Growth through our Mistakes

Bnei IsraelThis week we read Mattot and Massei, the last two Torah portions of Bemidbar [Numbers]. Whenever I’ve had the privilege to teach on these portions, I’ve avoided Massei [which begins at Numbers 33:1] because it’s rather difficult to teach about Zelophechad, the cities of refuge, or the travelogue of the camps. It can be difficult to take these topics and find a life-changing principle to share. However, let’s read the first verse of Parsha Massei, which reads:

These are the stages of the Israelites, who had left Egypt in organized groups at the hand of Moses and Aaron.

This term, stages, can be a bit confusing, but the general consensus seems to be that the stages refer to the locations in which we encamped. However, the second and the third verse help us:

  • The second verse says, “These are their stages at their goings forth,”
  • Verse three says, “And they journeyed.”

If we allow the text to interpret it for us, we see the stages are not the encampments but are the journeys themselves. So, the age-old question is asked: “What is more important, the journey or the destination?” The question will be answered shortly.

We journey from Ramses, which is in Egypt, we travel to Etam, Pihahirot, Migdol, Penehahirot, through the Red Sea, and nine places later, we pitched in the Wilderness of Sinai. There are 42 stages or 42 journeys[1]. The first stage is mentioned in Numbers 33:5 states, “And Bnei Israel journeyed from Ramses.” Numbers 33:15 says, “And [they] pitched in the wilderness of Sinai.” I mention these places because of the 42, these are by far the two most important locales. Ramses, which is in Egypt, marks our departure; we were freed from Egyptian slavery and we walked out with a high hand.

I will stop there for a short sidebar.

We were in Egypt — not for 400 years — but 210 years. If we listen to the words at the Covenant Between the Parts [Genesis 15:13], Hashem says, “Know for certain that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not their own and they will enslave them and oppress them, 400 years.” Our sages begin the countdown of 400 years with the birth of Yitzchak because the words of Hashem do not mention Egypt by name but rather to a “land not their own.” As soon as Abraham and Sarah had a son, his seed was subject to living in a land that was not their own — and this included Eretz Canaan, which wasn’t his at the time. If we consider Isaac was 60 years of age when Jacob was born and Jacob was 130 when he went down into Egypt, this means 190 of the 400 years elapsed before the Egyptian sojourn began[2].

Enough of the sidebar….

The first of the two important locales was Egypt and the second is Har Sinai, yet the text treats them the same way:

  • “The Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses,” and
  • “They journeyed from the Wilderness of Sinai.”

We journeyed from these two locations, but our reaction is ironic:

  • When we left Egypt, we were supposed to leave Egypt… behind.
  • When we left Sinai, we were supposed to leave Sinai… yet take it with us.

However, the Torah accounts numerous times how we grumbled and complained about leaving Egypt, but not once are we accredited for desiring to return to Sinai. Isn’t it ironic? We desired what was harmful and shunned that which provides life. This is very common; most of us hang onto or are hindered by habits or desires that threaten to end our lived prematurely if not brought into submission, and our desire for the leeks of Egypt is a manifestation of this human tendency.

At the command of Hashem, Moshe lists all the stages of our journey, not as a way to remind us of our failings, but to show our growth during our early years as a nation. Much like a parent who recounts the events that led to a child from a deathly illness to recovery, Hashem recounts our illnesses, failings, and our successes so we can witness how were healed.

Our failures are not disasters in the eyes of Hashem because he sees our faults and our sins as opportunities to mold us[3]. For example, if you pray for patience [and Heaven knows almost everyone has made this request], you will be provided ample opportunity to exercise that muscle and like a body builder, that muscle will be worked until it fails. Yet, with each failure, you gain a moment of rest and healing, and your patience is tried again until a point of failure occurs. However, if you pay attention, you see your ability to hold your temper lengthens, until those around you take note and are amazed at your longsuffering. Without your long journey of perceived failure, you never would enjoy the destination.

The question again is asked: “What is more important, the journey or the destination?” The answer is both. Not unlike our ancestors in the Wilderness, Hashem is using our journey to mold us and to perfect us into a workmanship worthy of Hashem’s glory. If we take the holiness of our rest with us on our journey, it will transform the journey, and that will lead us to the rest that will bring Moshiach. We are not without fault, but we are being perfected — our hearts are being made whole — or in other words, we are being made whole-hearted[4].

[1] There are several 42s in Tanach, and each one represents a blessing for Israel and each threatens to be its own drash, but I would like to stick to two particular stages in our group because I find them so ironic.

[2] According to Rashi’s commentary, the 430 years mentioned in Exodus 12:40 also includes the 30 years between the Covenant of the Parts and Isaac’s birth.

[3] I do not necessarily include our rebellious activities in this.

[4] When Hashem says, “Be holy because Hashem your G-d is holy,” He is not giving the impossible commandment. Instead, he is telling is to be whole-hearted. A similar thing in mentioned in Revelation, where the admonition to Laodicea includes the phrase, “Either be hot or cold,” points back to the idea of being whole-hearted in our actions.

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