Why it’s the journey that counts

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Matot- Masei, Numbers 30:2 – 36:13.

The word masei, meaning journeys, refers to motion, travel and wanderings. These are profound religious and life themes, beginning with the creation of Earth which is moving, while we observe the change of evening to day, darkness and light, helping to define daily life.

The entire people has journeyed to 42 places in the wilderness. This is an exciting journey: from slavery to freedom, exultation in the Exodus, Revelation at Sinai, rebellion, acceptance of the Torah, and the rise of a new generation that never experienced slavery.

We define our life goals as if they are destinations. But they are all part of one journey. The Torah reader of these verses could choose to stop frequently to rest. But the tradition is for the reader is to connect these verses.

We can sing them with tears for the difficulties the people encountered. Or we can sing with increasing joy as we approach the crossing of the Jordan River into the land of Israel.

When I work with children, preparing them for a bar or bat mitzvah, a parent often will say, “What is the goal, the list of objectives we would like to accomplish?” The wise know that the process of study — the journey — makes the experience more meaningful.

This journey results in an identity, a shared experience for student and teacher, parent and congregation. It represents a connection to the journeys of our ancestors, and it is these journeys which help to define a life worth living.

The journeys, the masei, shape us. The encampments where we pause to rest and then go on together are part of God’s promise fulfilled. They are not just a collection of stopping points. Rather they are part of the living Torah which records our journeys, and encourages us to live fulfilling lives with courage and compassion.

The Ramban indicated that there are hidden meanings in these 42 places, while other commentators indicate that the number 42 refers to a 42-letter mystical name of God. For that reason, some do not interrupt the reading of journeys.

God has something in mind for us. While we may be thinking of education, accomplishment, exploring the world, the spiritual and ethical implication, here we are reminded that the spiritual journeys in fulfilling life and mitzvot should be written and recorded and remembered, just as Moses is commanded to keep a diary of these journeys. Experiencing the journey itself is what makes life worth living.

Rabbi Arnold Saltzman leads congregations in the Washington area. This column originally appeared in the July 24, 2014, issue.

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