The Soul’s Odyssey

The Baal Shem Tov teaches1 that the 42 journeys recounted in this week’s Torah reading are reflected in the lives of every Jew. Birth is equivalent to the exodus from Egypt, and from that point a person makes 42 journeys, until he reaches Eretz Yisrael, the sublime Land of Life.

This teaching provokes a question: Several of the journeys featured events that ran contrary to G‑d’s will. Would Divine Providence structure our lives to follow a pattern that sometimes opposes G‑d’s will?!

From the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, however, we can infer that the journeys in and of themselves are all phases in holiness. Mankind was given free choice, and it is thus possible to act against G‑d’s will. The intent, however, is that “You should choose life.”2 (Indeed, this command empowers us to make the proper choice.) And when this choice is made, all the journeys become stages of ascent.

For example, at the encampment of Kivros HaTaavah (the graves of [those possessed by] craving), the Jews buried those who were punished as a result of their lust for meat.3 This encampment had the potential to bring the Jews to an elevated spiritual state, one in which they could “bury craving.” But the Jews did not rise to the challenge, and so the forces of evil were able to bring about the outcome described in the Torah.

Every person knows which of the 42 encampments in his life have been used positively, and which have not. With regard to the future, each of us can see to it that every journey leads to a positive goal. This is particularly true if a person “chooses life,” thus connecting himself to “the tree of life,” the teachings of P’nimiyus HaTorah. For P’nimiyus HaTorah reveals the good present within every entity, and transforms the negative qualities into positive ones.

As the Pendulum Swings

Similar concepts apply with regard to beyn hameitzarim, the three weeks of mourning between the fall of Jerusalem on the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash on the Ninth of Av. (Parshas Masei is always read during these three weeks.4 ) The process which brought about these events was intended to bring the Jews to a spiritual peak.5 But we did not make the proper choices, and the forces of evil were able to transform this potential into a negative pattern.

Consider the Sin of the Golden Calf, which is the source of all the sins which followed it. Our Sages explain6 that this sin came about because, at the Giving of the Torah, the Jews had been granted a vision of “the ox-faced creature” — one of the four archangels leading the Heavenly Chariot.7

From this, we can see that the event which led to the most severe sin had a source in holiness, and a potentially holy purpose. And when one desires to “choose life,” not only will one not sin, one will be able to tap this positive source. This may lead to a vision of the Heavenly Chariot even more profound than that granted the prophet Yechezkel.8

To cite another parallel: Yeravam ben Navat is cited9 as the paradigm of one who “himself sinned and caused others to sin.” Nevertheless, he was not a simple man. On the contrary, our Sages explain10 that he was able to offer 103 interpretations to the teachings of Toras Kohanim.

Similarly, when describing Yeravam’s meeting with Achiyah of Shiloh, the Tanach states:11 “And he was wearing a new cloak, and the two were alone in the field.” Our Sages interpret12 this to mean that Yeravam had achieved new Torah insights which only the two of them could comprehend.

Nevertheless, because of the influence of the forces of evil, Yeravam sank to unique depths, building golden calves for the people to worship. (Herein, there was also a direct connection to his former height, for עגל, Hebrew for calf, is numerically equivalent to 103.) If, however, Yeravam had decided to “choose life,” he could have used his potential to reach even more elevated peaks.

Similarly, with regard to beyn hameitzarim and the events associated with it, were it not for the influence of the forces of evil, this episode would have led to heights of holiness. Moreover, even after the influence of evil has been felt, purposeful sins can be transformed into merits through teshuvah.13 And through teshuvah we will immediately be redeemed,14 meriting the complete and ultimate Redemption.

At that time, these days will be transformed into days of joy and celebration.15 From beyn hameitzarim (lit. “between the straits”), we will be granted nachalah bli meitzarim, “an inheritance without any boundaries,”16 which will be revealed in the near future by Mashiach.

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Matos-Masei, 5719)