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Shelach: The Journey Part I

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— In Honor of the Shloshim (thirty-day period of mourning) of my dear father, Gershon Jacobson, son of Simon and Freida —

And the living shall take to heart

Is life about the journey or about the destination?

We humans have been trained to think in terms of goals, deadlines and endings. We work on a project with an end goal in mind. When we finish a job we celebrate its conclusion. We may then begin another project, but it too has its defined parameters; its beginning and its end. Just look at any efficient project planner and you see the clearly delineated boundaries.

But does this self contained, open and close, bookend structure reflect the true nature of things or is it an artificial system that we superimpose to create a semblance of control in our lives?

When you think about it, life is actually a continuous flow with no inherent breaks. The march of time never stops and neither does the energy of life. Even birth and death are part of an ongoing journey, with everything traveling on its way to another place. A rotting fruit is absorbed into the ground, only to spawn new fruit.

Linear thinking – that narrow, myopic view that simplifies things into digestible packages – can look at birth and death as a beginning and an end. But only if you define life and existence on a body/material level. Yes, a body, like every piece of matter erodes and dies.

But life is not a body, and a body is not life. Life is an experience; an experience that includes the body, but is not contained by it.

The soul lives on. And even the body continues its journey in a different form. After all, E=MC2. Matter turns into energy.

This is the theme of the fourth book of the Torah which we now are in midst of reading. The book is called “Bamidbar,” literally desert or wilderness, referring to the journey of the Jewish people through the Sinai wilderness.

A complete understanding of Torah is only possible when we recognize its multi-dimensional nature. Biblical events are not only the history of an ancient past; they also reflect the inner spiritual dynamics of existence and of our souls. The Torah speaks in the “language of man” but it is really a spiritual blueprint for life. In effect each story and episode in the Torah is the story of our own lives.

This explains the fact that the Torah is so disproportionately structured. Close to four of the five books of the Torah relate the events that took place in a period of 40 years. While the other book and a few chapters covers over 2200 years!

The first book of Genesis (Bereishis) tells the story form the beginning of history, Adam and Eve, and concludes with the end of Jacob and his son’s generation – a period of over 2200 years. Then the next book of Exodus (Shemos) covers 210 years in its first three chapters. After that, the rest of the entire Torah discusses the events that transpired over a mere forty years from the time the Jews leave Egypt until they arrive at the east bank of the Jordan River forty years later. 11 chapters dedicated to 2500 years, and the remaining 41 chapters focusing on 40 years!

If the Bible were a history book it would surely be inexplicably lacking.

The Bible, however, is not about history; it’s about the spiritual odyssey of life. Indeed, the word “Bible” – whose etymological root is related to “book” or “papyrus” – does not reflect its true nature as does the word “Torah,” which means instruction and light (ohr). The Torah is an illuminating roadmap into the inner workings of existence, the soul and its psyche.

Life is fundamentally a journey. A journey through a wilderness, traveling toward the Promised Land. All the events in Genesis were a preparation to help the people in their difficult journey that followed.

This journey begins technically when the Jewish people leave Egypt, but the primary emphasis on this journey is in the fourth book. Hence, its name Bamidbar, in the desert. [The book of Exodus is primarily concerned with leaving Egypt, the parting sea, the revelation at Sinai, the building of the Temple. The book of Leviticus addresses mainly the laws in and related to the Temple. It’s in the book of Bamidbar where the Torah returns to the 40-year journey through the wilderness, consisting of 42 journeys and stops, concluding with the final one at the east bank of the Jordan].

Yes, life is a journey. The journey begins with the soul traveling from its comfortable, spiritual abode, into the wilderness of this universe. Then it continues the voyage through the cycles of life. First, protected by parents and provided, then leaving home to build its own life. The journey only gets more difficult as life wears on.

Yet, we are well prepared. Remember, we did not fall into the world by accident; we were sent. And sent with all the resources necessary to face any challenge. To transform every challenge into an opportunity, and every adversary into a catalyst.

Each chapter in the book of Bamidbar (as captured in the individual chapter names) conveys a vital message to us, in an accumulating sequence, about how we must travel our journey.

Bamidbar:  Know, and know well that you are traveling through a desert. “A great, terrifying desert,” with “snakes, vipers, scorpions and thirst, with no water.” And it is your mission to bring life to this arid desert, to tame the elements and transform this uncivilized universe into a home, a home for the Divine. To bring tenderness into a harsh world.

Nasso: Nasso means to “raise.” Nasso es rosh bnei Gershon gam hem,” “raise the head – an idiom for “take a count” – of the children of Gershon, them too.”

Though we are traveling in a wilderness, remember and remember well that your heads are lifted, stand tall and proud, for you have been chosen to serve.

Rashi explains that the words “them too” implies that the children of Gershon are being counted and raised to see how many are ready for service, just as it was stated earlier about the children of Kehot.

So after entering the terrifying wilderness, the children of Gershon are lifted, and they are lifted to serve, to serve as transporters of the holy Temple.

We are not asked to begin from scratch and build the Sanctuary. It is already in place. Our job is to transport the sanctuary. And the children of Gershon specifically are charged with the task of transporting the doorway-curtains, tent-coverings and tapestries of the Tabernacle.

“Are they ready to so”? is the question. When they are, then their heads and beings are raised to another level, to a new dimension.

Behaalotcho: “Light – raise up – the flames.” Not only is your own head raised in the wilderness of life, but you have the power and the obligation to light up many flames – to ignite other souls, and raise them up in a way that they should burn on their own.

Understand and understand well, that you must create students that in turn become teachers who create more students – perpetual flames, one lighting another, and yet another ad infinitum.

Shelach: Send out messengers to scout out the land and ease the way to its capture. Not only must we illuminate others and ensure that they rise on their own, but we must inspire them and inspire them well to become emissaries, that carry a mission to help conquer the crass nature of the material world and turn it into a “Holy Land,” a sacred space.

Korach: Yet the challenges abound. Realize and realize well that rebellious voices will incite us to defy our mission, with all types of brilliant and even spiritual arguments (as the wise Korach did in defiance of Moses). But even rebellious energy can be channeled into positive revolution.

Bamidbar indeed.

Read the story of this book. Read it well, and you will see your own life journey come alive.

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