Parshat Masei begins with a long, dry list of the stages of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the steppes of Moab, about to enter the land of Canaan. Almost 50 verses are devoted to this itinerary:
They set out from Hazerot and encamped at Ritma. They set out from Ritma and encamped at Rimon-perez. They set out from Rimon-perez and encamped at Livna.
And on and on and on. What lessons are we meant to learn from what is essentially a list of place names?
The Baal Shem Tov (Yisrael ben Eliezer, 1700-60, Poland) explained: “Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the 42 journeys of the Children of Israel will occur to each individual between the time he is born and the time he dies.” Obviously, he did not mean that each of us would spend 40 years wandering around the Sinai wilderness. Rather, the account of our ancestors’ travels can help us understand the journeys of our own lives.
The first lesson is that our journeys are not easy. It’s true that children’s stories tell us “and they lived happily ever after” and television commercials promise us a happy, carefree life if we will only buy the product they are advertising, but most of us know better. Every life contains pain and disappointment as well as joy and contentment. And so the Torah reminds us that nothing worthwhile is easy. (In fact, it is human nature that we rarely value what comes without effort.)
It took the Israelites 40 years to reach the Promised Land. We may spend that long or longer on our many intertwined journeys — intimate relationships and family, work and career, community, education, religious life. What we should never forget is that if the goal is important, it’s worth the effort in spite of occasional frustrations and temptations to just forget the whole thing.
The second lesson is about time. Rashi points out that while the Torah records 42 stages, 14 of them were reached in the first year of travel and eight in the final year, so that during the middle 38 years the Israelites traveled only 20 stages. There were surely places where they camped for several years. Some people were undoubtedly anxious and impatient, wondering when they would finally get going and reach their destination. Others must have thought that things were fine where they were and that there was no reason to pack up and move yet again. The Torah tells us that life’s journeys are rarely smooth and progress is not guaranteed. Sometimes you have to be patient, waiting until conditions or companions are ready for the next step. On the other hand, if you decide, “I’m done, this far and no farther,” you have given up on life.
The third lesson is about the way that life actually happens. Our passage lists 42 stages of the journey, but 18 of them are not mentioned elsewhere in the Torah; without this list we would not know about them at all. Life is like that, too. Sometimes we recognize significant choices and major turning points only by looking backward. If you hadn’t let your roommate drag you to that party, would you ever have met the person you eventually married? If you hadn’t run back into the house to grab an umbrella, would your car have been the one totaled when a drunk driver ran a red light? As the Yiddish proverb has it, “Man plans and God laughs.”
Each of us is on a journey, one that will take us from birth to death. And our ancestors’ journey through the wilderness can serve to guide us as we travel. Our personal journeys will have many stages, some longer and some shorter, and our progress will not be steady. Sometimes we seem to go astray and have to go back and try another path. Sometimes we move forward quickly, at other times we seem to be standing still. We will have days when it’s difficult to remember our destination and why we are on the road at all. And some days we will be certain that we are exactly where we want and need to be.
Journeys are not easy. The good news is that we are all on the road together.