A Journey Called Life
Translated and adapted by Braha Bender
Forty-two encampments in the desert: forty-two stops in the journey called life. Do you know where you are going?
“Moses wrote their goings forth according to their journeys at the bidding of Hashem, and these were their journeys according to their goings forth…” (Numbers 33:2)
How do we understand the immediate flip: “their goings forth (leaving) according to their journeys”/ “their journeys according to their goings forth (leaving)”?
The Dubno Maggid answers this question with a parable about a child whose father remarried after his mother’s death. The young child could not relate to his stepmother and his childhood was a difficult one. When he was old enough, his father found him a match, and he was soon engaged to be married.
The wedding drew closer and father and son left for the bride’s town on a wagon full of clothing and presents. The wagon had barely left town when the young groom turned to the wagon driver and asked, “How far have we gone?” The driver answered him. As the journey continued, the groom would occasionally repeat the question. The father similarly queried the driver, but his phrasing varied slightly. As opposed to the son who was interested in how far they had travelled, the father wanted to know when they would arrive at their destination.
This word choice belies a fundamental difference in approach. The son could not fully appreciate the future awaiting him. He was happy enough to be departing from the place where he had suffered. On the other hand, the father, in anticipation of the new life in store for his son, was focused on where they were headed.
From the perspective of the Jewish people, leaving Egypt was like the son’s taking leave of his stepmother. They were not yet tuned in to their destination: a life of Divine guidance and closeness, the Torah, the land of Israel. All they knew was that they had to get away from Egypt.
For them it was “their journeys according to their goings forth (leaving).” The purpose of their journey was leaving Egypt.
On the other hand, Moshe knew how good it would be for them in Israel. He knew how happy they would be living a life of Torah. “Moses wrote their goings forth according to their journeys.” Moshe knew that the real reason that they had left was for the purpose of their destination, to reach life in the Holy Land.
There is also a deeper meaning to the words, “their journeys according to their goings forth.”
The Jewish people realized that their goal was not only to leave the slavery of Egypt, but also to leave the spiritual blockage of that culture, society, and country. That is the meaning of traveling in order to leave. In terms of spiritual growth, personal development usually begins by first letting go of negative influences and then engaging in positive behaviors. The Jews first had to cut away from the rotting spiritual channels that Egypt had tapped them in to, the thought systems they had learned there. Only then could they turn their attention towards where they were going in spiritual growth terms.
The travels of the Jews from Egypt to Israel through the Sinai desert represent a person’s journey through life beginning in childhood and ending at the entrance to the World to Come. Childhood motivations are selfish – think candy and toys – and kids must be slowly taught to think and behave in more mature terms. Hopefully by the end of our days we will have refined ourselves to the extent that we are no longer enslaved to selfish motivations.
However, our lives are made up of journeys, small and large, in which we strive at each stop to learn the elements of high-level living, teach ourselves generous and industrious habits, and train ourselves to better our character, one step at a time. It is a long journey upwards, away from the unproductive and the negative. It is a long journey to grow closer to Torah, mitzvos (Torah commandments), and the ultimate well-being they hold in their wings.
The Jewish People did not arrive in the Promised Land within one day, and neither will we. However, they did arrive – and as long as we follow the Torah leaders of our generation like they followed Moshe, and continue along the path, we, too, will arrive at the gates of our ultimate self-actualization and fulfillment.