by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg
Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!
This week's parsha, Masei, describes the journeys of the Jewish people during their 40 years in the desert. These wanderings from place to place are as a lesson about the transience and temporality of life in this world. According to the Degel Machaneh Ephraim (based on the Baal Shem Tov), the 42 places that the Jews encamped in the desert represent the 42 phases within each person's life.
This idea seems to follow the statement of the Nachmanides (Genesis 12:6, citing Tanchuma 9) that "the actions of the forefathers are repeated by their descendants." In other words, just as the Jewish people in the desert were transient wanderers, constantly moving from place to place, so, too, is our existence in this world temporary.
A hint to this idea is found in this week's parsha, yet in order to understand it, we must first go back to the beginning of Creation. The second verse of the Torah (Genesis 1:2) reads, "And the earth was EMPTINESS and VOID, and DARKNESS was on the face of the DEPTHS, and THE SPIRIT OF God hovered over the face of the waters."
The Midrash (Bereishis Raba 2:4, in the name of Reish Lakish) interprets this verse as a prophecy about the future exiles of the Jewish people. EMPTINESS symbolizes the Babylonian exile; VOID refers to the Persian-Medean exile; DARKNESS represents the Syrian-Greek exile; and the DEPTHS refers to the current Roman exile. THE SPIRIT OF God alludes to the spirit of the Messiah, who will ultimately redeem the Jewish people from exile. (See the Midrash for numerous verses that support these correlations.)
This Midrash shows that G-d, in addition to creating the laws of nature, made the exiles of the Jewish people an integral part of Creation. This idea is very difficult to understand. Why would God decree the exiles before creating the world? At the outset of Creation, there weren't even any Jews! Why would God punish the Jewish people before they did anything wrong - and even before He created them? For although God knows from the beginning what the outcome will be in any given situation, He still relates to us on our own terms.
We could suggest that the purpose of exile is not to punish us for misbehavior. Rather, the purpose of exile is to remind us that this world is a transient, temporary place. The many upheavals and expulsions throughout Jewish history have forcibly prevented us from ever feeling a sense of permanence.
According to the commentator Nachal Kadumim, this idea is hinted to in the first verse of Parshat Masei, Eleh Masei B'nei Yisrael - "These are the journeys of the Jewish people" (Numbers 33:1). The initials of these four Hebrew words stand for the four exiles that the Jewish people have experienced throughout the ages: Edom (Rome), Madai (Persia-Medea), Bavel (Babylon), and Yavan (Syria-Greece). The exiles are hinted to in this parsha because they convey the same message as the 42 places that the Jews encamped in the desert. Both teach us about the transience and impermanence of the physical world.
Let's give some examples of this idea. Imagine taking an elevator to the top of the Empire State Building. Would it ever occur to you to vacuum the carpet or polish the mirrors in the elevator? You'd never bother, because you know you're going to get off any minute. This world is like an elevator (and we hope we're all going to get off at the top floor)! What is the use of getting overly involved in material pleasures? As our Sages say, "This world is like a lobby compared to the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the lobby so you will be able to enter the banquet hall!" (Avot 4:21)
A related story is told about a man who was traveling across Europe about a hundred years ago. When he reached Poland, he decided to visit the town of Radin, where the great sage the Chafetz Chaim lived. He took his luggage from the train station and went straight to the Chafetz Chaim's house, where he was graciously ushered in. Once inside, the traveler couldn't believe his eyes: the home of this great rabbi was practically bare! No pictures hung on the walls, and overturned milk crates sufficed for a table and chairs. Incredulous, the traveler asked him, "Where is your furniture?"
The Chafetz Chaim replied, "Where's yours?" The traveler was surprised by this strange question. "Me?" he asked. "I'm just passing through!" "So am I," responded the Chafetz Chaim. "I am also just passing through."
One more example should make the point abundantly clear. Imagine that you've won the grand prize on a game show: a shopping spree at Macy's. For 15 minutes, you will have the entire store to yourself, during which time whatever merchandise you collect will be yours for the rest of your life. Try to picture what you would look like during those 15 minutes.
Now, imagine how you would react if, in the course of your frenzied shopping, a friend were to tap you on the shoulder and say, "I'd love to chat with you, just for two minutes. Can we go get a cup of coffee?" Most likely, you wouldn't even take the time to respond - or perhaps you'd just shout, "No time - I'll explain later," as you dashed off to the next department.
This imaginary shopping spree is comparable to our experience in this world. We each have an individual expiration date, but until that date arrives, we are in a candy store of Torah and mitzvot, and whatever we collect is ours for eternity. If we truly lived with this awareness, we would have to be reminded to eat, drink and sleep. Our physical considerations would pale in comparison to the importance of stashing away goods for eternity, and we would be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to accumulate more spiritual "merchandise." I have yet to hear anyone on their deathbed say, "If only I'd spent a few more hours at the office..."
May we be blessed, as we move from place to place on our journeys through life, to focus on what is truly important and not get distracted by fleeting temptations. In this merit, may God soon redeem us from our exile and afford us the opportunity to be involved in purposeful, meaningful, spiritual endeavors forever.