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, Parshat 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.