“The Journeys of the Children of Israel” for Shabbat Ma’sei – August 2, 2019

It’s the end of the road for the children of Israel – the end of the forty-year journey from slavery to true freedom, as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, the land that God had promised their forefather Abraham would be theirs. That’s where we find our Israelite ancestors this week as we conclude the Book of Numbers. They are just a stone’s throw from claiming their inheritance.

It has not been an easy journey. It has been filled with fear and fortune, with setbacks and successes, with challenges to the leadership of Moses, Aaron and Miriam that have sometimes shredded the nascent unity of a rag-tag group of slaves. But it also has brought joy to a people experiencing for the first time both the rights and responsibilities that freedom brings. And it has imbued them with a sense of awe and purpose that they could never have had before.

But we know that the past is prologue. And so the Ba’al Shem Tov, the great mystic and founder of Hasidic Judaism, teaches us this:

“Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel will occur to each individual, between the time he is born and the time he dies.”[1]

WILL occur. Not did occur. In other words, when we look at the broad sweep of the story of the Exodus and the wilderness journeys, we should also recognize its intensely personal nature. And not just for those generations that died in the wilderness or were born in it – but for every person in every generation, including every single one of us.

The forty-two journeys to which the Ba’al Shem Tov refers are nominally the ones that Moses chronicles at the beginning of this parashah – the specific places from Rameses to the steppes of Moab where the Israelites encamped on their journey, some overnight, some for weeks or even months at a time.

But for the Ba’al Shem Tov, and for the mystical tradition he represents, these stops along the way correspond to the forty-two journeys that make up the life of every human being, from the time we emerge from the womb (which would be the exodus from Egypt) to our entry into the World to Come (that is, coming into the Land of Israel). Each Israelite encampment, he believed, represents a constricted part of our own consciousness – a time when we have strayed from our obligations to God and to other people and to ourselves. Each time the Israelites traveled forward, this represents an expanded part of our consciousness – that is, when we act in a way that is kinder and truer to what God expects and requires of us.

The mystical understanding of all this stopping and starting over a lifetime is an acknowledgement that we don’t always act the way we should. That sometimes we become petty or nasty, or even abusive. That we lie or cheat or steal – in direct contradiction to the way God has commanded us to behave.

It’s also a recognition that we have long stretches in our lives when we make a habit of doing the right thing – acting in an honest and generous way that makes others’ lives better.

But I think there’s another layer to all of this. The mystics focused on what’s inside of us – while we have to deal with a lot of factors outside of us that we cannot control.

So in our constricted times, when we’re stuck in one place, it could be because we’re sad, alone, confused, bereft. Each of us in this sanctuary tonight has lost people we love. Many of us are sharing the names of family and friends who are sick, and some of us will rise for Kaddish tonight to remember someone we miss a lot. In the last three weeks, we have held a funeral at the cemetery along with two headstone dedications marking the first year after someone’s death. And there are two more such dedications scheduled for later this year.

And yet each of us also has been gifted with times of incredible happiness – sometimes fleeting, sometimes for a long while. The birth of a child or grandchild. A reunion with a loved one. A major milestone or achievement in our career. Coming out of illness to healing and health again. We remember to be grateful for every one of these times of joy. We  thank God for every small delight.

The Book of Numbers – the narrative of the Wilderness Journey – ends quite abruptly with the conclusion of this Torah portion. All we get is a raft of jumble, last-minute divine commands regarding boundaries and cities of refuge and inheritance laws, all mooshed together. No lofty rhetoric. No sense of literary or emotional closure.

But that’s the thing about all these comings and goings. They often come out of nowhere. The Biblical commentator Ovadia Ben Jacob Sforno reminds us:

“Sometimes the starting points were good places and the points for which they set out were bad ones, sometimes the opposite; in either case, the Israelites had no advance knowledge of when and where they were to travel, which was very hard – yet they never refused to go.”[2]

Not one of us has a clue what even tomorrow will bring. But there’s no way to avoid it. We embrace good days with gratitude and cope with bad days as part of the deal. Some of us will feel like we reach our Promised Land in our lifetimes, the ultimate expansion. Some of us are left feeling short, in a place of constriction. But some of us don’t even comprehend how expansive our lives really have been.

I was talking the other day with a life-long friend who opened up to me about her years of physical and psychological illness, from which she is only just emerging.

She told me she had an epiphany one day when she was deep in her illness: She had a clear sense that God was with her, talking to her, guiding her. But she said she felt unworthy, that she felt she wasn’t good enough to do whatever God wanted her to do, which she didn’t really understand.

But as we talked, here’s what emerged. She’s a teacher – a high-school literature teacher. Most of her students are considered at-risk: they deal with everything from hunger to parental neglect.

She refuses to dumb down her lessons for them.  She insists they challenge themselves, even if nobody but her is paying attention.

She doesn’t win every battle against weariness or mediocrity.

But there are those students she hears from years later, whose lives she has taken from places of constriction to places of great expansion. The one who is a successful journalist because she told him that he was a really good writer – even though she’s the only one who ever did. The ones who make it to college – and even through college – when nobody but her expects them to, or prepares them to, succeed. And even the ones who just start coming to class a little more regularly, because she has created a classroom where it can be interesting, and even fun, to learn.

She hadn’t realized that, in taking each student from a stuck place to a place of growth and expansion – that she was doing the same for herself. It wasn’t just that sense of God in one place at one time that brought her to healing. It was the result of using the God-given gifts that she’d had all along. That’s what carried her through her own wilderness and brought her to the edge of her Promised Land.

Each of us may feel stuck in a narrow place from time to time – sometimes because of our own fragility and sometimes because of external forces. But this story of Israel’s wanderings, and its 42 stops and starts, reminds us — and assures us — that our limitations are only temporary obstructions in the journey of life.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

#####         ©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Torah Gems, Vol. III, edited by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg (Tel Aviv: Yavheh Publishing House Ltd, 1992), p. 159.

[2] The Commentator’s Bible: The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Numbers, edited, translated and annotated by Michael Carasik (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2011), p. 238. Sforno: 16th-century Italy.

One thought on ““The Journeys of the Children of Israel” for Shabbat Ma’sei – August 2, 2019

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s