Here is the third instalment of a special series from Rabbi Jacobson, that outlines the psycho-spiritual 42 journeys that each of us go through in our own lives, as the Baal Shem Tov teaches.
The excursion through the wilderness represents life’s journey through the harsh “wilderness” of selfish existence, with the objective of subduing and sublimating these forces and transforming the world into a Divine environment. Though this journey consists of 42 stages, there is a distinction between the first 12 journeys, which were not led by the Holy Ark, and the following 30 journeys which were. Indeed, the Temple was first built after the 12th journey (Sinai).
The first 12 journeys from Egypt to Sinai, which transpired over a period of six weeks (15 Nissan–1 Sivan), were the beginning of the arduous trek through the wilderness, yet they still were close to civilization – not yet quite deeply submerged in the dark heart of the wilderness. In spiritual terms these 12 journeys subdued a more moderate level of “kelipot” (darkness), which did not require the power of the Holy Ark. These first 12 journeys cover the earliest stages of our life’s experiences, relatively easier journeys than the ones to come.
But then with the 13th journey, as we leave Sinai – and its powerful revelation, followed by the building of the Holy Sanctuary – we enter a much more difficult phase of life as we distant ourselves from civilization and are confronted by the intense “kelipot,” the harshest challenges of the “great, terrifying desert, where there were snakes, vipers, scorpions and thirst, with no water” (Deuteronomy 8:15).
Yet, we do not come unarmed. We now have – and need – the Holy Ark to lead the way. “When the Ark went forth, Moses said, ‘arise, O God, and scatter your enemies. Let your foes flee before You’” (Numbers 10:35). We say this verse when the Torah is taken out from the synagogue Ark. The Torah – called “Torah of life” and the “Torah of light” – illuminates the dark and lonely paths of existence and empowers us with direction, fortitude and commitment to make it through the most challenging experiences of life.
Now, after the first 12 journeys begins the hard work of using the power of Sinai and the Holy Ark to sublimate the harsh desert wilderness.
Journey 13: They left the Sinai Desert and camped in Graves-of-Craving
“Moses named the place ‘Graves of Craving’ (Kivroth HaTaavah), since it was in that place where they buried the people who had these cravings” (Numbers 11:34). This journey represents the times in life when you are consumed by the seductive power of lust and desire – when you become “buried by your own desires.”
The nature of craving and desire is such that left untamed turns into a fire that holds you hostage in its tentacles. This is the power of every addiction, in which your obsessions tragically dig your own grave.
On a positive note, the Baal Shem Tov (citing Brit Menucha by the 14th century Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham ben Yitzchak of Grenada) interprets the “Graves of Craving” as a state of utter self-nullification through cleaving to G-d when one experiences the “death” of cravings, they become buried with no potential of reviving inappropriate desires. Perhaps this state can be accessed by people in recovery, who after hitting rock-bottom and losing control over their own lives to addiction, rehabilitate themselves by surrendering to a Higher Power which enables them to “kill” their desires.
Journey 14: They left Graves-of-Craving and camped in Chatzeroth
At this location Miriam slandered her brother Moses, and as a result was struck and was quarantined. Some say that in this place also Korach rebelled against Moses (Rashi Deuteronomy 1:1). This leg of the journey refers to the rebellious stage in our lives. In every generation – and in every soul – there is a “Moses” who serves as G-d’s messenger to help direct us in fulfilling our mission in life. We will have times when we rebel against the “Moses” – G-d’s chosen messenger – of our time and within, and thereby undermine our own destiny.
Journey 15: They left Chatzeroth and camped in Rithmah
Rithmah (also known as Kadesh Barne’a) was the place from where the spies were sent to scout out the Land of Israel. They returned with a slanderous report, defaming the land and causing panic amongst the Jewish people. Hence, the place was named Rithmah, which in Hebrew means “broom” – the term used to describe an evil tongue (Rashi. Rokeach writes that Rithmah is the gematria of “loshon (ho)ra”): “What can He give you, and what can He add to you, you deceitful tongue? Sharpened arrows of a mighty man, with coals of brooms (retomim)” (Psalms 120:3-4). Some say that many broom (rothem) trees grew in this place (Targum Yonasan). Brooms – like a deceitful tongue – are leafless and tolerate, and often thrive best in poor soils and growing conditions. In cultivation they need little care.
