The Torah portion Masei (which means "travels") derives its name from the fact that it details the itinerary of the Jews during the forty years of their travel through the Sinai Desert. The name of each of the 42 separate spots in which the Jews encamped in the wilderness is recorded, sometimes along with the amount of time they stayed there.

What is the difference where the Jews made camp while struggling on toward the Promised Land? They left Egypt and set out for the land of Canaan, eventually arriving there after passing through the desert. Is there really some deeper significance to all those stops along the way, so much so that we need to know exactly when and where they occurred?

Since nothing in the Torah is superfluous, it is obvious that G‑d chose to recount the 42 encampments for a reason. To understand this, let us first clarify the spiritual distinction between the Land of Israel and the rest of the world, as well as the teaching that "[In the Messianic Era] the Land of Israel is destined to spread over the entire world" (see Yalkut Shimoni on Isaiah, allusion 503).

In the Mashiach's time, the world...will attain the spiritual standing that Israel enjoys today….

The meaning of this statement is that in the Mashiach's time, the world in general will attain the spiritual standing that Israel enjoys today; by the same token, Israel itself will then rise to the superior level of the Holy City, Jerusalem, which will in turn be elevated to an even higher spiritual level. The Messianic age will, in fact, see an elevation of the entire universe, including all the spiritual realms.

Jewish mysticism teaches that there are four broad distinctions in the degree of G‑dly revelation manifest in the universe, known as the spiritual realms of Atzilut, Beriya, Yetzira, and, finally, the realm of Asiya, in which G‑d has so thoroughly concealed Himself from our perception that the creatures of this physical world cannot perceive Him at all. Each of these four "worlds" or "realms" contain ten gradations in the degree of G‑dliness manifest within that particular realm, of which the highest is the spiritual attribute we refer to by its analogy to chochma - "wisdom", the highest attribute of humanity - and the lowest, relatively speaking, is malchut - analogous to the attribute of "sovereignty", which, unlike a human king's wisdom or other personal characteristics, is not an integral part of the king himself but is merely something that may be said "about" the king.

A person's inner attributes may be inherent within the more external manifestations of that person: one's deep-rooted tendency to kindness, for example, may express itself within that person's thoughts of doing kindness to someone or other, which thoughts are themselves "enclothed" within the person's statement or instruction that kindness be bestowed upon the recipient. An actual act of kindness performed in real life does not arise in a vacuum; it embodies the prior expressions of the kindly impulse in the doer's speech, thought, emotional motivation and so on, until ultimately, its root can be traced to the expression of the soul itself.

Similarly, G‑d has so structured the universe that His transmission to us of His benevolence, of His G‑dly life-force, does not reach us directly (we created beings would be simply unable to withstand such holiness) but by investiture within the progressive levels of the spiritual hierarchy described above. That is, the life-force of our physical world comes from G‑d, of course, but only reaches us as it has been "enclothed" within the high level of chochma of Atzilut, through the succeeding levels until malchut of Atzilut, further on through the levels of Beriya and Yetzira, and finally, through the spiritual levels of the realm of Asiya until the point of its transmission to us by malchut of Asiya. Nevertheless, it is none other than the life-force from G‑d Himself that is bestowed upon us; it is simply "compressed", or "distilled", as it were, into a form we can withstand.

The Land of Israel receives its spiritual life-force…from the realm of Yetzira….

In the present, pre-Messianic, order of the universe, the foregoing applies to the life-force of the world at large, but not entirely to the Land of Israel. The Land of Israel receives its spiritual life-force more or less directly from the realm of Yetzira, resulting in an unimaginably greater degree of holiness and spirituality being manifest there. By contrast, the rest of the world receives its life-force, as explained above, only after it has first been enclothed within the realm of Asiya, where it is concealed by so many barriers to its open manifestation that our sages found it necessary to declare the very air and earth which is not of the Land of Israel ritually impure. (Shabbat 15a)

To be precise, the G‑dliness manifest within the Land of Israel, too, must necessarily pass through the realm of Asiya, but there is a fundamental difference between how it passes through Asiya and how the life-force of the rest of the world does so. The G‑dliness of the Land of Israel traverses Asiya in a manner described as merely "passing through". This is like sunlight which one views through a clear glass; although it is technically true that the light passed through glass, there is no real change in the degree or quality of the light. The world at large, however, only gets the "light" as it has passed through Asiya in a manner known as actual "enclothing" of the light in the form of Asiya. This may be compared to an idea expressed through a parable or analogy: although one ends up getting the basic idea, one only gets it in the form of the analogy and not as it was in its original form. The G‑dliness of the rest of the world therefore is fully enclothed within the concealments of Asiya, while that of the Land of Israel is actually the same sublime revelation expressed through the spiritual realm of Yetzira.

