"These are the journeys of the children of Israel"
Cheshbon nefesh, literally, "accounting of the soul," or as we say in English, stocktaking or soul searching, is an essential component of the spiritual and ethical life that Torah sets out before us. In fact, it is of such a high priority that it is G-d Himself who instructs Moses to record Israel's desert peregrinations: "Moses recorded their starting points for their journeys according to the word of HaShem, and these were their journeys with their starting points." (ibid 33:2) It would seem from the words of our sages, that G-d wanted Israel to possess in its hand a condensed, shorthand log of the forty-two separate journeys that made up her forty year sojourn out of Egypt and into the land of Israel.
The Torah verses recalling the forty-two journeys are read in synagogue without pausing between verses, in order to emphasize the organic unity of Israel's wilderness experience. Implied by this unity is the understanding that every journey of spiritual growth and transformation, great or small, is in fact, an uninterrupted series of smaller journeys which together make up the whole. The deliberate listing of all forty-two journeys along the way testifies to the fact that spiritual progression in life is not necessarily, (or perhaps, necessarily not), a sequence of forward and ever rising steps along the way. On the contrary, Moses' list of Israel's journeys mentions even those locations along the way where Israel sorely tested G-d's patience, as well as the encampments in which Israel's praise and closeness to G-d was unassailable. Stocktaking, in order to be an effective tool for spiritual growth, has to reflect also upon such painful and even shameful stations along the way.
No doubt, each of the individual forty-two spiritual journeys of Israel could themselves be perceived as comprising forty-two internal steps of their own. Just like atoms can be divided and sub-divided into smaller and smaller components, each essential to the fully realized end result, we should also understand that our own spiritual growth is an ever evolving succession of movement, sometimes forward, sometimes, backward, sometimes baby steps and sometimes great leaps and bounds. Yet each step along the way is essential. Just as one of the eleven essential components of the ketoret incense of the Holy Temple is the foul smelling Galbanum, so too, our own personal foibles are ultimately intended to serve as necessary components of our entire spiritual makeup.
On the other hand, excessive introspection itself can be a hindrance not only to our spiritual growth throughout life, but also to our day-to-day engagement in life. After all and above all, Torah teaches us to take up the challenge of each day as it comes, and to be fully engaged in a life of of action - a life of fulfilling commandments. This may be one reason why G-d instructed Moses to condense Israel's entire desert experience into forty-nine succinct verses. This shortened version of our emergence from enslavement to a life exalted by the presence of G-d, and all the personal and national responsibility required therein, can be easily referenced throughout our busy days. Perhaps it is something that should be written down and kept in our breast pocket, or on the wall near the entrance to our home. The verses certainly could be recited as a prayer or meditation, the effect of which would be not merely to reflect upon what was, but to encourage constant spiritual growth.
In this week's Torah reading of Masei, we conclude simultaneously, the book of Numbers and Israel's stay in the desert. The fifth and final book of Torah, Deuteronomy, will continue with Masei's theme of refection and stocktaking, as well as encouragement and preparation for the next stage in Israel's journey - entering the land of Israel. It is important to note that every verse of our travelogue employs an identical phrasing: "They journeyed from... and the camped in." Each movement worthy of the name journey begins with a starting point and concludes with an end point. We often say that it's the journey itself that counts, and there is truth in this, but only partially. Going from nowhere to nowhere, however distant or close that may be, does not, a journey make. At least not in the eyes of Torah and certainly not for the purpose of soul searching. We're not just posting digital photographs on our travel blog to share with our friends back home. Only when we can positively identify both our starting points and our end points can we understand and appreciate the spiritual progress we have made.
Today, after many, (seemingly endless), sojourns in exile, Israel, after 2000 years has returned to her land and to her capital Jerusalem. This monumental leap from exile to redemption was preceded by and followed by many incremental steps along the way, each as important and essential as the next. Today, especially today, in the midst of the three weeks of introspection and stocktaking which mark the anniversary of the destruction of both the first and second Holy Temple, we need to absorb the lesson of Israel's forty-two desert journeys. Rather than passively await the trumpet blasts that will awaken us to our next great journey, that of rebuilding the Holy Temple and renewing the Divine service, we need to understand that to get from here to there we need to always be moving forward. Many small journeys, baby steps, if you will, are what will complete the journey. The wilderness separating servitude from freedom, exile from redemption wasn't crossed in a single stride. To borrow a phrase from our ancient nemesis, the Holy Temple will not be built in a day. But today we must begin, so that tomorrow we can complete the journey.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK, as we find Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven in a most buoyant mood, as they ponder this: Have you ever lost a quarter down the gutter? You can see it down there but it's just beyond your reach, (sigh). Easy come, easy go. But if it was your wife's golden earring, or, G-d forbid, her wedding band, you would be beside yourself. Imagine how the High Priest felt when he realized that one of the seventy two golden bells which lined the hem of his techelet blue tunic just dropped off and fell into the City of David sewer system. Did he receive a stern reprimand from his wife? Did he engage in somber soul searching? We can never know for sure, but one thing is for certain: Losers weepers, finders keepers. The recently discovered golden bell, which might have once belonged to a 1st century CE High Priest, is now ours for the keeping! Is this historic find a tap on the shoulder from the Almighty? Here in the middle of the three weeks of mourning for the loss of the Holy Temple, is G-d using this bell to wake us up from our two thousand year slumber? Is it time to rebuild the Holy Temple?