

Imagine yourself on a commuter train. It is a train you journey each and every weekday, day in and day out. You board at the station nearest your home, following the same routine – lost in your inner world, eyes buried in the newspaper, busily working a crossword puzzle, lost listening to music… Even without looking up, you mark the stations and stops along the line. When you do occasionally glance up, you register the same faces coming onto the train, the same faces getting off. Faces familiar to you, and yet unknown.

Day after day. Each seeming the same as the last. But each as different from the other as snowflakes in a winter storm.

Imagine how different the journey would be if you were fully aware during the train ride rather than sleepwalking through it! Imagine what you might see and learn – not just about your fellow passengers but about yourself.

In truth, a commute to and from work is not particularly telling. The more important question is, Do you sleepwalk through your life the same way? For it is not hard to imagine your train journey as a metaphor, a metaphor for your life. You enter at your station, you are born, and your journey begins. People come and go, getting on at one station and leaving at another. Events occur. There, at that station, that young lady with the shy smile…? Will she change your life by becoming your wife? Is the earnest young man who stepped on the train at the stop after yours destined to be your student, or your teacher? Will this one catch you when you lose your footing on the stairs? Is that one the physician who will diagnose and treat your illness?

How to know which stop and which station will bring a moment of significance? So it goes as you travel along, always barreling toward your final destination.

You may ask, Is it a little “too poetic” to think of a daily train ride in such lofty, metaphoric terms? I think not, certainly not when considering parshat Masei.

“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went forth from the land of Egypt… and these were their journeys according to their goings forth” (Bamidbar 33:1-2).

The parasha lists the entire forty-two encampments – a complete listing of each and every “station” along the way from Mitzrayim and the Exodus – until the Children of Israel stood at the banks of the Jordan, ready to cross into Eretz Yisrael. No LIRR route map is any more detailed! Why the entire listing? Is Bamidbar to be understood as little more than a guidebook or tourist magazine?

Hardly. Torah is never merely history or travelogue. So, why the complete list?

It is fascinating that several of the locations noted in Masei are not found in earlier chapters of Bamidbar. If they were so unremarkable then, why list them now?

Ramban teaches that God wanted Moshe to record all of these stops because great secrets are inherent in the forty two stops. Magen Avraham goes so far as to teach that the forty two places allude to God’s mystical forty-two letter name. Regardless of the lesson, what is clear is that each and every stop along the way has meaning. We learn from the list that God is at every stop on life’s journey, whether seen or unseen, known or unknown. Even more important, without God’s ongoing compassion and care, we could never survive the journey.

Notwithstanding the decree that the Israelites wander through the Midbar for forty years, their rest stops were extended and significant. Forty two stops. The first fourteen before the mission of the Meraglim. The last eight in the fortieth year, after Aaron passed away. So during the thirty-eight years in-between there were only twenty “legs” of the journey.

Someone is guiding them, no? But still, what do we learn? Only that God is intimately involved in our lives? We do not need forty-two stops to know that. What is unique here?

To understand, we have to return to our metaphor. Life, like a train ride, is a journey with numerous starts and stops, many opportunities to visit, to meet and greet, to learn and experience. Every stop shapes us, colors our views, helps us become who we are. We cannot know who we are without knowing where we have been and what we have seen and done.

So too Israel.

In the second posuk of the Parsha we are told that, “Moshe wrote their goings forth (motzaeiem) according to their journeys at the bidding of Hashem, and these were their journeys (maseiem)  according to their goings forth…”  At the posuk’s conclusion, this same idea is restated, but with the order reversed; their journeys according to their goings forth.

A mere travelogue would make nothing of the reversal. But this is no travelogue; this is Torah. The change in order has meaning. We see that the first phrase refers to how God regarded their travels, while the second accounts for the very same travels from man’s point of view.

God lays out the “travel plan” with a single goal – progression to the next stop and then the next until they reach the Promised Land. But man, in this regard, knows better. He has a “better way”. Why this way? Why not that way? It’s too hot here. Too cold here. I’m tired. Enough with the manna already!

It is human nature to be impatient; to want new or “better” adventures. To want comfort. Certainly it is human to complain! As Rav Hirsch notes, Israel’s purpose was not the destination, but the journey. They rejoiced in moving on because they were tired of the “old place.” Perhaps the next stop will be nicer. They did not rejoice because they neared the destination.

Yet one could ask, Why go anyplace if not expressly to get there?

Rashi cites Midrash Tanchuma, which describes the travels as a metaphor of a king (God) whose son (Klal Yisrael) was ill, who took him to a distant place (Eretz Yisrael) in order to cure him (spiritually).  Only on the return does the father remind his son of all that transpired on the long and difficult journey. Here we slept; here we were cold; here you cried to me.

From the Midrash, we learn that it is not in spite of but because of the challenges of journey that we arrive at our destination.

Yes, we journey to arrive at our destination but it only by remembering the challenges of the journey – as a mirror of both our personal and national challenges – that we are able to appreciate the journey and arrive at the destination.

Something to consider the next time you find yourself dozing off on the commuter train!