In the Messianic era, the world will be cleansed of impurity, as it is written, "And I will remove the spirit of impurity from the land". (Zachariah 13:2) Thus, even the rest of the world - which now "conceals" G‑d's presence and is therefore "impure" - will not present an impediment to the open revelation of G‑dliness. The entire world, at that time, will enjoy a manifestation of the spirituality of the realm of Yetzira as transmitted via Asiya, as through a clear glass. This is the manner in which G‑d is revealed even today in the Land of Israel; that is the meaning of the teaching that in the age of Mashiach, the Land of Israel - its spiritual status as we know it today - will spread over the entire world. And Israel itself, along with the entire spiritual hierarchy of Creation, will then rise to even higher spiritual levels, as stated above.

...the desert is symbolic of spiritual desolation, the utter concealment of G‑dliness...

This grand principle that the entire universe, including all the spiritual realms, will be elevated to higher levels in the Messianic era was made possible through the 42 stops the Jews made in the desert. This is because the desert is symbolic of spiritual desolation, the utter concealment of G‑dliness and the resultant existence of an environment hospitable to impurity and evil. In order to pave the way for the spirit of impurity to be removed from the land in the future, in order for the possibility of evil resulting from the concealment of G‑dliness in the realm of Asiya to be nullified, some "advance work" was necessary. The spiritual purpose of the Jews' travel throughout the desert, carrying the Ark of G‑d and the Ten Commandments it contained, was to bring holiness even within the very source of impurity and evil, represented by the desert.

This is alluded to by the verse: And it came to pass, that when the Ark traveled on, Moses said, "Rise up, O G‑d, and let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You." (Num. 10:35) The "enemies" of G‑d, those who "hate Him", so to speak, are the forces of spiritual darkness and evil. The travels of the Ark through their domain - the desert - scattered them before G‑d. This left them in such a weakened state that we Jews can now overcome them by our worship of G‑d and adherence to His Torah, which will result in their permanent removal in the Messianic era.

In the above verse "Rise up, O G‑d…" the divine name Havayah is used. Inasmuch as this divine name includes all other divine names and concepts, the use of this name intimates that the Jews' encampments in the wilderness elevated not only this physical world, but the entirety of Creation.

Let us now delve a little deeper and examine how this actually worked, as well as why 42 encampments in particular were required to accomplish the goal.

A person's actions embody within them all the prior steps in speech, thought, emotions and intellect that motivated those actions. The same is true spiritually: things in this physical world implicitly "contain" all the preceding spiritual levels. What we do on this world - particularly through Torah study and practical performance of mitzvot - expresses the G‑dliness inherent throughout the spiritual hierarchy of the universe.

However, there is an element of "danger" to this. Since it is part of G‑d's plan that evil exist so that we should have the opportunity to overcome it, He allows for its being; but G‑d does not directly transmit His life-force to evil. Instead, the forces of darkness are forced to derive their sustenance by usurping what they can of the life-force flowing into the realms of good.

For example, if a person wants something emotionally, say, to obtain a job, he or she must first know intellectually that it is desirable to have a job. Although this sounds simple, it is certainly a prerequisite for the particular desire or emotion we are discussing. There is no emotion openly manifest at this purely intellectual level, although, to be sure, the emotional wish to have a job may be thought of as inherent in potential within the intellectual understanding. Expressed another way, understanding of the everyday economics of life and how a job facilitates one's practical existence carries with it automatically the eventual desire of the person to have a job him/herself.

Once one's emotions have been aroused (i.e. the person actively yearns for the job, fears the consequences of being jobless, etc.), the possibility exists that they may be misdirected. Motivated by their desire to attain the goal, or their fear of the consequences of failure to attain it, the person might (innocently or deliberately) step over the line of propriety and do something inappropriate in pursuit of that end. This cannot happen on the purely intellectual level, however; "understanding", by itself, would not motivate one to act, improperly or otherwise. It requires the emotions born of understanding to motivate one's actions. And these emotions must be full fledged - just because the emotion of desire for a job is implicit within an understanding of economic reality does not mean that, at that "potential" level, the emotion will be used to motivate anything.

