Edifying Expedition

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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

The Torah lists the forty two places Bnei Yisroel encamped during their forty year travels in the desert. Since the Torah has previously named many of these encampments and often related its relevance, why does the Torah now list them again?

Ramban, quoting the Moreh Nevuchim, offers a simple explanation. It is unnatural for a people to exist in a barren wilderness. Yet, through Hashem’s chesed, Bnei Yisroel miraculously survived for forty years. In the future, the nations will question the authenticity of the miracles and claim that Bnei Yisroel must have lived near water and near inhabited areas. The Torah lists these places to counter those arguments, to prove that indeed Bnei Yisroel lived in desolate places and received their food and water directly through God’s miracles. Further, the Torah is praising Bnei Yisroel for our willingness to follow Hashem’s command wherever He led us, sometimes to uncomfortable places and sometimes after a very short rest between journeys. Indeed, Hashem remembers our youthful chesed toward Him as we lovingly followed Him as a young bride follows her husband, later records the Prophet Yirmiyahu.

In Areset Sefateinu Rabbi Schlesinger points out an additional redundancy, a redundancy with a twist. “Moshe wrote their motzoeihem lemaseihem/their going forth according to their journeys at the bidding of Hashem, and these were maseihem lemoztoeihem/their journeys according to their going forth.” Not only is the phrase repeated, but it is reversed, notes Rabbi Schlesinger.

Rabbi Hofstedter begins discussing these questions by quoting two medrashim cited by Rashi that on face value appear to contradict each other. First he notes that although Hashem decreed Bnei Yisroel wander int the desert for a total of forty years, they only made a total of twenty different encampments during the remaining thirty eight years. Hashem showed compassion to Bnei Yisroel and they were not wandering continuously.

The second medrash from Rabbi Tanchuma is a parable of a king whose son is very ill. The king is forced to take him on an arduous journey for medical treatment. After the treatment is successful, they take the returned route to each of these places. Recounting these difficulties proved to the prince how much his father loved him, standing by him and protecting him at every stage of the journey. So is Hashem minimizing our difficulties or helping us overcome the difficulties?

In fact, implies Rabbi Hofstedter, these two medrashim complement each other. In Egypt, Bnei Yisroel had been immersed in the lowest depths of impurity. They could not enter the holy land of Israel in that state. They required a purification process. Each leg of the journey represented a purification in healing part of our spiritual ailment, and each encampment allowed us time to reflect and internalize the lesson just learned until we mastered it and were ready to embark on the next leg of the journey. Hashem made Bnei Yisroel travel only when it was necessary for their spiritual growth, and then He allowed them the time to rest, regroup and get ready for the next stage of development.

But if these travels are itemized in the Torah, they include a lesson for all of us, writes Rabbi Eisenberg in Mesillot Bilvovom. Each of us faces challenges and transitions in our life journey. These transitions may be positive or negative, marriage or the birth of a child, or, God forbid, the loss of a loved one or the loss of a job. But each challenge becomes part of who we are and brings our neshamah ever closer to holiness and to a relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

Citing Rav Dessler, Rabbi Eisenberg notes than when bringing korbanot, the korban chatos/sin offering is always offered before the olah/burnt offering. The chatos represents sur meira/leave evil. The periods of travel symbolized a stage of impurity we were rectifying. Then we rested and camped, internalized the message, and dedicated ourselves completely to God as was the burnt offering, asei tov/do good. Our mindset must always be to move forward and grow. Otherwise we will stagnate and regress. The challenges in our lives will constantly change, but they will always be there.

We must never feel content with the status quo. This psychological and spiritual inertia, not striving for a higher level, is a challenge in itself. Our lives are about movement and growth. When Bnei Yisroel camped, when they stopped physically moving, they were focused on internal spiritual movement and growth. The period of bein hamitzorim/the narrow straits, the three week period we are now in in the Jewish calendar, is about being uncomfortable. It should spur us to improve. Take small steps and create some momentum.

