אֵלֶּה מַסְעֵי בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָֽצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם
Eileh mas’ei V’nei Yisrael asher yatz’u me’eretz Mitzrayim …
These are the journeys of the Children of Israel after leaving the Land of Egypt … (Numbers 33:1).
As we reach the end of the book of Bamidbar, the Children of Israel have arrived at the banks of the River Jordan. The Promised Land is just on the other side. סֵפֵר דְּבָרִים Sefer Devarim, known in English as the book of Deuteronomy, will complete the Five Books of Moses, but there is no further journeying beyond the banks of the Jordan in that final book. The epic journey that began with the book of Exodus has reached its destination. Fittingly, this final portion of Bamidbar is called Mas’ei — “Journeys,” and it begins with a lengthy recounting of every encampment at which the Children of Israel sojourned during the past 40 years.
How are we to read this chapter? As a list, it is pretty tedious. We stopped here, and here, and here … but as I have endeavored to make clear throughout these commentaries, the Torah is not a road atlas. It is rather a map of our inner journey. It is the journey of the soul, as the Haggadah tells us, “from slavery to freedom, from anguish to joy, from darkness to light, from degradation to dignity.”
Looking at the names of the Israelite encampments in that light, one becomes aware that the place names themselves are heavy with symbolism. Are they real places or states of being?
The very first destination sets the tone for this symbolic journey: “The Children of Israel set out from Ramses and encamped at Sukkot” (Numbers 33:5). רַעְמְסֵס Ramses is one of the fortified cities that Pharaoh forced the Children of Israel to construct. סֻכֹּֽת Sukkot means “temporary shelters.” The first step of the journey is the willingness to leave the “fortified city” of the self behind, and instead to dwell in a sukkah, an open and fragile structure. This is the only way we can grow and change: by making ourselves vulnerable and open. Surely, there is comfort in staying behind the walls of a fortress, even if it also the place of imprisonment. But for those of us who sense that there is a calling greater than static safety, we must, despite our fears, risk opening ourselves to the unknown. We can only serve YHVH, Life Unfolding, if we give up our defenses. We cannot meet life on its own terms, find out who we really are, or discover the exhilarating essence of life if we never venture beyond our comfort zone. Perhaps this is “Rule No. 1” of the spiritual journey.
And it’s not easy! Why do you think the Children of Israel constantly cry that they want to return to Egypt? Opening to life offers no guarantee of safety. We face an ongoing inner battle between choosing greater aliveness versus retreating into the constraints of fear. The famed Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “Moses and Pharaoh are both within you: You need to look for these two adversaries within yourself.”
Many of the encampments that then follow in this chapter are named in evocative ways. For example, the Children of Israel journey on from Sukkot to פִּי הַחִירֹת Pi HaKhirot, which can mean “The Opening to Freedom.” Elsewhere, they reach מָרָה Marah, “Bitterness,” and later מִתְקָה Mitkah, “Sweetness.” קִבְרֹת הַתַּאֲוָה Kivrot Ha’Ta’avah means “The Death of Craving;” חֲרָדָה Haradah is “Trembling;” and רְפִידִם Rephidim is interpreted as “Weakness.” What stories might we weave about our sojourns in each of these places and the hard lessons learned at each stop along the way?
“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel … .” We are the Children of Israel, and so these are also our journeys, from constriction to expansiveness, and from fear to faith. Let’s keep walking.