Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. II, p. 348;
Vol. VI, p. 111ff, 235ff; Vol. XXIII, p. 224

Signs of Life

Life and activity are almost synonymous, for movement is one of the fundamental signs of life. Simple, inert matter is limited to its particular place or its particular course, while an entity with a soul has the ability to move from one place to another of its choosing.

Moreover, in the human sphere, the tendency toward physical, mental and spiritual movement expresses itself in an “upward” direction. A person seeks to grow and advance. This is surely true with regard to our Divine service. For implicit in the awareness of the spiritual is the recognition of a thrust towards self-transcendence, a willingness to go beyond oneself and gain fulfillment by developing a connection to one’s unlimited, G‑dly source.1

Personal Journeys

These concepts are reflected in this week’s Torah reading, Parshas Masei. Masei means “journeys,” and the reading enumerates the 42 different stages in the journey of the newborn Jewish nation from the land of Egypt until its entry into Eretz Yisrael. The Baal Shem Tov explains2 that these 42 stages in our people’s journey are mirrored in the life of every individual as he proceeds from birth his personal “exodus from Egypt” until his entry into “the Land of Life” the spiritual counterpart of Eretz Yisrael.

This entire journey through the wilderness (and through life) is intended to reflect continual spiritual growth. Even those stages which are associated with negative events have a positive impetus at their source.

For example, one of the campings of the Jewish people was called Kivros HaTaaveh, “the Graves of [those possessed by] Craving,” where the Jews buried the people who were punished as a result of their lust for meat.3

The name Kivros HaTaaveh, literally means “the Graves of Craving,” i.e., in this place, the Jews were to reach such a high level of connection to G‑d that they would “bury” all material cravings. Nevertheless, since G‑d desires that the Jews’ spiritual attainments be achieved by their own efforts, the people were given free choice, and in this instance they failed. Despite their failure, the impetus associated with this place and the corresponding potential that can be realized by every Jew is positive.

Moreover, even when a person does not at first realize the positive potential at a particular stage of his life, and falters in the face of a spiritual challenge, he must know that his “journey” is not over. This is only one phase, and a temporary descent can ultimately lead to an ascent,4 if corrected through the service of teshuvah.

An Encampment or a Journey?

The above concepts raise a question with regard to the wording chosen by the Torah. As mentioned, the word masei means “journeys,” and yet within the Torah reading, the meaning of the term is “campings.” From a linguistic perspective, there is no difficulty with such a usage, because as Rashi comments previously:5 “Since [the Jews] later journeyed from the place of these encampments, it is appropriate to describe them with the term maasaos.” Nevertheless, the question is one of focus. Seemingly, the fact that every encampment is named appears to place an emphasis on each of these stopping points as an entity in its own right.

It is possible to explain that the intent is to emphasize that all these encampments were merely intermediary stages in the journey to Eretz Yisrael. Our sights must always be on the ultimate goal; in no way should a temporary resting place be considered as anything more than that.

Without discounting the positive aspects of such an explanation, it does not appear appropriate in the context of this Torah reading. For the Torah recounts these 42 places with the intent of highlighting the events that occurred in each one:6 to learn from them, and recalling the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov to apply these lessons within our own spiritual endeavors.

Since each step of the journey represents a phase of holiness, it possesses an importance of its own. Indeed, our Sages state7 that because the encampments were made “according to G‑d’s word,”8 every one was endowed with a dimension of permanence. Why then does the Torah refer to them in a way that underscores their temporary nature?

The Goal of Our Divine Service

It is possible to explain that the Torah uses the term maasaos, “journeys,” because this is the ultimate expression of man’s potential. As mentioned above, our spiritual potential is expressed in the transcending of our immediate circumstances. In this vein, Chassidic thought9 interprets the verse to mean10 “I will grant you [the potential to] progress among those that stand.”

“Those that stand,” refer to the angels or noncorporeal souls as they exist in the spiritual realms. They are described as “stand[ing],” because their spiritual service remains always on the same level.11 A mortal, by contrast, has the potential for unbounded growth, and can “progress” far beyond his current rung.12 To highlight this potential, and to establish its expression as one of the goals of Divine service, the Torah calls these encampments maasaos.

Setting Out To Change

Every advance has two phases: a departure from the previous state and an approach to the future state. Masei points primarily to the departure. We see this in the expression hesia (which shares the same root as masei) es dato, which means “he diverted his attention.”

What is the point of this emphasis? When a person can see his destination, his degree of progress is defined. Masei, by contrast, underscores setting out towards uncharted horizons, as the Jews in the desert followed the pillar of cloud. For radical advance can be achieved only when one makes an unrestrained commitment to change.13

The Ultimate Journey

On the verse,14 “These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt,” the Alter Rebbe asks:15 “It is with one journey from Raamses to Sukkos which the Jews left Egypt. Why are all the subsequent ‘journeys’ associated with the exodus from Egypt?”

The Alter Rebbe explains that the plural term is used because every journey of the Jewish people throughout the centuries has been “from the land of Egypt” (a state of limitation) to Eretz Yisrael (the state of ultimate freedom that will be experienced in the Era of the Redemption).16

Focusing on this ultimate goal makes all of one’s accomplishments secondary in importance. For no matter how great, they are dwarfed by awareness of the crowning goal, the coming of Mashiach.17

The Individual and the Whole

The macrocosm the journey of mankind as a whole is reflected within the personal journey of every individual. For everyone must realize that he has his own mission, and a pace at which it will be accomplished. For some, the journey involves stepping beyond already refined states of spiritual awareness, while for others, it involves refraining from crass material involvement and setting forth on the trek to find spiritual purpose.

There is, however, a common denominator to all these personal journeys. They all involve a “departure from Egypt,” for even the most developed state is limited when compared to the ultimate goal. And none of these journeys has a self-contained objective; they are all merely phases in our progress toward that goal.

With one journey, a person can leave his personal Egypt and join mankind’s progress toward the Redemption. And this first journey predicates another, initiating a sequence which will continue until the ultimate objective is reached, and we all enter Eretz Yisrael again, led by Mashiach.