Each person’s individual “travels” are uniquely designed for his personal growth. But we must be aware that these challenges occur not only in the macro dimension of the stages of our lives, but also in the micro dimension of daily living. Every experience offers an opportunity to grow. The trick is not to let these moments go by without pausing to internalize them.

Adam leamal yulad/Man was born to struggle. As one enters each new stage of life, one struggles.  Challenges big and small confront him, and all seems dark. But then you see the light, and you realize the positive impact of the change and the struggle you went through. As Rebbetzin Smiles pointed out, anyone who has ever moved knows the difficulties and challenges that were part of the process, but after being settled in, one can look back and see how it was worth it.

The mourning period of the three weeks precedes the yomim noraim/Days of Awe. Although these are sad days, they are not meant to be days to wallow in sorrow, but to be days of internal preparation and growth so that we will be ready for Rosh Hashanah.

The Torah does not here list all the stops Bnei Yisroel made on their journey. These names listed here are allusions to what we had to work on at that time. The medrash clarifies for us some of the places. Bnei Yisroel slept through the lessons and remained uninspired, explains Rabbi Schwab. For example, when the Jews left Egypt, the Egyptians were burying their dead. Their religious practice had always been to embalm their dead. What changed? Hashem had destroyed all their idols, leading them to realize that their gods were worthless. But this message was lost on Bnei Yisroel. Then, only three days                                                                                                                                                                                         after the exodus and the splitting of the Sea, Bnei Yisroel already began complaining to Hashem, Soon after receiving the manna from heaven, they again complained that they had no water and doubted Hashem’s existence. Finally, the places where the prince’s head hurt were the places we lost those great people who headed our nation.

Our job in our lives is not to lose hope, even at a major challenge, but to hold on for the duration of the journey, writes Rabbi Kofman, for each step builds on the other and is all from the will of God, and is part of what defines who I am. When we enter this world and begin our journey we should travel with faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and when we end the journey and return to our origin in the world of truth, we should leave as sinless as when we started out, adds Rabbi Bick.

The main thing is not to remain stagnant., adds Rabbi Druck. One must remain flexible in order to grow from the point of our departure on the journey. While our beginnings, our family and environment play an important part in our development, our personal travel and movement, the places of our goals, hopes and dreams play an equally important role. We grow through both.

In Shemen Hatov Rabbi Weinberg takes our journey in a different direction. He posits that what happened to our ancestors in the desert/maaseh avot are actually allusions to our travels through our history.  Just as we can see the benefit of each struggle and of each restful time in the desert as being beneficial for our growth, so are our struggles in the current Diaspora preparation for the coming of Moshiach. It gives us hope, for just as Hashem redeemed us from Egypt even when we may not have been worthy, so will He redeem us in the future, even if we will not be worthy, adds Rabbi Scheinerman. This thought makes the reading of this parsha so very appropriate for the Bein Hamitzorim/Between the straits/Three weeks period of the calendar.

Rabbi Goldstein cites Rabbi Bacheya in validating this point. The repetition of motzoeichem and maseichem, your going forth and your journeys, do not both refer to our journeys in the desert. Only the first citation refers to the generation the journey of the generation that left Egypt. The second citation refers to our redemption from the current exile. Citing the Megaleh Amukot, Rabbi Goldstein notes that the first letter of the first four Hebrew words of this parsha are the initials of the four exiles we suffered after the Egyptian exile: Eileh=Edom/Rome; masei=Modai/Mede (Persia); Bnei=Bavel/Babylon; Yisroel=Yavan/Greece. Rabbi Weinberg even notes that the cantillation used for the journey resembles a song, in a way similar to the songs we sang at our other redemptions.

Just as Hashem took us into the desert to get ready for receiving the Torah at Sinai and through the desert to enter Eretz Yisroel, so is Hashem leading us through history in preparation for the coming of Moshiach. This is not an empty journey, but one designed for us to incorporate the lessons of each place we’ve been, its challenges and tranquility, into our character. We need to internalize and build our personal, inner Beit Hamikdosh so that we will soon merit the building of the physical Beit Hamikdosh with the coming of Moshiach, may it be soon, in our day.