At the end of parashat Chukat, the Israelites arrived at the threshold of the Promised Land, “by the Jordan opposite Jericho.” The ensuing three parashiotBalak, Pinchas, and Matot—describe the events that took place while the Israelites were encamped at their final stop, most prominently the encounter with Moab and Midian.

This parashah, Masei, the last of the Book of Numbers, opens with a recapitulation of the Israelite’s entire trek from Egypt until their final camp, and it takes its name (which means “the journeys of”) from the opening words of this recapitulation. This summary would seem to be a fitting way to close the book. But the fact that the text continues after this review—and indeed, that the entire Book of Deuteronomy is yet to come—indicates that it serves rather as the demarcation between the story of the sojourn in the desert and the preparations for entering the Land of Israel. After looking back at what was, we look forward to what is about to be.

And indeed, the remainder of Masei deals with specific instructions pertaining to the conquest of the land: driving out its idolatrous inhabitants, delineating its borders, designating who will divide it up, specifying where the Levites will live and the special role their cities will play, and detailing additional laws of inheritance.

So it would seem that the opening subject of the parashah is entirely different from the rest of its contents. If the opening review of the Israelites’ itinerary is the end of the story of the desert, perhaps it should have been placed at the end of the previous parashah. The present parashah would then be entirely devoted to the life the people would lead after crossing the Jordan.

The fact that, despite what we might think, the itinerary is part of the look ahead, and actually introduces it, implies that it is at least as relevant to what is to come as it is to what was.

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The distinguishing feature of human life is change. True, lower life forms also grow, learn, and adapt, but once they reach maturity, they remain what they are. Even the forms of life above us—the angels—are static: every angel is the eternal, unchanging personification of a specific level of Divine consciousness or emotion. Only human beings are capable of changing their way of looking at life, of progressing to higher, more Divinely conscious levels of living based on their expanded understanding of reality.

If this spiritual growth is the unique property of human existence, it follows that in order for us to remain human and avoid becoming fossilized as a stagnant animal (or even angel!), this process must go on continuously. We must always strive to expand our spiritual horizons and seek higher levels of living.

The secret of life, then, is to keep moving, to keep journeying upward: never to look at progress only as a phenomenon of the past, but to see it primarily as an integral part of the future.

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As we have seen, the archetype of constricted consciousness is the Land of Egypt. The Hebrew name for Egypt (Mitzraim) means “limits” and “boundaries” (meitzarim). The Exodus from Egypt is thus the archetype for transcending limits in the spiritual life. But here we find an instructive nuance in the way the Israelites’ itinerary is introduced: “These are the journeys of the Israelites who left the Land of Egypt.” This phrase seems to imply that all the journeys were from the Land of Egypt, while technically only the first journey was from Egypt.

By introducing the entire itinerary this way, the Torah teaches us that whenever we go out of Egypt, whenever we transcend one level of life, we should consider our new, expanded level of consciousness a new “Egypt,” a level of constricted awareness relative to where we want to go next. In this way, we are constantly going out of Egypt.

Furthermore, rather than simply listing the stops on the journey, the account is phrased in a way that emphasizes how the Israelites left every place they stopped at: “[They] journeyed from Rameses and camped at Sukot. They journeyed from Sukot and camped at Eitam.... They journeyed from Eitam....”1 This implies that every progression from level to level must be a quantum leap. It is not enough to just enhance or ascend at our present level; each leg of the journey should be a complete departure from the previous way we conceived of God, of life, and of ourselves.2

In this context, it is particularly instructive to realize that not everything that happened along this journey from Egypt to the threshold of the Promised Land was altogether positive. At quite a few stops, the Israelites fell backwards, even retreated, and learned the lessons of Divine living the hard way. Nonetheless, they are all called “journeys”; in the long run they all contributed to the final arrival. This teaches us that in order to progress in life, we must learn how to see every regression as a lesson in how to progress further, and thereby turn every failure into a success.

This is possible because, despite the imperative to progress continually, there are certain things that should not change. This is the lesson we learned in the previous parashah, Matot.3 These basic constants—our fundamental beliefs and our resistance to evil—are the bedrock of our spiritual lives, and give us the stability on which we can base our continuous ascent. In particular, we can survive our falls when we realize that they are all orchestrated by Divine providence: we fall specifically in those areas of life where God sees we need to ascend; the rest of our life remains intact, providing the framework we need to put ourselves back together.

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These lessons were particularly pertinent when the Jews were about to enter the Promised Land. The safe and sequestered life of the desert, of seclusion in a totally spiritual environment, naturally encourages spiritual growth. Of course, it is possible to stagnate in a spiritual environment as well, but the main challenge to remaining spiritually alive is in the settled land of mundane, material living. It is therefore fitting to make this point just as our sights become focused on working the land across the Jordan River, so that we remember throughout our mundane lives to strive and progress constantly toward ever higher levels of Divine consciousness. By ascending the ladder of spiritual growth ourselves and helping others make the same climb, we actualize the lessons we learned in the desert and successfully meet the great challenge of making the world into God’s home.4