42 Journeys Part 5

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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 fifth installment of a new 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 begin with birth leading through childhood into the maturity process.

Journeys 6-9 cover 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.

Journey 23-27: Low-points; middle-age; fruits of labor; emissary; counsel

Please click here to read the first four installments covering journeys 1-27.

Now we continue with journeys 28-33, which cover the later stages of life as we enter old age.

Journey 27: They left Chashmonah and camped in Moseroth

Moseroth (from the word mussar) means chastisement. This place is later called Aaron’s burial place (Deuteronomy 10:6), because they grieved from him here (Rashi ibid 7. See Ramban ibid 8. Malbim Numbers 20:29). This refers to the journey and stage in life when we have the wise experience to counsel others and offer constructive criticism and rebuke (“at age fifty for counsel” – Avot 5:24).

Journey 28: They left Moseroth and camped in Benay Yaakan

Benay Yaakan literally means the sons of Yaakan, grandson of Seir (Genesis 36:27). It is also translated as “wells of distress” (Targum Yonasan), a place that is “narrow, confined and tight” (commentary Yonasan). This journey – which is also connected to the passing of Aaron (see Deuteronomy 10:6 and Rashi) – refers to the distress and limits that come with older age: Health issues, infirmity and the general physical decline associated with aging; both the agony for the aged one as well as for his/her family and friends as they see him/her waning. Yet, this stage too can be transformed into a very fruitful one, by learning to appreciate and connect with a deeper aspect of the aged one – the wisdom and experience that comes with the years, as the next journeys celebrate.

Journey 29: They left Benay Yaakan and camped in Chor HaGidgad

Chor HaGidgad – hole or clefts of Gidgad (Targum Yonasan) – refers to the head (gidgad) with its various cavities (see Arizal – Sefer Ha’Likkutim Massei). In psychological terms this journey denotes sagacity and wisdom that comes with ripe age, “many years bring wisdom” (Job 32:7).

Journey 30: They left Chor HaGidgad and camped in Yatvathah

Yatvathah means a “good, calm place” (Targum Yonasan), a “good, rich place” (Rokeach), an area of flowing brooks (Deuteronomy 10:7). This refers to the deep calm that comes with seasoned wisdom (see Arizal ibid). As the Talmud writes: “the minds of elderly scholars become more settled with age” (Kinim 3:6).

Journey 31: They left Yatvathah and camped in Avronah

Avronah is a “river crossing,” a “ford” (Targum Yonasan). It means to “pass through,” referring to the journey of life called transition – the transition into old age. Avronah also alludes to the transient material universe, how short-lived and ephemeral life truly is – an awareness that comes with age. Yet, through our acts of virtue and kindness, through the people we inspire and touch, we have the power to transform the fleeting life into a permanent and eternal force that perpetuates forever. This is the meaning of “they left Yatvathah and camped in Avronah:” upon birth we leave the “good and calm” of the spiritual worlds and enter the turbulent, insecure life of this physical world. Yet, through spiritualizing our lives we carry the “good and clam” of Yatvathah and “camp” peacefully even in Avronah (see Pri Megadim, responsa 1:3).

Journey 32: They left Avronah and camped in Etzyon Gever

Etzyon Gever means the “rooster’s crow” (Targum Yonasan), or the “wisdom of the rooster.” Masters proficient in the rooster’s wisdom lived in this place. “This wisdom is a deep secret, because it has the power to perceive the difference between day and night” (Tzioni. Rokeach). As the Talmud says, when you hear the rooster’s call say the blessing “Blessed is He who gave the rooster perception to distinguish between day and night” (Berachos 60b).

Life is made up of light and dark, day and night – bright times of clarity, hope and joy, and dismal times of confusion, defeat and sorrow. The purpose of darkness – and the ultimate achievement of life – is our power to transform night into light. But one of the great challenges that makes this effort difficult is the blurring of the boundaries between the two: darkness has the insidious ability to seep into our brighter moments and cast its dark shadows even on our most illuminating life experiences. It would be one thing if we were able to compartmentalize a negative experience, but not when it spills over and pollutes our good times, undermining our confidence and self-esteem to gather strength and move on. On the other hand, we also need to know how to give pain its due and allow it to go its course and dissipate, before we attack and transform it.

Etzyon Gever in our lives is the point we reach in our journey when we learn the art of perception, the secret to discern day from night; when we becomes masters to know the precise moment when to send out a wake-up call; when to begin the process of drawing light into darkness and transforming night into day. This perception requires profound insight, a sensitive heart and an uncanny sense of timing (Ohr HaTorah Massei pp. 1360. 1394. 1411).

Journey 33: They left Etzyon Gever and camped in Kadesh, in the Tzin Desert

Tzin and Kadesh are so called because here the people “were commanded” (tzin form the words tzav, command) and here they “were sanctified” (Talmud, Shabbos 89a). Kadesh is an eventful location: In this place Miriam passed away (Numbers 20:1), and the incident of the “Waters of Strife” happened (ibid 20:2-13): After the water from Miriam’s well ceased flowing (due to her death) and the Jews complained that they had no water, Moses fatefully struck the rock instead of speaking to it, which brought upon the sad decree that Moses and Aaron would not enter the Promised Land. This is another reason that this location was called Kadesh, because G-d was sanctified in this place (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:14; Tanchuma Numbers 11).

What this means in our life journey is a challenge to our commitment. There will be consequential times – due to excessive circumstances (a death, a major change, a transition) when everything we believe in will be on the line. We then have the choice: Will we sanctify G-d’s name or not?

To be continued.

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