The Baal Shem Tov teaches that the forty-two journeys in the wilderness – from Egypt to the Promised Land – reflect the forty-two journeys or phases that each person experiences throughout life. This is the sixth 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.
The story till now:
Journeys 1-5: Birth through childhood into the maturity process.
Journeys 6-9: Various adversaries we face early in life.
Journeys 10-12: Power; weakness; revelation.
Journeys 13-15: Craving; rebellion; resignation.
Journeys 16-17: Building family and home.
Journeys 18-19: Failure; mob mentality.
Journeys 20-22: Beauty; fear; unity, community.
Journeys 23-27: Low-points; middle-age; fruits of labor; emissary; counsel.
Journeys 28-33: Later stages of life as we enter old age.
Please click here to read the first five instalments covering journeys 1-33.
Now we continue with journeys 34-38, which continue with the last stages of life’s journey on Earth.
Journey 34: They left Kadesh and camped at Hor Hahar, at the edge of the land of Edom
Hor HaHar was a double mountain – “a mountain atop a mountain, like a small apple on top of a big apple” (Bamdibar Rabba 19:16. Rashi Numbers 20:22). Aaron passed away and was buried on this double mountain.
Despite the sorrow connected with Aaron’s death, Aaron was remembered mourned and missed for his great love of all people, which is why the “entire of Israel” – both men and women – wept for him, because “Aaron pursued peace, and did everything possible to reconcile and bring love back between adversaries and between husband and wife” (Rashi 20:29).
A mountain symbolizes love. Like a powerful mountain rising into the heavens, love lifts us up and allows us to soar. Love is always yearning, reaching, like a mountain, to the skies.
Aaron was buried appropriately in a place that reflected his essential nature – a double mountain: Not just love, but love on top of love (ahava rabba, great love – Likkutei Torah Nasso 21a) – Aaron went out of his way, beyond the letter of the law, to cultivate love and engender harmony wherever he went.
Aaron’s love is the reason that in his merit the people were surrounded and protected by the “clouds of glory” through their difficult journey in the wilderness: These clouds are like a nurturing embrace of a mother clutching and engulfing her child with love and affection, protecting the child from all threats. After Aaron’s passing, this love ceased and the clouds departed (only to return in the merit of Moses). With this protection gone, the Canaanite King of Arad felt that he can attack the vulnerable nation (Rashi Numbers 21:1; 33:40).
Hor Hahar, then, in our personal life is the journey of love – the efforts we invest in loving another and bringing love into this divisive and aggressive world (“at the edge of the land of Edom”), embracing all human beings regardless of background. The love that is often appreciated once it is absent – as it was after Aaron’s death – when we realize what we are missing. However, in our life journey we need not wait for loss to cherish and propagate love all around us. Unconditional love is the greatest defense and immunization against predators.
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At this point, following Aaron’s death and the departure of the protective “clouds,” the Jews, swept by fear, retreated eight journeys, all the way back to Moseroth, until the Levites compelled them to return on track (Rashi Deuteronomy 10:6).
In our lives we will have setbacks. There will be times – and journeys – when we panic. Overtaken by fear, we regress. Despite our progress we retreat and give up valuable ground that we worked hard at gaining. We mist know that this too is part of life’s real journeys. Never be discouraged; even our retreats are challenges that can be converted into opportunities which are part of the journey that helps thrust us forward.
The next few journeys are the harshest ones: The people were worn out from wandering for so many years in a desolate wilderness. And as their journeys continue to mount, and witnessing the death of Aaron, they finally break down and feel deeply estranged from the Divine hand.
So too in our life’s journey, as the years wear on, old age brings with it many maladies and the resulting resignation. After years of wandering in the “wilderness” of our lives, it’s natural that the journey will take its toll.
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Journey 35: They left Hor Hahar Mountain and camped in Tzalmonah
Tzalmonah is rooted in the expression (Jeremiah 2:6) “eretz tziyoh v’tzalmoves,” the land of drought and the shadow of death, as in (Psalms 68:15) “becoming whitened from the dark shadows of exile” (Targum Yonasan. Rokeach). At this and the following location (Punon) the people began complaining again, which resulted in them being bitten by poisonous snakes (Numbers 21:4-9). From the time of Aaron’s passing (in journey 34 till journey 37), which reflected the decree that the entire generation would die in the desert, their impending death haunted the people causing them much distress (see Ramban Numbers 33:41).
As the shadows of old age creep up on us and death becomes more imminent, we can feel depressed and become irritable, complaining about everything. This leg of our life journey can be very disconcerting, and our petulance can be toxic, bringing on further problems. As this stage in life, we must muster the strength to overcome our personal discomforts and fears and realize that Tzalmonah is also part of our journey toward the Promised Land. The aging process poses many challenges; but it also presents many opportunities to use the wisdom and experience you have gained to guide and inspire the next generation.
Journey 36: They left Tzalmonah and camped in Punon
Punon is so named due to the fact that in this place the people were bound (punon meaning “directed”) to die from the bites of the fiery snakes (Rokeach. see Targum Yonasan). Punon in Greek means death (Lekach Tov Numbers 21:10). Another opinion is that Punon relates to the banner upon which Moses placed the copper snake which healed the people (Numbers 21:9).
Punon is one of the last legs of life’s journey – the journey of disease and death. Yet it also includes the power of healing from disease: After Moses beseeched G-d on behalf of the stricken people, G-d said to Moses, “Make yourself the image of a venomous snake, and place it on a banner. Everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. Moses made a copper snake and placed it on a high pole. Whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze at the copper snake and live.” This is the power of transformation: the very toxic serpent that poisoned the people became their healer.
The choice is ours: Through our prayers we have the power to transform disease and death into agents of health and life.
Journey 37: They left Punon and camped in Ovos
Ovos means enemies, “the people became enemies of G-d” in this place, due to all their weary travels in the wilderness (Bamidbar Rabba 19:24 and in ma’harzav). Others say (Rokeach) that the place was thus called because of the sorcerers that were there (ovos are mediums involved in necromancy).
This journey refers to the time in life when we get angry and become enemies of everything G-d stands for. When we lose out faith, due to the arduous travels, and are unable to get beyond our own pain.
Journey 38: They left Ovos and camped in Iyay Ha’avarim on Moab’s borders
From Ovos things just continue to get worse. They arrive at Iyay Ha’avarim, literally: the desolate passes. Rashi says that iyay means “ruins.” Ha’avarim is from the word aveirah, sin – spiritual displacement (ha’varah, moving away). Thus Iyay Ha’avarim can be translated the ruins of sin, or the ruins of displacement.
Whenever you feel disconnected or lost you are going through this journey. An aimless life is a desolate one. Nothing is being built; every effort ends up going nowhere. The antithesis of displacement is feeling like you belong and you are connected; you sense that your life has purpose and that you are building something everlasting, reflecting your indispensable contribution.
Next week: the conclusion of the 42 journeys.