Several weeks ago, as I wheeled my daughter’s suitcases to her camp bus, I was reminded of the time I was standing at a train station in London. I was a 16-year-old yeshiva student, traveling with two heavy suitcases, packed with everything (I thought) I would need at my yeshiva. As I stood there, a fellow standing near me, obviously taken aback by the size of my suitcases, remarked sarcastically, “Where are you heading? You look like you’ve packed your entire home including the kitchen sink.”
This week, we read two Torah portions, Matot and Massei. In the second portion, Massei, which means Journeys, the Torah briefly reviews the journeys of the Jewish people through the desert, as the verse states, (Numbers 33:2) “And Moses recorded their starting points of their journeys according to the word of God, and these were their journeys with their starting points.”
The journeys in our portion, we are taught, represent the many journeys of the Jewish people, both as a collective whole and as individuals. Each place and circumstance in which we find ourselves is filled with endless opportunity for spiritual growth, fulfillment, and purpose.
The ultimate journey of our people, which began when we left Egypt, will culminate with the coming of Moshiach, when we will all experience world peace and Godly awareness. As individuals, our journey begins when we are born and will conclude after we complete the purpose for which our soul was sent into this world.
My father would often share the following story: Once Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov asked one of his Shabbat visitors, a villager from a village near Mezeritch, to stop on his way home and give his regards to Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch, his disciple.
When the villager arrived in Mezeritch, he asked around as to the whereabouts of this Rabbi Dovber and was eventually directed to the home of a teacher in one of the poor alleys. The home was a run-down cottage with small windows, some of which were broken. Inside, he saw a man with a face of unspeakable nobility. Rabbi DovBer was seated on a wooden stump and his students sat on planks that rested on smaller stumps. The table too was made in the same style.
Rabbi DovBer greeted his visitor warmly, but since he was in the middle of teaching, he asked him to return after the lesson was over.
When the fellow returned that evening, he found that the table was no longer there, for every evening these boards were used as the children’s beds. Rabbi DovBer was exceedingly pleased to receive his regards from the Baal Shem Tov and invited the guest to be seated on one of the “chairs”.
Having passed on the message from the Baal Shem Tov, the surprised villager turned to Rabbi DovBer. “What shall I say?” the villager said. “I am far from rich, but if you were to come to my home you will find, thank God, a stool, a chair, cribs for the little ones, and other furniture.”
Rabbi DovBer replied: “At home, things are quite different. At home one does in fact need a chair, a bed, a table, and a lamp.”
Rabbi DovBer taught his visitor that Mezeritch is just a stop along the road of his voyage. As we are just travelers, our true home is not in Mezeritch or wherever we may find ourselves. Life is a journey.
As we travel through life, however, we often become distracted from our Godly assigned task and purpose. Sometimes this is a result of life’s spiritual or material comforts and other times from life’s challenges and distresses.
Indeed, while the Torah permits us to pursue, to utilize and even enjoy the luxuries of life, the 42 journeys listed in our Torah portion remind us never to be satisfied with our current state of spiritual affairs. We must never lose focus, and never despair, God forbid.
Life is an incredible journey, filled with tremendous opportunities for spiritual growth and advancement. Every phase, encounter, and experience in our journey enables us to reach our final destination, our true home, having completed our mission to the best of our ability.