Forty-two stops on the route from the narrow place to the promised land.
Forty-two letters in the most secret name of God, Talmud tells us. Whoever uses the name in purity inherits two worlds, the world above and the world below.
Forty-two words in the V’ahavtah, which tells us to love God when we come and when we go and when we rest.
Coincidence? Synchronicity? Or an expression of the deeper significance of the forty-two stops?
Why does the Torah list all 42 stops?
Rashi gives the simplest religious explanation. The Torah aims to showcase the chesed, the lovingkindness of God. Even though God condemned the Israelites to wander in the desert, God made sure the wandering was not relentless. God made sure that they rested. A lot. Forty-two times in forty years.
Ramban gives a geographical explanation for Torah’s listing of the 42 stops. As the Israelites wandered, he says, they witnessed all kinds of miracles, receiving food and water whenever they were in need. Those who witnessed the miracles knew they were true. Given humanity’s rational nature, however, future generations who heard about the miracles would likely be skeptical. They would offer scientific explanations for the miracles: that the Israelites really stopped in places where there were fields, springs, and other food easily available. Knowing this, the author of the Torah made sure to list the specific places where the Israelites stopped – so that future generations could go to those places and see that they are arid and infertile, that the Israelites could only have survived with the help of God’s miracles.
Ba’al HaTurim (Jacob Ben Asher, 1270-1343, Germany) says that the place names don’t tell of the literal wanderings of the Israelites, but tell instead of significant historical events during their wanderings. For the most part, he says, the names are not place names. They are actually Hebrew puns naming the events that happened at each place. For example, before crossing the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites traveled from Ramses to Sukkot. At Sukkot, which means the “shelters,” they were sheltered under the cloud of the divine presence. Also before crossing the Sea, the Israelites traveled from Eitam and paused “Al Pi HaChirot” – at Pi HaChirot. If you separate the letter “Hey” – ha – from “Chirot,” then the Hebrew can be read as saying, “Al Pi Hashem – Cherut” – by the word of God, Freedom! After crossing the sea, they found themselves in the wilderness of “sin.” Five stops later, they found themselves in the wilderness of “Sinai” – exactly the same word as “sin” but with a “yod,” representing God’s name, for at Sinai, which is the same place as Sin, they encountered God. And so on and so forth, with place names referring to the man (manna), the defeat at the hands of Amalek, the revolt of Korach.
My friends at Havurat Tikvah in Charlotte, North Carolina, say that the place names represent spiritual journeys that are open to all Israelites, all “God-wrestlers.” For example, they said, the Israelites traveled from Rameses to Sukkot to Eitam. The gematriya of Rameses is 430, which is equivalent to the Nefesh, which means soul. The gematriya of Sukkot is 480, which is equivalent to “yishamani,” shall hear me. The gematriya of “Eitam” is 441, which is equivalent to “V’hiyyiti,” I will be. Thus translated through gematriya, the journey from Rameses to Sukkot to Eitam is a statement of spiritual development: “Your soul shall hear me, and I will be.” And so on, for other aspects of the journey.
Rabbi David Wolfe Blank says 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. Reb David points out that later in the parasha, the Levites are given 42 cities in which to live. By tradition, the Levites became teachers. Thus, Reb David says, “If anyone backslid or needed additional coaching in a particular developmental stage, he or she could visit one of the 42 cities to do a distinct kind of remedial learning associated with that stage of development.”
I don’t know which of the explanations of the 42 stops is the most fundamental, whether it’s the one that speaks of evidence of divine love, or the one that testifies to miracles in specific places, or the one that records formative national events, or the one that describes stages in a person’s spiritual journey. What I do know is that the metaphor of journeying is a very rich one. We journey in our lives in a quest for relationships, in a quest for material substance, in a quest for a good ethical and political community, in a quest for spiritual growth. I think the metaphor of journeying is underutilized in Judaism.
We all know the central motifs that appear over and over again in our liturgy: our ancestors’ relationship with God, the exodus from Egypt, the return from exile to the promised land, the time of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple. For some reason, the travels through the desert did not make it on to the list. Perhaps this is because the travels were understood as a punishment for ungrateful, thoughtless behavior. (Then again, so was exile and the destruction of the Temple.) Whatever the reason, I’m sorry that the journey through the desert did not make it on the list of the top ideas in Judaism. Our commentators show that the journey is rich in literal and symbolic meaning, that it’s a paradigm for all time with its historical and spiritual implications, and that we have a great deal to learn from studying its 42 stages.
Perhaps the one who knows the 42 letter name of God is the one who has explored all 42 stages of the human ethical psychospiritual journey. (Or at least a lot of them.) Perhaps the one who truly loves God in every posture and place, as the 42-word “V’ahavtah” recommends, is the one who seeks the spiritual message in every challenge along life’s way. And perhaps there are other lessons as well.
— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2005