Our Sidra begins with an account of the 42 journeys by which the Israelites left Egypt and came to the borders of the Chosen Land. The opening verse, however, suggests that all of the journeys were an exodus from Egypt, whereas in fact only the first one was. To understand this, the Rebbe develops the theme that Egypt is not only a place but also a state of mind. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, also means “confinement,” and there is an obvious contrast with the land of Israel, which is called the “good and spacious land.” The questions that confront us, therefore, are: What is “confinement” and “spaciousness” in the life of the Jew? And, what is the significance of the idea of a “journey.”

1. One Exodus or Many

“These are the journeys of the children of Israel by which they went forth out of the land of Egypt.”

This verse raises a well-known difficulty. For only the first of the journeys mentioned in our Sidra—from Rameses to Succot—constituted “going forth out of the land of Egypt.” The others were all made outside Egypt. Why, then, does the verse use the plural, “these are the journeys?”

Also, what is the significance of these 42 journeys in traveling from Egypt to the land of Israel, the “good and spacious land?” The word “spacious” is opposed to “confined” or “restricted.” But as soon as the Jewish people had left Egypt, they had left their confinement. Why was it only after 42 journeys that they were said to have reached “spaciousness?”

These concepts of confinement and spaciousness have a spiritual sense: “Out of my confinement I called upon the L-rd. The L-rd answered me with enlargement.” As a Jew moves towards his spiritual goal, he passes from the straits of inner conflict to the open spaces of serenity, from the narrow path through secular distractions to the broad plain of unity with G‑d. Every stage he reaches is spacious in relation to the level he has left, and restricted in relation to the level he is heading towards, until he reaches the final open space, the Messianic Age, with the crossing of the Jordan that marks the divide between journeying and arriving.

This is why all 42 journeys, not merely the first, were a “going forth out of the land of Egypt.” For every journey that brought them nearer to the land of Israel and their destiny made the previous stopping point seem like a confinement, another Egypt. Each stage was a new exodus. They had already left the physical Egypt. But they still had to pass beyond the Egypt, the narrowness of the soul.

2. Egypt and the Individual

The Torah is eternal. And it is clearly so where it concerns the exodus, about which the Jew is explicitly obliged “to see himself as if he had traveled out of Egypt that very day.”1 The 42 journeys therefore have a special perpetual significance.

There are many Egypts through which the individual has to pass. At one level it may be the confinement of the secular world, which seeks to hold him captive. At another, it may be the narrow scope of the human mind, as it filters his Judaism through the dark lens of rationalization. But even if he has traveled beyond these, and his faith is no longer confined to his understanding, he has always to strain towards new plateaus of expansiveness, compared to which his present state is a confinement.

3. The Rungs of Prayer

We can see this process exemplified in prayer. There is a difference between Torah and prayer,2 for Torah is G‑d’s word to man, while prayer is the word of man to G‑d. Prayer is Jacob’s ladder, “set on the earth and its top reaching to heaven.”3 It has many rungs. Each step upwards is a movement from the straits of the earth to the expanses of heaven.

The first rung is preparation. How can finite man stand before infinite G‑d in prayer? How much less can he do so if he has sinned and betrayed his relationship to G‑d? It is this sense of momentous awe, in which a man divests himself of the masks of self-sufficiency and pride, which is the preparation for prayer. And this setting oneself to pray—even before a word of prayer is spoken—is in itself an exodus, a liberation, from one’s normal situation.

Then comes prayer itself, a series of ever-widening chambers of the spirit, to which the preparation is, in comparison, a narrow and humble entrance-hall.

From the outpourings of devotion in the “Psalms of Praise,” through the expression of love in the Shema, we ascend to the final point of self-abandonment and openness to G‑d in the Amidah, standing “like a servant before his master.” At that moment we ourselves are nothing; G‑d is everything; we are powerless to speak; we can say only, “O L-rd, open Thou my lips, and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.”4

4. Beyond Paradox

The Amidah embodies a paradox. On the one hand we abandon our ego and become a mere mouthpiece for the words of G‑d. On the other hand, it is a prayer of requests for the satisfaction of our spiritual and material needs. And yet surely it is just at this point of selflessness that we forget our needs and are unconcerned with our welfare.

These two aspects of the Amidah are indeed opposed. But it is only reason and logic that cannot tolerate the joining of two opposites. The Amidah is a level of spirituality beyond the reach of reason. The nearer we reach to G‑d, the more all opposites can be accommodated, all tensions dissolved. We say, “He who makes peace in His high places,” for it is in the heights beyond reason that there is peace between contending parties, and compatibility amongst opposites. In this respect, the Amidah is a foretaste of the future world, when “all flesh shall see” the presence of G‑d, when—in other words—the opposites of substance and spirit will be interfused.

5. The Journey

Even though the Amidah is the apex of the daily prayers, each day the Jew must begin again, preparing and praying; making yesterday’s high point, today’s point of departure. Although on his personal journey he has left the “Egypt” of transgression, he must cast off the successive layers of narrowness of soul, the ever-fainter traces of that original Egypt. Even if a man does no wrong, the Baal Shem Tov said that if he sees a fault in another person, this is a symptom that he has a trace of that same fault within himself.5 Evil leaves its traces, and even these must be removed.

The religious life is not a matter of suddenly arriving, but of constantly journeying.

6. Two Mistakes

The journeys of the Israelites from Egypt serve as a warning against the two kinds of error into which a Jew can fall.

One is to believe that one has arrived. He may think: Having reached so far in my Judaism, I can rest content. But the truth is that the Jew was not created to stand still. There is always a new journey before him.

The other is to despair. He may feel: I know so little, I am capable of so little, that my religious efforts are in vain. But in truth, even a single journey is a liberation from some personal Egypt. (And the direction in which one is traveling matters more than how far one is along the way.)

Alongside personal despair, there may be historical despair, the feeling that never has an age been less conducive to Messianic hope. But the opposite is the truth. The Israelites, who in Egypt had reached the penultimate point, the forty-ninth gate, of impurity,6 were still able to reach Israel, their destination. But for us, virtually all of the journey towards the Messianic destiny has already been traveled; the goal is near; and we live after Sinai and have the power of that revelation constantly with us; and we have the spiritual leaders of the generation to bind us to G‑d and to help us in our upward climb.

7. The Three Weeks

The Sidrot of Mattot and Massei are always read in the period of the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. They are set in this time of bitter confinement between the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple’s destruction.

The significance of their timing is that they convey to us, at the time when we most need reminding, the concept of “destroying in order to rebuild.” Destruction may be for the sake of replacing a building with a better and stronger one. The Baal Shem Tov commented on the verse “It is the time of Jacob’s trouble; but he shall be saved out of it” that salvation is not something that simply follows trouble: It is implicit in it. Here, too, we find the fusion of two opposites—destroying and rebuilding, affliction and salvation—that comes only when we leave the confinements of human reasoning and journey towards the all-encompassing expanses of faith. At this level, everything is drawn into our faith. We see G‑d’s goodness everywhere, even in the seeming catastrophe. Seen from the eyes of a son, punishment is an evil. In the eyes of his father, it is for his son’s own good. Our goal is to see history through the eyes of G‑d. And by so doing we are able to turn G‑d’s hidden mercy into open kindness, and change the darkness of exile into the light of the Time to Come.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. II pp. 348-353)