The scouts betrayed the Promised Land. Whatever their intentions may have been (and they were indeed noble and spiritual), they defied the cardinal rule: Questioning the very purpose of life because of the difficulties that arise, we cannot conquer the land because it “consumes its inhabitants.” G-d gave us life and charged us with the mission to transform the material land into a sacred place. Our role is to figure out how best – not whether – to fulfill our mission.
We will face times of resignation in our life when we will be tempted to give up, and even to slander the “Promised Land” and the assurances that we can overcome any challenge. Such moments of self-doubt must be met with ferocious resistance never to give up on yourself, on your soul’s potential and on G-d who has endowed you with faculties to face any challenge.
Journey 16: They left Rithmah and camped in Rimmon Peretz
Rimmon Peretz means a spreading pomegranate tree, or heavy fruited pomegranate (Targum Yonasan). With its many seeds the pomegranate is a symbol of abundant fruitfulness. This journey marks the stage in our lives when we begin to bear fruit – like a spreading pomegranate tree. Most literally this means when we bear children and build a family. In a broader sense, “fruit” denotes good deeds and mitzvoth, as well as students and others we influence and inspire.
Journey 17: They left Rimmon Peretz and camped in Livnah
Livnah means bricks. This was a place where the boundaries were marked with building bricks (Targum Yonasan). Livnah can also be translated “to build.” This is the stage of life when we build a home, going hand in hand with the spreading family pomegranate tree (Rimmon Peretz).
Journey 18: They left Livnah and camped in Rissah
Rissah (in Hebrew) means to be broken (see Baal HaTurim. Rokeach). In Arabic) the word denotes a well stopped up with stones. In our personal life journey we will inevitably experience (what may seem to us as) failure – a failed relationship, effort or venture, a bankruptcy or another type of fiasco.
Rissah is also an eyelid, related to vision (see Heichel HaBracha Kamarna) – to open you eyes and see a deeper opportunity which can only be visible through the cracks of a broken relationship or failed effort.
Journey 19: They left Rissah and camped in Kehelathah
Some say that this was the place of Korach’s rebellion (Targum Yonasan. Baal HaTurim. Rokeach). The emphasis here is on the word Kehelathah, a “gathering,” but in this context it refers to a group banding together in an aggressive fashion, like a lynch mob – as Korach did (Numbers 16:3; 19): Korach ganged his entire party against them (Moses and Aaron). There are two types of gatherings: Groups that join together to build, or to destroy.
We all have times in our lives when we will be invited, or pressured, to join a rally or a group. Being social creatures we need and gravitate to our peers. The power of a group and group mentality can be very alluring. It can feel safe and accepting, and when used for the good it can produce tremendous benefits. But when used for the bad it can yield devastating results – causing far more damage than any individual can perpetrate on his own. Great care therefore must be taken not to be party to “lynch mobs” or “witch hunters” who gang up on others, often innocent people, in their own insecure need to feel right. Stay away from groups of nay-sayers and critics. Always join an assembly of sages and not cynics. When two people meet and they do not say something meaningful to each other, do not share words of Torah, it they are considered “a company of scorners;” when they do the Divine presence rests amongst them (Avot 3:2).
Journey 20: They left Kehelathah and camped at Mount Shefer
Another leg of our life journey consists of our travels to beautiful places in the world. Mount Shefer means “beautiful mountain,” or a “mountain with beautiful fruit” (Targum Yonasan). How will we use the inspiration we gain from nature’s beauty? Will it be a temporary joy that only affects you, or will it have a perpetual effect and inspire you to bring beauty to others?
To be continued.