"These are the journeys of the Children of Israel"
The concluding Torah reading of the book of Numbers, (Bamidbar in Hebrew - meaning "in the wilderness"), is called Masei - journeys. The reading opens with a listing of the forty-two locations in which the Israelites encamped throughout their forty year desert sojourn. The list is fairly monotonous, naming one station after another, tying each two locales together with the following phrase: "And the Children of Israel journeyed from such-and-such a place, and encamped in such-and-such a place." A simple travelogue designed for the travelers to reminisce with nostalgically once they are safely ensconced in the land of Israel?
This hardly seems likely, given the fact that G-d Himself commanded Moses to record the coming and goings of the Children of Israel, and, of course, as we know, Torah does not convey idle words. Every letter, every word, every verse in Torah has a message for all generations. What then, is the message of the forty-two way stations of the wilderness?
The holy Baal Shem Tov, (Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, the 17th century founder of Hassidism), teaches that just as the nation of Israel passed through these forty-two way stations in the wilderness, on their journey from Egypt to the land of Israel, so does every individual, throughout the course of his life, pass through forty-two stations of spiritual growth, on his journey from the womb to the tomb - from this world to the next.
These forty-two spiritual "places" are meant to nourish us and guide us along our way toward fulfilling the potential with which we have been imbued from the moment of our creation. Just as with the encampments of the desert, some of these spiritual challenges are no more than "overnight stays" while others may take years to measure up to before we can move on.
The Baal Shem Tov illustrates the essence of his message, referring to the Israelite encampment at the place known as "Kivrot-hata'avah." (Numbers 33:16) Kivrot-hata'avah refers to the incident (Numbers 11:31-35) in which the people lusted for meat to consume, raising G-d's anger, Who caused a great plague to kill many of the lusters:
"And the name of that place was called Kivrot-hata'avah [the graves of the lusters], because there they buried the people that lusted." (ibid 11:35)
But, as the Baal Shem Tov points out, whereas the children of the desert failed to meet the challenge of Kivrot-hata'avah, and were tripped up and overcome by their own appetites, Kivrot-hata'avah remains a destination along our own personal journeys, and a necessary and desirable one at that. For if we are ready, and measure up to the test presented to us by our own only-human appetites and earthly desires, we can come out the winners: Kivrot-hata'avah - the graves of the lusters - can become for us the place of the graves of the lust itself - the spiritual place in time and in space in which we overcame and slew our own appetites, freeing ourselves of their deadly gravitas.
Forty-two challenges, forty-two opportunities for spiritual growth - G-d's parting gift to us from the closing chapters of Sefer Bamidbar - the book of Numbers.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss the Torah reading of Masei, our own forty-two stopovers along the way, the potential-for-good filled upcoming month of Menachem Av, and the great spiritual challenge being presented by the time and space in which the nation of Israel finds herself at this very moment.
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