Reb Mendel Futerfas spent 14 years in Soviet hard labor camps. One evening, all of his fellow prisoners were depressed. Each one lamented his own tale of woe. Before being arrested, one was a doctor. His career had been booming, and suddenly he was arrested for dealing on the black market. Another was an official in the Communist Party. He had held the keys to power in his hand, and then, out of the blue, orders from on high had come to send him to a hard labor camp. Another had been a professor. He had led a quiet, but peaceful academic life with his family until one of his papers had been termed counter-revolutionary. Now look where they were. Each of them had a sorry story contrasting his position before being arrested and his present state.

“And what were you before you were arrested?” they asked Reb Mendel. “Before I was arrested, I was a chassid. And now, I am a chassid,” he answered. “Imprisonment can’t change that.

Your civilian lives,” he told his comrades, “were all dependent on external factors. Therefore, you feel acute pain when they are gone. My life has always been focused on the internal, and therefore, I am not crushed even in these harsh settings.”

Parshas Behaaloscha

This week’s Torah reading describes the preparations for, and the initial stages of, the journey of the Jewish people through the desert after having camped at Mount Sinai for more than a year.

At Mount Sinai, the Jews received the Torah and soon after constructed the Sanctuary there. Yet, our people did not remain content with having achieved these spiritual heights. Rather than resting on their laurels and staying in the desert where G‑d provided for all their needs, they set out on a mission — to journey to Eretz Yisrael.

The desert is barren and desolate. Yet as the Jews traveled through the desert, they transformed it, albeit temporarily, into a settled land, a place where crops, trees, and even flowers grew. For the Jews did not travel empty-handed. With them, they took the Torah that they had been given and the Sanctuary that they had constructed. G‑d’s presence, which rested within the Sanctuary, and which is given expression in our lives, brought about these positive changes in the surroundings in which they lived.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that the journeys of the Jewish people through the desert are reflected in the journeys of every individual through life. Some of the phases that we pass through may appear barren and desolate. Nevertheless, we must appreciate that this is only the external setting in which we are placed. It should not reflect our inner state — for G‑d’s presence accompanies us at all times and the Torah is with us in all surroundings. This fills our lives with inner meaning and depth which in turn empowers us to be outward oriented. We can change the environments in which we live and cultivate their growth and development.

Looking to the Horizon

In a similar vein, the journeys of the Jewish people through the desert are also interpreted as an allusion to the journeys of our people through the ages toward the consummation of the purpose of creation: the revelation of the light of Mashiach. Accordingly, throughout history the Jews have wandered from country to country fulfilling a unique Divine mission, revealing the sparks of G‑dliness in different lands by utilizing their physical substance in the fulfillment of mitzvos.

To explain this motif: Our Sages state that G‑d exiled the Jewish people in order that converts should be enabled to join them. In addition to the simple meaning of this statement, Jewish mysticism expands the meaning of the word “convert” to refer not only to individuals who accept Judaism, but also to the sparks of the G‑dly life-force which are hidden within the world’s material substance.

When a Jew uses an object for a mitzvah, he or she releases these hidden sparks of G‑dliness and enables them to be overtly revealed. So from land to land have our people wandered, completing phase after phase of this mission.

In the process of doing so, they have made “the desert blossom.” They have endowed the world with spiritual meaning and purpose, pushing it toward the culmination of this process; Mashiach’s coming, when the G‑dliness that pervades our existence will be manifest and apparent.