Through The Eyes of a Woman
Matos-Masei: Life's Journeys
This week's parshah, Matos-Masei, is a double one. Although the
Rebbe generally mentions the instruction we derive from each of the parshas,
and also from the fact that they are read as a double parshah, this time
I would like to emphasize the second parshah, Masei, that talks about
the 42 journeys of the Jewish people -- from their Exodus from Egypt until
their final entry into Israel.
It is a basic principle of Yiddishkeit that everything in the Torah is
eternal and has relevance at all times and in all places. Based on this idea, the
Baal Shem Tov teaches, furthermore, that everything in Torah is also relevant to
every individual Jew at all times and in all places.
To get from Egypt to Israel didn't happen overnight. It took 42 stages, over
a period of 40 years. Each stage of the journey was determined exclusively by Divine
decree -- the cloud which hovered over the Jewish camp when they were
required to relocate, began to move on. The entire camp then packed up their belongings
and moved on, following the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.
Whenever the cloud was stationary they were stationary, and when the cloud moved
again they followed the cloud. This is what happened through 42 stops and starts
to get to Israel.
The first verse of the parshah states, "These are the journeys of the
Children of Israel, who went forth from the land of Egypt..." The Rebbe asks why
the verse states, "These are the journeys..." They weren't going out of Mitzrayim
on all of the 42 journeys. Surely after the first stage of the journey, after they
had arrived in Ramses, they were no longer leaving Egypt but Ramses, and so on?
After the first stage of the journey, weren't the other 41 stages going to
Israel, but not from Egypt? The simple answer is that until a person arrives
at the ultimate goal, Israel (in a spiritual sense as well as a physical one), he
is always in the process of leaving Egypt.
However, the verse has an even deeper meaning -- it refers to the journeys
through life of every individual Jew. Moreover, each Jew's life may be analyzed
in terms of these 42 journeys of Bnei Yisrael from Egypt to Israel. In other
words, it is possible to identify each person's journey through life with the 42
stages of the journey described in this week's parshah.
The Rebbe very often points out that the word Torah means horaah --
instruction. Each and every word and verse of Torah gives us instruction. What are
the instructions we can derive from the 42 stages of the journey mentioned here?
The word Mitzrayim, Egypt, is related to the Hebrew word metzar, which
means a constricted or limiting place, a strait. It comes from the word, tzar,
narrow. Every person, in his or her life has situations which the Torah describes
as a metzar, a limitation and constriction, where the person feels that something
is obstructing him from behaving in the right way. In order to get out of this
metzar, a person has to exert energy. And when he manages to escape the
metzar, it is as if he has left that place and gone to a place that the Rebbe
terms as merchav, a wide-open place. When you're finished with that problem
you breathe a sigh of relief: "I've gotten out of that tight spot."
The verse therefore means that the life of the Jew, which begins at his birth,
is a succession of tight spots followed by relief and expansion. It means that at
every given time in our life, in every given stage in our life, we are given certain
obstacles and certain tests. These are the tight spots. Of course, these situations
are not meant to stifle us or to make us surrender. On the contrary, through overcoming
these difficulties, we become strengthened and our awareness of G-d is expanded.
This can be compared to an army. When you go for basic training they make you
run ten miles, they make you carry packs, they make you go through difficult situations.
Why? Because only after you have undergone the difficulties they put you through,
do you become a good soldier. If you had never done that you wouldn't even have
known you were capable of doing it. When you undergo difficulties, you build up
your strength. Just as this is true of physical situations, it is true also in spiritual
In this context, Egypt doesn't mean a geographical land, a country called Egypt;
rather, it refers to the stages of constriction and development that we all go through
on our journey to spiritual perfection -- signified by Israel.
This is life. What may be difficult at the age of five is a joke at the age of
ten, and what's difficult at the age of ten is a joke at the age of twenty. A person
that just got married is struggling with the first year of marriage and getting
used to marriage. That's a big struggle. But when people are married for 25 years
and are marrying off their children there's a whole different set of difficulties
and problems. Then there are the problems that come with older age and being grandparents.
Every stage in life has its own qualities. HaShem is constantly placing us
in new situations, and we have to deal with them and grow through them. Then we
go to another stage and then we come to a third stage and a fourth stage. This is
a succession of metzarim.
When does it end? It ends at the end of a person's life. In other words, the
beginning is Mitzrayim --the birth; coming into Eretz Yisrael at
the end of the forty-second journey is when a person completes his journey in this
world and comes into the land of the World to Come. This is on an individual basis.
For us as a nation, Mitzrayim signifies the beginning of galus; and coming
to Israel means the end of galus and the ultimate redemption through Mashiach.
The Torah states that the last journey of the Jewish people is called Yarden
Yericho, "by the Jordan at Jericho." The Rebbe explains that the word Yericho,
the Hebrew word for Jericho, is a hint to Mashiach. How is Yericho
a hint to Mashiach rather than merely meaning a place in Israel called Jericho?
The word Yericho is related to the word reiach which means scent, smell.
