Narrative, interpretive, and spiritual. That’s the theme of this week’s Torah reading. In Biblical Hebrew, the word for journeys is masei.
Parshat Masei maps the journeys of the Israelites (Num. 33:1-36:13). From Egypt to the shores of the River Jordan, the Israelites wander the wilderness. Travelling for forty years, they make forty-two specific stops. Maybe it’s not exactly forty years. Sometimes, in Biblical Hebrew, forty days or years just means “a long time.”
We readers have followed the Israelites’ adventures. Using imagination, we’ve travelled along with them. But Masei invites us into our own journey, too. A journey of interpretation.
We begin with the peshat, the text’s simple narrative meaning. Here, for example, is a typical translation:
They travelled from Kadesh and camped at Hor HaHar, at the edge of the land of Edom. At the word of God, Aaron the priest climbed Hor HaHar. There he died, forty years after the Israelites left Egypt, on the first day of the fifth month. Aaron was 123 years old when he died at Hor HaHar. The Canaanite king of Arad heard. He was dwelling in the Negev in the land of Canaan, when the Israelites arrived.
They travelled from Hor HaHar and they camped at Tzalmonah. Then travelled from Tzalmonah…Punan…Ovot…Iyei Ha-Avarim at the border of Moab…Divon Gad…Almon Divlataymah…Avarim Mountains near Nebo…the plains of Moab at Jericho-on-the-Jordan. (Num.33:37-49).
If you’ve followed the story, you know it’s the beginning of the end. Forty years have passed. Aaron has died. The Israelites have become fearsome warriors. Moses will give a final teaching at the plains of Moab. He will see the land from the summit of Mt. Avarim. At Mt. Nebo, he will die. Joshua will lead the attack on Jericho, mixing magic with military might.
This is an amazing passage — in the literal definition of “passage” as a “section of text.” But it’s also about “passages” in the sense of “journeys.” And it helps us readers journey from one storyline to the next.
We readers will miss Aaron. But we will cry for Moses. And then quickly travel into excitement as Joshua’s story begins.
That, of course, assumes we are looking ahead. But for now, let’s linger on the details of the journey. Specifically as they are recounted in Biblical Hebrew.
Hebrew is a deeply metaphorical language. Partly, metaphor is a practical necessity. We don’t have enough word-roots. So every root does at least double duty. The root meaning “camp” also means “grace.” “Face” shares a root with “inside.”
Place names grow out of these ordinary verbs and nouns. So they, too, have many meanings. “Plains” can be read as “blending” or “responsibility.” “Jericho” is the “fragrant” place of the “moon.”
With a different translation, the same words tell of a different journey. A mystical one, perhaps. A spiritual one.
Consider this translation a glimpse into sode. A secret, hidden, esoteric meaning.
They travelled from holiness and paused at the cosmic mountain at the edge of the earth.
Aaron, the priest, ascended the cosmic mountain with a kiss from God. There he died, many years after the Israelites escaped the narrow place.
(Aaron died at the age of 123 on the first day of the month of Av. The local king heard and was humbled. “I will go down.” He dwelt in land of humility, where the Israelites were arriving.)
They traveled from the cosmic mountain, and were graced with the image.
Then they left the image behind and were graced with interiority. They moved on from interiority, but lingered at foundational principles.
Then they let go of foundations and camped at the edge of transcendence. At the boundary that brings forth the foundations. They camped in a world without form.
They left even the formless world and were graced with heights of transcendence before prophecy. Then they travelled on from heights of transcendence. Where foundations emerge, they lingered. At twilight, at the setting of the moon.
Esoteric indeed! Metaphors for spiritual development saturate this passage. Interiority. Formlessness. Transcendence. What does it mean?
I can’t tell you the definitive meaning. There’s no one secret to be revealed. But I can say what the passage means to me today.
Many years ago, I began a spiritual journey. For me, it wasn’t a deliberate decision. It simply crept up on me as I became a self-aware teen.
Holy guides taught me the basics of practice. These were my parents, teachers, camp counsellors, professors, clergy, friends, congregants, therapists. For many years, I journeyed with them. But some died, and others moved on. As did I, over and over again.
Each new practice offered an image of the spirit. Philosophy saw it focused in reason and imagination. Kabbalah revealed it as infinite. Yoga showed the power of its attention. Spiritual direction studies taught about its posture of open listening.
And each time, I clunkily mastered a new discipline. Gradually, the work shone a light on a hidden dimension of interiority. As I knew and felt myself more deeply, I let go of a rigid practice. Having internalized foundational principles, I simply acted as myself. As a broader, more skilled version of myself.
Occasionally a vision shows me the edge of transcendence. Often I question familiar concepts. If everyone agrees about something, I think, that’s a clue it might be wrong. But I haven’t reached beyond the world of forms.
Instead, I linger at twilight. At edges, where consciousness blurs. And in that place of listening, questioning, paying attention, and trying to act, I wait. For a glimpse of the next stage of my spiritual and intellectual journeys.
Before reading and translating this passage, I would not have told my story in this way. But it seems a true telling.
Use your imagination. Let yourself interpret these words, too. Travel with the Israelite characters. Feel into the story of their journeys. But feel into your own story as well. Take some time to reflect on your passages. Where did you begin? Where have you pitched your tent and lingered?
Do you know where you’re going?
Photo credit: Laura Duhan Kaplan (photo of Charles Kaplan)