July 25th-26th, 2003
26 Tammuz, 5763
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
"These are the journeys of the Children of Israel,
who went forth from the Land of Egypt according to their legions, under
the hand of Moshe and Aharon." (33, 1)
At the start of the second of the two portions this week (that conclude
the Book of Bamidbar/Numbers), the Torah lists the 42 journeys the Jewish
people made in the course of their 40 years in the Sinai wilderness. All
of the places at which they encamped are listed by name--both those where
well-known events took place (explicitly described elsewhere in the
Torah), as well as obscure locales (Punon, Ovos, Risah) of which we know
It is certainly reasonable to inquire why the Torah bothers to list by
name all of these encampments. (We can be sure that Hashem did not intend
to author the definitive travel guide--or hiking manual--for Sinai
tourists.) As I always like to remind my readers (and myself), "Torah"
means, "instruction," and our Sages and commentators throughout the
millennia have shown us that every verse (if not word or letter) of the
Five Books contains precious instruction and guidance for our lives as
Jews and human beings. If so, what instruction can we take away from this
Emes offers some beautiful ideas on the subject, including ones that
are appropriate for the difficult period of the calendar year--the "three
weeks," recalling many tragic events in our history, and culminating in
the fast of the 9th of Av--in which we find ourselves now.
He notes that the verse quoted above specifically links the journeys to
the Exodus ("who went forth from the Land of Egypt"). Just as the Exodus
was the original, and prototypical, salvation of the Jewish people, whose
continuing importance is reflected in our daily obligation to mention
(and, thereby, recall) it, so too the journeys/encampments have a
continuing importance for us as examples of divine salvation as well!
Remember that these were all dangerous journeys and places, and, indeed,
the Torah (in Devarim/Deuteronomy) exhorts us to recall G-d’s kindness in
guiding us safely through their hazards:
"You shall remember the entire road on which Hashem, your G-d, led you
these forty years in the Wilderness so as to
afflict you, to test you, to know what
is in your heart, whether you would observe His commandments or
not." (Devarim: 8, 2; my emphasis)
" Take care lest you forget Hashem, your G-d, by not observing His
commandments…Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house
of slavery, Who leads you through the
great and fearful wilderness—of snake,
fiery serpent, and scorpion, and thirst, where there was no water…"
(Devarim: 8, 11 & 15; my emphasis)
These places collectively represent, the S’fas Emes explains, a spiritual
preparation (hachanah) for the Jewish people--and for each Jewish
individual--to be able to cope with all the tza’aros, all the "difficult
places," that would come upon us in the course of our history. Since
Hashem led the Children of Israel successfully through that great and
fearful wilderness, we are meant to learn (and gain strength from the
knowledge) that we can successfully cope with our own difficulties. We
must "remember the entire road," the entire hard and rocky road, on which
Hashem led us after leaving Egypt whenever we are confronted with hard and
rocky sections (or potholes) in our own journeys.
This does not mean, of course, that by simply remembering the journeys of
our ancestors, we will be immediately granted whatever outcome we wish for
in our present (worrisome) situations. When I said, "successfully cope
with our difficulties," I did not mean that we are guaranteed to magically
escape them! The S’fas Emes explains that "success" in this context means
the ability to connect with Hashem from the very midst of the difficulties
(through calling out to Him "from the straits," as King David wrote).
"Success," in the spiritual sense, means to sense His guidance and love
even when His face seems to be hidden. (The Psalms offer countless
examples of David’s ability to reach out to--and to reach--Hashem in the
darkest and most perilous moments.)
We are meant to see all of life’s difficulties as spiritual opportunities
to grow as people and as Jews. Indeed, this is really the whole point of
the difficulties themselves! This is why Hashem sends the roadblocks,
potholes, annoying detours, etc. onto our paths in the first place! They
are not random accidents, not "rotten luck." Rather, they are specifically
CHOSEN for us by the One of Infinite Wisdom--to challenge (or "test") us
to grow into the most spiritually elevated individuals we can become. Our
very "crying out," our attempt to reach out to Hashem and to see His light
in the darkness, is the beginning of redemption. As one of the verses
quoted above states openly: "You shall remember the entire road on which
Hashem, your G-d, led you these forty years in the Wilderness so as to
afflict you, to test you, to know what is in your heart, whether you would
observe His commandments or not."
This is an important lesson for us as we cope with our own tribulations as
individuals, and for us as a nation during the period of the three weeks.
The sufferings we’ve endured in our long exile have been--and are-- part
of the entire road on which Hashem leads us. We have the spiritual
strength, loyalty and stubbornness within our souls ("a stiff-necked
nation") to stand up to whatever befalls us.
What’s more, we have been blessed with the guidance and reassurance of the
Torah itself to help us on our road.
Each place name mentioned in this Torah portion represents a specific
station on our journey as a people, a specific "spiritual battle" (writes
the S’fas Emes) we were meant to fight to help us become great. So, too,
every individual situation in which we find ourselves represents (in a
sense) a unique "spiritual battle," an opportunity to strengthen ourselves
in faith and loyalty to G-d (and His Torah), and to subdue--or
transcend--some aspect of our "evil inclination (yetzer ha’ra)," and
become more holy people.
Time for me to get back on the road, as it were. May we all joyously
proceed (and succeed) on our respective Heaven-sent journeys. Shabbos, you
should know, is a blessed day of delights, and of rest (menucha), that can
immeasurably help us in attaining the proper spiritual perspective (and in
regaining the proper strength) for our important travels. So please do
take full advantage of it.
My e-mail address is email@example.com
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