The Prophet Yeshayahu (Isaiah) says that when Mashiach comes he will not
judge by what his eyes tell him, or by the testimony which his ears hear. Rather,
he will judge by the sense of smell, which he develops because of his fear of G-d.
When Mashiach comes there are going to be a few skeptical people. It's obvious.
We've been waiting for Mashiach for thousands of years now. When Mashiach
comes, speedily in our days, when people hear that Mashiach is here, some
of them will no doubt say, "Are you sure? Prove it to me. How do we really know
it's that person we've been davening for?" So the Torah says you can test
him. One of the wondrous things that Mashiach will be able to prove is that
he will be able to know and judge things by the power of smell. Now that's something
that's impossible to do with mere physical senses. You can cook a chicken from the
Eidah Charedis and one from Idaho and they will look the same and they will
taste the same and smell the same. Just because it is kosher doesn't mean when you're
roasting it it has a different odor. But the Gemara says that Mashiach
will know the difference by his sense of smell. Until now, in all of the years of
exile we have never heard of a tzaddik who was able to hand down an authoritative
decision based on his sense of smell. So when we encounter the person that can,
that will be a sign that this person is Mashiach. In this sense, Yericho
alludes to Mashiach.
The Rebbe explained then that a person's life is a series of journeys, each one
being a strait in comparison to the one after it, and the tests change and get more
difficult as you pass through them. This also happens every single day. There are,
of course, different levels. The nation goes on its journeys, the individual on
his. On any given day, the person goes through these journeys from the time he wakes
up until he goes to sleep at night. We see this in prayer. Before a person starts
to daven, "he has his soul in his nose," as our Sages say. It is not internalized
within him. He is at this stage little more than an animal with the potential to
be human. In order to become human, you start davening. But you have to cut
yourself off from what's going on in the world around you. For whatever amount of
time you're going to daven, you do not listen to the radio, read the paper,
and so on. This is the test -- full concentration. Then, as you daven,
the prayers themselves lead you through stages. The first part of davening,
the Pesukei de Zimrah, is one stage; Shema is another; Shemoneh
Esreh is the climax. At this point, the Baal Shem Tov teaches, you should be
in such a state of self-nullification, that you are as if dead. You are no longer
in this world, but in Israel, the place where the Divine Presence is revealed.
We're not talking about the way I daven. I'm not going to tell
you, look at me and then you'll see the ultimate in davening. I'm talking
about a person who really davens. When you come to Shemoneh Esreh,
the Shulchan Aruch states that one should be like a servant before his Master.
He is so humble in front of his master that he cannot even talk out loud. He talks
very softly. We become so overcome by bittul, so nullified to HaShem,
so subordinated to HaShem that we can't even talk, we can only whisper. That
is the ultimate level of davening. And yet, even though the person has worked
through different levels and come to a high level in Shemoneh Esreh, nevertheless,
the next day he starts all over again from Modeh Ani. A new day, a new journey,
onwards and upward, towards Eretz Yisrael. The next day, because it's a new
day and you're a new person, you have to start again -- you continue the
journey. This is what the life of a Jew is. You're never finished. You always have
your work to do.
The Rebbe explains that this condition of being on a continual journey can have
two possible reactions. One reaction is that the person can become very arrogant
and he can say, "Look how far I've come. I remember years ago I was on this level
and now I've really struggled and worked hard and now I'm on a much higher level."
To the arrogant person, the Torah says, "Don't be so arrogant. You may have gone
through 22 journeys. That's fantastic, but you still have another 20 to go. As long
as you are alive you can never become complacent about the number of journeys you've
traveled." The Torah states that even tzaddikim don't rest in the World to
Come. It's not only that this world is a series of stages, but even in the
World to Come there are levels upon levels.
Then there's a person who can get depressed. He's saying, "My goodness, this
is terrible. I'm on such a low level. How can I ever get to the level of this other
person? Look at her. She's so much higher than me and what's the point of even starting?"
For that person there is also a word of encouragement. Depending on who you are
and on how you're relating, the Torah has a reaction for each situation. The reaction
to that person is: Do not despair because HaShem never intended that a person
go from Mitzrayim to Eretz Yisrael in one move. The Torah originally told
us that it's going to take 42 small journeys. No one should ever get depressed,
because as long as you're involved in the journeying, as long as you didn't give
up and stop running, you're still in the race. HaShem is the One who can
read everybody's heart. He is the One that gives points. You cannot ever compare
yourself to anybody else because you don't know where the other person started from
and what their handicaps are. The important thing is to know that you have to keep
going. Just keep going from one journey to the next and let HaShem do the
grading. To a person who says despairingly, "Look how far I have to go," the Torah
says, "Do not give up. After all, look how far you've come. A little further; a
little more effort, and you will reach the next stage. Don't take on the whole journey
at once. Go one step, one stage at a time. Set your goals on the next stop." Eventually,
all of us will get to Eretz Yisrael. Each of us will experience our own individual
redemption, and the Jewish people as a whole will also achieve redemption. May it
be speedily in our days!