Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
These Are The Journeys
The second of this week’s double Torah portion, Masei–the last Torah portion of the Book of Numbers–acts as a prelude to the book of Deuteronomy which follows. It is a brief summary of the story of the Israelites since they left Egypt, which Deuteronomy takes up and vastly expands upon.
These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went forth from the Land of Egypt, according to their legions, through the hand of Moses and Aaron. Moses wrote their goings forth according to their journeys, by order of YHVH. And these were their journeys according to their goings forth: … [Num. 33:1-2]
What follows these verses is the listing of all the forty-two places where the Israelites stopped during their forty year journey through the wilderness. Notice the counterpoints that the last two sentences make: “Moses wrote their goings forth according to their journeys… And these were their journeys according to their goings forth…” Moses looked at the road the Israelites had traveled, how far they had gone, to reflect upon the places they were able to move from. But then the following sentence describes the places they got out of, to account for the journeys they undertook. Why the seeming contradiction?
Perhaps this speaks to how we can determine how far we have gone on our spiritual path? On the one hand you can do like Moses: look at who you are today and compare that to who you were a few years, or a few decades ago, and measure–at least get a sense–of the distance you have traveled. If you feel more peaceful today, then you know you left behind places of anger perhaps, places of inner turmoil and agitation. If you feel more loving today, then you know that you have let go of resentment, lack of forgiveness, of self-centeredness. You know your “goings forth,” your breakthroughs, by looking at how far the “journeys” have taken you. On the other hand, you can follow the pattern of the second sentence and do just the opposite: look at the places of stuckness that you were able to free yourself from, your “goings forth,” in order to appreciate the inner work that you have done, the road that you have traveled. In this case, it is your stories of liberation that light the way of your spiritual maturation. You know your “journeys,” how much you have evolved, by appreciating how much you had to wrestle–time and again–to break through these places of stuckness.
The Torah, it seems, is choosing the second version. The summary of the forty year journey which follows our opening verses, retraces the forty-two stages wandering by starting, always, with the places the Israelites left; with their “goings forth.” They “went forth from the Land of Egypt… from Succoth… from Etham…” etc… It is, perhaps, teaching us that even after we leave an Egypt–a place of stuckness in our life–we need to continue working at refining further and further this newfound state of awareness, we need to continue breaking through the thinner and thinner walls around our heart behind which our ego still hides. It is reminding us that our journeys of liberation happen in stages. But though Torah emphasizes our continued wrestling, our growing from one stage to the next, the voice of Moses remains just as important. The voice of Moses is the reflective part of self, the one that is able to look back and measure how far we’ve come. Our ability to reflect informs our direction. To get the most out of our life’s process, we need both. If we only reflect, we don’t move much and tend to not evolve and grow. If we only keep moving, we bluster on but have no grounding, no stability, no time for the appreciation and wisdom that will, in turn, guide our next step. Reflection and action are intertwined and feed one another. Torah makes sure to remind us to celebrate both.