This week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei, begins, “These are the journeys of the children of Israel…” (Num. 33:1) Torah spends many verses listing the 42 places where we went or stopped or camped over forty years. (Num. 33:1-37) In a 12th-century collection of midrash on the book of Numbers, our sages compare Torah’s recounting of our journeys to the parable of a king whose child fell ill:
[The king] brought him to a certain place to heal him. When they returned, his father began recounting the stages, “Here we slept. Here we cooled off. Here you had a headache….” (Bamidbar Rabbah 23:3) I like the image of God as the parent who remembers every moment, and the chronicle of our journey as a reminder that the One we name as God is with us everywhere along the way.
As a speculative fiction fan of a certain age the number 42 makes me think of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the number 42 connotes, “life, the universe, and everything.” Another interpretation: as R. Laura Duhan Kaplan notes, there are 42 words in the v’ahavta, the prayer that instructs us “to love God when we come and when we go and when we rest.”
To the mystic known as the Baal Shem Tov, Torah’s list of stops along our journey is a metaphor for the journey of an individual soul. The forty-two stops evoke the twists and turns of every human life: leaving Mitzrayim / places of constriction, seeking sustenance and purpose and our hopes fulfilled. And for us as for our ancient ancestors, the trajectory of the journey probably won’t be linear.
For us as for our spiritual ancestors, the journey might feel tangled. A journey that we might imagine should be brief or simple can take a lifetime. If you’ve ever thought, “Haven’t I been here before? Didn’t I already face this issue, didn’t I already do this work?” – you’re not alone. Any therapists in the room are nodding right about now. The work of becoming is never done.
The work of living up to our best selves, refining our best qualities (from lovingkindness to ethical strength to presence), acting with integrity, learning from our mis-steps is never done. It’s almost as though the journey itself is the point, and the Land of Promise is our ethical north star that guides us.toward building a world in which every human being enjoys full human rights and dignity.
R. Alan Lew writes about how we bring ourselves to the same unresolved issues over and over again. I see the same kind of patterns in our national political life. (Today’s wave of anti-trans legislation in many states mirrors the “gay panic” of the 1980s.) Are we just going in circles? I prefer to hope that we can make our trajectory go up even as cycles repeat, like the ramp inside the Guggenheim.
The Hasidic master R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev teaches that all of our journeys come from God for the sake of lifting up sparks. Our mystics imagined that when God first set out to create, God’s infinite light streamed into a world that was too fragile to hold it, so creation’s “vessels” shattered. There’s a primordial brokenness — and also primordial sparks of supernal light for us to find and uplift.
Our job is to cultivate the inner qualities that the fallen sparks need in order to be uplifted. We need empathy, we need care for the other, so we can take care of the broken places in the way that they need. Ultimately, the purpose of our journeying is to effect yetziah — going-forth, Exodus from tight straits — not just for us, but for the holy sparks in the broken places. For the whole broken world.
Okay, these are sparklers, not holy sparks. But for me the image evokes the sparks in everything.
If our journeying is only for the sake of our own needs and our own growth, we’re doing it wrong. Don’t get me wrong: our own growth does matter. Becoming our best selves does matter. But not for the sake of our own greatness. We strive toward becoming the best “us” we can be so that we can help others. Feed the hungry. End poverty. Uplift human rights and dignity. Lift all the sparks.
And that includes the sparks we find beneath the shards in life’s broken places. Enter the Jewish calendar. We’re in the Three Weeks between 17 Tammuz when we remember the first cracks in Jerusalem’s city walls, and Tisha b’Av when we remember destruction and face what’s broken. On Tisha b’Av we’ll begin a seven-week journey of preparing ourselves to begin the new Jewish year.
The Jewish calendar is saying: what feels broken or precarious? The calendar is saying: we need to see what’s broken in order to mend it; we need to feel our losses in order to move through them. As R. David Markus writes, We need to see where we’ve been in order to know where we’re going. And what better time to look back on the twists and turns of our path than now, approaching a new year?
The journey of a lifetime isn’t linear. The journey of spiritual growth: not linear. The journey of a community or a nation toward living up to its highest ideals: not linear. Progress toward justice and human dignity for people of every race, religion, origin, sexual orientation, gender expression: not linear. The human journey is rarely linear: not for our ancestors in Torah, nor for us now.
We may feel lost or stuck; our ancestors did too. We may be unsure how to get from here to the land of promise; our ancestors were too. Maybe we’re frustrated to be fighting to regain rights and safety we used to be able to take for granted; nu, spiritually we’re right on time to face life’s broken places. And wherever our journeys take us, we uplift every spark… until we’ve lifted up the world.
Shared with deep gratitude to the Bayit board of directors for learning together each week.
This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)