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A Journeying Nation

Masay (Numbers 33-36 )

by Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy

The Torah goes into an unusual level of detail describing the 42 journeys of the Jewish people through the desert, to the Land of Israel – 49 verses to be precise. It repeatedly records departure points, encampments and destinations. With no navigation detail left to the imagination, the Torah metaphorically swings the camera lens, takes a break from the macro stories of the Exodus from Egypt, the Revelation at Sinai and the pending entry into the Promised Land, and temporarily zooms in on the more micro details of the journey itself.

Indeed, journeying has been a central theme of our people ever since the days of Abraham, when God calls on Abraham to take the first step, ‘Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you’ (Gen. 12:1). From that day on, the Jewish people have been journeying from land to land and from exile to exile.

When travelling long distances, people tend to look up towards the horizon. The trouble with the horizon is that when you finally think you are about to reach it; you discover that it is even further away. And you start trying to reach it all over again.

In essence, this is our purpose on earth – to constantly move forward, to keep striving upward, higher and higher, and to continually push ourselves towards our own ‘horizon’, towards the goals that we have set for ourselves. For even if we are not actually physically travelling with, our passport and ticket in hand, each and every one of us is on an ongoing journey of growth and discovery.

The question is, though, towards what are we striving? What is the essence of our journey? The tefillat haderech (travelers’ prayer), said whenever going on a journey, offers an interesting insight:

You should lead us in peace and direct our steps in peace, and guide us in peace, and support us in peace, and cause us to reach our destination in life, joy and peace. (The source of this prayer is found in Tractate Berachot 30a.)

The recurring theme seems to be an ongoing wish for peace. The question is: To what does this peace refer? Perhaps nestling within the words of the travelers' prayer is our ongoing existential hope and desire that our journey will eventually lead us to a place of inner peace and tranquility. The trouble is, though, that as we all know, life is not always rosy and our journeys are not simple. Does anyone ever really achieve a long-lasting inner peace? Is this prayer referring to an unattainable dream, much like the quest to reach the horizon?

Interestingly, the United States Declaration of Independence states, ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ (Thomas Jefferson, United States Declaration of Independence). The use of the word ‘pursuit’ is intriguing. Why not simply state, ‘life, liberty and happiness’? Perhaps the implication is that happiness is something towards which we are only able to aspire, but never actually reach. Or perhaps true inner happiness and peace is experienced primarily through the pursuit – through the journey itself.

Rav Kook teaches that when a person leaves his or her comfort zone and embarks upon a journey of any kind, the inner soul begins to stir. Whatever our journey might be – a new school, job, relationship, home, experience, spiritual direction, conversation – there is a parallel journey of spiritual growth taking place inside us. As our inner soul stirs, we pray for peace on the journey itself. We pray to preserve the balance of our morals and values, and to regain tranquility on our new path.

As the Jewish people stand on the brink of conquering the Promised Land, the enormity of the moment could well have overshadowed any seemingly irrelevant details of the journey itself. However, the Torah shows us otherwise. The extensive description of our journey in the desert emphasizes the significance of the odyssey.

We are all travelling on a constant journey of discovery and growth – a journey through the highs and lows of life. It is not coincidental that the Hebrew term for Jewish Law is Halacha, the root of which is halach – walk. Similarly, the Torah commands us to ‘walk in His ways’ (Deut. 28:12). Our relationship with God and ourselves, by definition, is one of journeying – movement and growth.

This section of Parashat Masei highlights the importance of the journey. We must pause from focusing only on our destination – on our never-ending pursuit of other things like success, money, recognition, pleasure – long enough to enjoy and feel happiness from the experience of the journey itself. This is the ultimate key to our inner tranquility and peace of mind – otherwise known as menuchat hanefesh – peace of mind and the peace we pray for as we embark on every journey.

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