A Slumber and a Headache


These are the journeys of the children of Israel who went out of the land of Egypt… And Moses recorded their travels and encampments, in accordance with the command of G-d

Numbers 33:1-2

This is comparable to a king whose child was ill, and he took him to another place to heal him. On their return journey, the father recounted all their stations: “Here we slept,” “Here we were cooled,” “Here your head hurt.” By the same token, G-d said to Moses: Recount for them all the places where it was that they had angered Me

Midrash Tanchuma, Massei 3

The Exodus marked our birth as a nation; our entry into the Land of Israel, the attainment of our national and spiritual maturity. In between, we had to undergo a 40-year journey through “the great and fearsome desert, [a place of] venomous snakes and scorpions and thirst for lack of water.”[8]

This journey had forty-two stations. Some, like the year-long stay at Mount Sinai, included moments of sublime revelation. Most, however, were accompanied by doubt, strife, betrayal, and the perpetual contest between man and G-d. In the end, however, they resulted in the attainment of “the good and broad land”[9] that was the objective of the journey.

The human story is likewise the story of a journey through a great and fearsome desert, fraught with physical and spiritual dangers and direfully lacking the waters that quench the thirsting soul of man. In the end, however, in spite of all the strife and tribulation, we will achieve our objective of a promised land blessed with the goodness and boundlessness of the Divine.

And when we do, we will look back at all the stations of our journey and see them for what they truly were: challenges and opportunities that paved, rather than impeded, our advance through the desert. Rather than the pitfalls and obstacles as which we first experienced them, we will recognize them as rungs in the ladder that have raised us to this elevated perspective.

The Return Journey

This is the deeper significance of the “return journey” made by the king and his child in the above-cited parable by the Midrash. The Midrash compares G-d’s instruction to Moses to record all the stations in the nation’s journey through the desert to the story of a king traveling with his child to seek a cure for the child’s illness. On their return journey, as they passed through the stations at which they had originally stopped, the king reminded his child: here we slept, here we were cooled, here your head hurt.

The journey from Egypt to the Holy Land was a one-way journey: the Jews did not return to Egypt, nor did they physically revisit their encampments in the desert. But on the eve of their entry into the Holy Land, they were able to look back upon their forty-two encampments and re-experience them in a different light: not as a people venturing from Egyptian slavery toward an unknowable goal through a fearful wilderness, but as a people who, having attained their goal, could now appreciate how each way-station in their journey had forged a particular part of their identity and had contributed to what and where they were today.

The Three Stations

The great and fearsome desert we each must cross is the product of what the Kabbalists call the tzimtzum (“constriction”): G-d’s creation of a so-called vacuum within His all-pervading immanence, a bubble of darkness within His infinite light that allows man the choice between good and evil.

“Behold,” says the Torah, “I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil… Life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. Choose life.”[10] In order that our choice of life should be meaningful, there must also be the choice of death; in order that the good we do should have value and significance, we must be made susceptible to evil and its enticements.

Three conditions are necessary to create the possibility of free choice in the heart of man:

a) There must be a withdrawal of the divine light and the creation of the “vacuum” that allows the existence of evil.

b) It is not enough that evil exist—it must also be equipped with the illusion of worthiness and desirability. If evil were readily perceived for what it is—the suppression of light and life—there would be no true choice.

c) On the other hand, an absolute vacuum would shut out all possibility for choosing life. Thus the tzimtzum must be mitigated with a glow, however faint, of the divine light that empowers us to overcome darkness and death.

Therein lies the deeper significance of the three stations in the Midrash’s metaphor, “Here we slept,” “Here we were cooled,” “Here your head hurt.”

“Here we slept” refers to the withdrawal of the divine vitality in order to create the tzimtzum.[11] “Here we were cooled” refers to the mitigation of the tzimtzum with a faint glow of divine light.[12] And “Here your head hurt” is a reference to the many contortions that cloud our minds and confuse our priorities, leading to a distorted vision of reality and misguided decisions.

All these, however, serve a single purpose: to advance us along the journey of life and to imbue the journey with meaning and worth. Today we can only reiterate to ourselves our knowledge of this truth; on the return journey, we shall revisit these stations and see and experience their true import.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Shabbat Mattot-Massei, 5725 (July 31, 1965) and on other occasions[13]

Adapted from the teacings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[8]. Deuteronomy 8:15.

[9]. Exodus 3:8.

[10]. Deuteronomy 30:15-19.

[11]. Cf. Talmud, Berachot 57b: “Sleep is a one-sixtieth part of death.” SeeThe Cosmic Sleep, The Inside Story (VHH, 1997), pp. 75ff.

[12]. Cf. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 12:15: “A king had empty glasses. Said he: ‘If I fill them with hot water, they will burst; if I fill them with freezing water, they will crack.’ What did the king do? He mixed hot and cold and poured it into them, and they stood. In the same way, G-d said: ‘If I create the world with the attribute of mercy, there will be much sin; [if I create it] with the attribute of judgment, how will the world survive? So I shall create it with both mercy and judgment, and hopefully it will survive.’”

[13]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XVIII, pp. 390-398.


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