...human emotions can be misdirected if a person wants something "too much"….

The same applies to the life force of the universe. On the exalted spiritual level of bina, "understanding", the ensuing emotional attributes exist only in potential. They do not really exist yet in their own right. It is only after the G‑dly life-force has proceeded to the level of Zeir Anpin, the six "emotional" attributes, that these in turn acquire the ability to transmit the life-force further. However, just as human emotions can be misdirected if a person wants something "too much" or fears something "too much", the "excess" of the spiritual life-force expressed through Zeir Anpin is susceptible of being "pirated", usurped, used to animate evil instead of good (G‑d forbid).

As the emotional sefirot are contained in potential within the intellectual sefira of bina (a state in which they are Kabbalistically likened to an embryo in the womb of their "mother", bina) the sefira of malchut is not a factor in its own right. This is because, as explained above, the function of malchut is to bring into actual reality what had previously existed only in potential. But within the "womb" of bina, the attributes of Zeir Anpin themselves only exist in potential; they cannot themselves motivate action, as though they existed in their own right and their potential consequences could be made real by the sefira of malchut. Thus, malchut itself, as a separate sefira, has no place within this scheme of things; it has no function.

On the other hand, each sefira within Zeir Anpin is a composite of all the other sefirot - including malchut. That is, the attribute of chesed is actually comprised of the chesed aspect of chesed, the gevura aspect of chesed, and so on, even to the point of a malchut aspect of chesed. The attribute of gevura, likewise, contains the chesed aspect of gevura through the malchut aspect of gevura, and the same applies to the rest of the six attributes of Zeir Anpin. Malchut is included within each sefira of Zeir Anpin because at that level, it represents the capacity of the sefirot themselves to make the transition from their potential state within the "womb" of bina, as it were, to actual existence as sefirot in their own right – in other words, to be "born". But a separate sefira of malchut - that is, not as a component of the other sefirot but as a sefira unto itself whose function is to actualize the potential consequences of the "emotional" sefirot as though those had already been "born" - has no place in the "womb" of bina.

It develops, then, that, as the "emotional" sefirot are contained in potential within bina, they collectively contain 42 components: the six attributes of Zeir Anpin, each comprised of seven aspects.

We are now in a position to understand the role of those 42 stops in the wilderness. As explained, the general purpose of the journey through the wilderness was to weaken the forces of spiritual darkness, which, as we now know, derive their life-force by usurping whatever is "left over" from the higher points in the spiritual hierarchy. But they can only "pirate" spiritual energy from the attributes of Zeir Anpin as they exist as separate "emotions" unto themselves, much as a person must have an active emotion in the first place before it can be misdirected into improper activities. The way the Jews' journey subdued the forces of evil was by means of the elevation of all the spiritual realms we discussed earlier, regarding the verse, "Rise up, O G‑d, and let Your enemies be scattered…."

The...encampments in the desert...lift the forces of holiness out of the reach...of the forces of evil

The 42 specific encampments in the desert served to spiritually lift the forces of holiness out of the reach, so to speak, of the forces of evil, by elevating the spiritual hierarchy back up to its origins within the 42 components in the "womb" of bina, where evil has no hold.

In light of the above, we can also understand why we count the omer – the period between the first day of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot - for 49 days, as opposed to the encampments of the desert, which were only 42. The purpose of the mitzvah of counting the omer, as explained elsewhere, is to draw down upon us an infusion of the spiritual life-force and holiness of the higher realms into this physical world. Since this involves transmission downward of influence from the sefirot, it necessarily means that the sefirot are entities unto themselves, capable of transmitting to others - that is in relation to the sefirot after their "birth" from bina. On that level, it is appropriate, and indeed necessary, that the separate sefira of malchut be included in the process, for malchut is what does the transmitting, the conversion of spiritual influence to us from potential to actual. Malchut, like the other sefirot, is a composite of all seven, so that the counting of the omer - by including malchut, involves a bestowal upon us of the spirituality of 49 separate levels. By contrast, what was accomplished through the encampments of the desert was not transmission from above down, but elevation from below up, to the sublime level of bina in which malchut is not a separate factor, leaving 42 levels in all.

Copyright 2001 Yitzchok D. Wagshul /