Eileh mas’ei V’nei Yisrael asher yatz’u me’eretz Mitzrayim
These are the journeys of the Children of Israel after leaving the Land of Egypt (B’Midbar 33:1)
As we reach the end of the book of B’Midbar, the Children of Israel have arrived at the banks of the River Jordan. The Promised Land is just on the other side. The Book of Deuteronomy will complete the five Books of Moses, but it all takes place at this location; the epic journey that began with the Book of Exodus has reached its destination. Fittingly, this final portion of B’Midbar is called “Mas’ei” – “Journeys”, and it begins with a lengthy recounting of every encampment at which the Children of Israel sojourned during the past forty years.
How are we to read this chapter? As a list, it is pretty tedious. We stopped here, and here, and here… But, as I have endeavored to make clear throughout these commentaries, the Torah is not a Road Atlas. It is rather a map of our inner journey. It is the journey of the soul, as the Haggadah tells us, “from slavery to freedom, from anguish to joy, from darkness to light, from degradation to dignity.”
Looking at the names of the Israelite encampments in that light, one becomes aware that the place names themselves are heavy with symbolism – are they real places, or states of being?
The very first destination sets the tone for this symbolic journey: “The Children of Israel set out from Ramses and encamped at Sukkot.” (Num. 13:5) Ramses is one of the fortified cities that Pharaoh forced the Children of Israel to construct. Sukkot means “temporary shelters”. The first step of the journey is the willingness to leave the “fortified city” of the self behind, and instead to dwell in a sukkah, an open and fragile structure. This is the only way we can grow and change: by making ourselves vulnerable and open. Surely there is comfort in staying behind the walls of a fortress, even if it also the place of one’s imprisonment. But for those of us who sense that there is a calling greater than static safety, we must, despite our fears, risk opening ourselves to the unknown, moment to moment. We can only serve YHVH, Life Unfolding, if we give up our defenses. We cannot meet life on its own terms, or find out who we really are, or discover the exhilarating and ecstatic essence of life, if we never venture beyond our comfort zone. Perhaps this is “Rule No. 1” of the spiritual journey.
And it’s not easy! Why do you think the Children of Israel constantly cry that they want to go back to Egypt? Living open to life offers no guarantee of safety. We face an ongoing inner battle between choosing greater aliveness versus retreating into the constraints of fear. The famed Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “Moses and Pharaoh are both within you: You need to look for these two adversaries within yourself.”
Many of the encampments that then follow in this chapter are named in evocative ways. For example, the Children of Israel journey on from Sukkot to Pi HaChirut, which can mean The Opening to Freedom. Elsewhere they reach Marah, Bitterness, and later Mitkah, Sweetness. Kivrot Ha’Ta’avah means The Death of Craving; Haradah is Trembling; and Rephidim is interpreted as Weakness. What stories might we weave about our sojourns in each of these places, and about the hard lessons learned at each stop along the way?
“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel…” We are the Children of Israel, and so these are also our journeys, from constriction to expansiveness, and from fear to faith. Let’s keep walking.