Torah presents the Exodus from Egypt (aka mitzrayim or narrow waters) as a historical event. For future generations, the event would be known as a great story from our national past. From Torah’s historical perspective, Parshat Masei recounts forty-two places where the Israelites camped on their journey from Egypt to the promised land.
But Chazal, our Talmudic sages of blessed memory, understood the Exodus differently. For them, it offers a paradigm for understanding Jewish spiritual life. In stating their intention for the annual Passover Seder, they said, “Each individual must see himself or herself as if he or she had exited the narrow place.” From their perspective, Parshet Masei names forty-two steps one might encounter during life’s spiritual journey.
The Hebrew word vayachanu, they camped, can also be translated as “they received grace.” Thus Ba’al HaTurim (1269-1340) says the so-called place names are actually Hebrew puns explaining various states of grace on the original Jewish spiritual journey and – from chazal’s perspective – on ours.
Before the Israelites cross the sea, they camp at a place called Pi-Hachirot, whose name can be read al-pi-HaShem cherut, at the word of God, freedom! At this stop, we wait for God to reach out and invite us into spiritual consciousness.
After crossing the sea, the Israelites pause at Midbar Sin, the Wilderness of Sin. Five stops later, they come to Midbar Sinai, where God’s presence is apparent to all. Sinai is Sin with a little extra letter yod, a common abbreviation for God’s name. At this stop, we learn: awakened spiritual life is everyday life, suffused with the presence of God.
Where are you on your journey this Shabbat? Where are you seeking and finding grace? May Shabbat help bring the gifts you seek.
Spiritual Foundations (5772/2012)
If you are a person of faith, how do you put into words the basis of your faith? How do you explain to others why you believe as you do? Do you speak of emotional experiences, or of rational conclusions?
In his 12th century work The Kuzari, Yehuda HaLevi relies on the emotional power of storytelling. The Israelites, he says, witnessed many miracles as they wandered in the wilderness. They spoke of their powerful experiences with their children who, deeply moved, spoke with their children, and so on through history. The power of those miracles still fuels our storytelling; only true miracles can hold so much power.
One hundred years later, Ramban (Nachmanides), relies on scientific thinking. No one, he says, simply accepts an account of a miracle. Rational people want verification. It’s natural to dismiss the Torah’s accounts of miraculous sustenance and suggest instead that the Israelites camped where food and water were abundant. Parshat Masei lists the Israelites’ forty-two stops so that future generations can see for themselves: the places are arid and infertile, and thus the Israelites survived with God’s miraculous support.
Where is your own faith grounded? In emotion, experience, childhood memory, reasoned inquiry or historical connection? What difference do you think the grounding makes? Rarely is it easy to live in Jewish community. Given that life raises political, spiritual, and interpersonal issues that can challenge your religious identity, what resources do you bring to meet them?
Women’s Rights (5772/2012)
At the end of the books of Vayikra/Leviticus and Bamidbar/Numbers, Torah assesses the status of women in early Israelite society. Both books seem to end by saying, “See how far we have come; see how far we have to go.”
Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, the last parsha in Vayikra, speaks of the freedom of women to make significant religious commitments. Like a man, a woman can make a neder, a vow to work in the sanctuary. Like a man, a woman can fulfill the vow by paying the sanctuary the value of her labor. But a man’s labor is valued at 50 shekels, and a woman’s labor is valued at 30 shekels. Here Torah documents a social convention: a woman earns 60% of what a man earns for comparable labor.
Parshat Matot-Masei, the last parsha in Bamidbar, reaffirms the freedom of women to make a neder. Any woman can do so, but if she lives with her father or husband, he can nullify her vow – as long as he objects when she first articulates it. Parshat Matot-Masei also revisits the right of daughters who have no brothers to inherit their father’s property. Daughters can certainly inherit, but they must marry within their tribe of origin so the property stays within the extended family.
Torah is clear and consistent in its self-assessment: Women’s rights are never static; they continue to take shape through a complex balancing of law and social convention. Sometimes law institutionalizes convention (e.g., by valuing women’s labor at 30 shekels); sometimes law resists convention (e.g., by strictly limiting a man’s right to annual a woman’s vow). It is the responsibility of the lawgiver to be aware of all these currents, and use the law carefully in support of women’s freedom and equality.
Completing a Journey Through Torah (5770/2010)
This Shabbat we will be completing our reading of the Book of Bamidbar-Numbers, with the reading of Parshat Matot-Masei. Parshat Masei concludes with an account of the final compromise between the Israelite court and the daughters of Zelophechad, who have successfully sued in order to inherit their father’s property.
The Ashkenazi custom for completing a book of Torah is to congratulate one another with special words of blessing. The entire congregation is invited to stand and chant in unison chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek – May we be strong, strong, and strengthened!
This blessing is especially moving at the end of the book of Bamidbar. The book recounts the journeys of the Israelites through the wilderness – geographic, spiritual, and ethical journeys. Geographically, they camp in 42 different places. Spiritually, they learn to have faith in their leaders. Ethically, they move forward in standards of gender equity. The Book of Bamidbar begins with an account of a male-only census, and concludes with the story of the evolution of women’s property rights.
The words chazak chazak v’nitchazek are like a mini siyyum (ceremony of completion of study). The words remind us: we have had the strength to come this far on our geographic, spiritual and ethical journeys. May we have the strength to travel farther!
Forty-Two Stations (5767/2007)
At the end of Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, the Torah lists 42 places the Israelites camped en route from the narrow place (Mitzrayim) to the promised land.
What’s special about 42? Talmud teaches that 42 letters make up God’s secret name. When used by the pure of heart, this name unlocks the lower and upper worlds. The Siddur shows that 42 words make up the V’ahavtah prayer, exhorting us to love God whether we are home, out traveling, or resting.
Why recount all 42 stops by name? To highlight God’s lovingkindness in allowing the Israelites to rest even though they were condemned to wander (says Rashi). To give future people a chance to retrace the route where miracles happened (says Ramban). To recount significant historical events in the lives of the early Israelites (says Ba’al HaTurim). To show the detailed steps in the spiritual development of the people (say my friends at Havurat Tikvah). Rabbi David Wolfe Blank sums up these answers, saying that “the purpose of recounting the 42 stopping places was to bring into the awareness of people the full range of their development” morally, historically, and spiritually.
Perhaps the one who truly knows the name of God is the one who loves God in every place, i.e., the one who seeks the spiritual message in every challenge along life’s way.