Starting Points & Destinations on our Journeys (Parashat Massei, Numbers 33:1-36:13)
By Cantor Ken Richmond
A middle school history teacher once asked my class why people immigrate; our suggestions all fell under her simple overarching answer, that people immigrate in search of a better life. Almost all Americans, the Jewish community included, are descendants of immigrants; many of us have stories of how our families came to the United States.
My Zayda, Sol (Shleime Zalmen) Richmond, was born in the village of Zvhil, Ukraine, in 1908. His father and uncle moved to Boston first and worked to send money back to the family. In 1913, my grandfather, together with his mother, grandmother, and two older sisters, left home and snuck over the Polish border in a wagon, hidden under bales of hay. They made their way across Europe and waited months to voyage in steerage to America. When he arrived in Boston, my Zayda ran to greet his uncle, who had left Ukraine a year before, but didn’t recognize his father, who had departed a year earlier. I know fewer details about the other branches of my family, but generally, they left Eastern Europe and its pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sometimes whole families, sometimes teens traveling alone, braving the journey in search of a better life in di goldene medine, the golden land of America.
My forebears’ example makes me wonder: what does it take to begin a journey? What spurs us to embark on something new, to risk loss, to leave what is familiar in hopes of reaching a better destination?
This week we read the Torah portion Mas’ei, “the journeys (of),” the ultimate Torah portion for the wandering Jews. In it, we recount the 42 steps on the forty-year journey of our ancestors from Egypt to the land of Israel. The portion begins (Numbers 33:1-2): Eileh Mas’ei — These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their journeys (et motsa’eihem l’mas’eihem), as directed by God, and these were their journeys by starting points: (v’eileh mas’eihem l’motsa’eihem).
The Hasidic commentators consider the wandering of our ancestors a metaphor for our spiritual peregrinations. The founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that “the forty-two stations from Egypt to the Promised Land are replayed in the life of every individual Jew, as the soul journeys from its descent to earth at birth to its return to its Source.” Rabbi Shneur Zalmen of Lyadi asks why the text says, “These were the journeys (plural) of the Israelites as they started out from the land of Egypt,” when coming out of Egypt only took one journey. He answers that:
“Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, means ‘borders’ and ‘narrows.’ On the spiritual level, the journey from Egypt is a journey from the boundaries that limit us—an exodus from the narrow straits of habit, convention and ego to the ‘good, broad land’ of the infinite potential of our Godly soul. And the journey from Mitzrayim is a perpetual one: what is expansive and uninhibited by yesterday’s standards, is narrow and confining in light of the added wisdom and new possibilities of today’s station. Thus, each of life’s journeys is an exodus from the land of Mitzrayim: having transcended yesterday’s limitations, we must again journey from the Mitzrayim that our present norm represents relative to our newly uncovered potential.”Rabbi Shneur Zalmen’s teaching helps answer the question of how we can feel that we personally left slavery in Egypt every year at the Seders, what it means to recount the Exodus daily in our morning and evening liturgy as inspiration for our own odysseys, and what shape our journeys may take when we don’t feel compelled to move across the world.
In the first two verses of our portion, the word “journeys” appears three times, and each time it is accompanied by a form of the word motsa’eihem, their starting points, their coming outs. This threefold repetition acknowledges how difficult it is to take the first step of a journey, to give up a bad habit or take on a good one, to start a new relationship or mend (or end) a difficult one, to go back to school or look for a new job, to work on one’s character or take on new mitzvot, or to physically move in search of a better life, following the examples of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the children of Israel, and our more recent ancestors. Sometimes it takes us many tries before we are able to start a journey. An article in Lilith magazine about Jewish women candidates for office said that women need to be asked five to seven times to run for office. Major life decisions may require multiple invitations from others or years of rumination ourselves before being sure of starting a new path. And even so, we don’t always have clarity along the way. The classical commentaries wonder why the text first says “the starting points for their journeys, as directed by God” and then, in the opposite order, “and these are their journeys, by starting points.” My own explanation is that sometimes the starting points for our journeys seem clear, and we may even feel Divine guidance in making a life-changing decision. At other times we may stumble into a journey, and only realize afterwards what was the turning point that led to our path. Whether or not our starting points are intentional and well-considered, we should do our best to choose our ways carefully, because as Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
May we find continued inspiration from the journeys of our ancestors, recent and long-ago. May we, like them, find the courage to forge new paths in pursuit of a better life for ourselves and our families. And may we find blessings in our starting points, our travels, and our destinations.
Ken Richmond has been the Cantor of Temple Israel of Natick since 2006, and has served as adjunct faculty at Hebrew College’s School of Jewish Music. He will use sabbatical time to begin classes this fall at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.