Parashat Masei: The upside of failure
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Parashat Masei: The upside of failure

A man walks into a bar and orders a beer. Halfway through the beer, he picks up the mug and sprays the rest of the beer all over the bar. The bartender yells, “Are you crazy? What do you think you’re doing?”

“I am so sorry, I feel so guilty,” the man replies. “I don’t know what to do. I have this crazy impulse and I don’t know how to deal with it. I truly feel awful about this.”

The bartender says, “Listen, I know a psychologist who could help you. Here’s his number.”

A month later, the guy shows up again at the bar and orders a beer. Lo and behold, the exact scene repeats itself.

The bartender runs over to the person and fumes, “Did you follow my advice? Did you go to the psychologist?”

“Yes”

“And did he help you?”

“Definitely. This time I don’t feel guilty!”

Our Torah portion begins by recounting the 42 encampments the Jews made during their forty-year sojourn through the desert on their way from the land of Egypt to the land of Israel. As the Torah lists the locations of the encampments, it touches upon various occurrences that took place during the journey.

Although the Torah’s account appears to be quite straightforward, a detailed inspection of the verse yields a glaring inconsistency.

The issue can be first asked on the textual level: The Torah prefaces the entire account by stating “these are the journeys of the children of Israel,” and then proceeds to list the stops the Jews made, as opposed to the journeys themselves. Why does the Torah use an inaccurate word? If the Torah wishes to detail the locations where they set camp, it should say “these are the stops” or “these are the stations;” why does it say “these are the journeys”?

Another difficulty concerns the wording of the verse “these are the journeys,” in the plural tense, yet it continues “that they left Egypt.” Now, leaving Egypt was accomplished with the first journey, when they left Ramses for Succoth!

To answer these questions, we have to realize these 42 journeys are the 42 journeys of our life. As the Holy Baal Shem Tov taught, a person experiences these 42 journeys in their personal life – from the day one is born until the day he dies.

This means that the day a person emerges from the womb is analogous to leaving Egypt – the point where it all begins; and thereafter, one travels one journey after another until reaching the land of Supernal Life.

With this, we can answer the second question, of why it says they journeyed out of Egypt using the plural form: When it comes to the spiritual exodus of our spiritual Egypt, every day we have to continue to exit and grow higher and better.

The Alter Rebbe, the founder of the Lubavitch dynasty, taught that the spiritual and the physical are profoundly opposite. What is a superior quality in the physical, he said, constitutes a deficiency in the spiritual.

Specifically, one who is “satisfied with his lot” in matters material is an individual of the highest quality. In spiritual matters, however, to be satisfied with one’s lot is the worst deficiency, and leads, God forbid, to descent and falling.

Yet many of the journeys of the Jews in the desert were failures, e.g. the golden calf, the rebellion of Korach and his family, and the spies scouting the land of Israel and their evil report.

How could these have been journeys toward growth if they were failures?

This is the profound lesson: Failures are part of our journey. We were meant to fail.

Even when a Jew fails in life, falling short of the Divine Plan, he must never resort to despair. Rather, he must cause a stronger light to shine forth after the momentary darkness, to create a journey and ascent, which is the advantage that can be reached only by teshuvah.

This is why they are called “journeys,” for essentially, on a concealed plane, the sin is the first step towards the greatest heights.

This is analogous to a high ranking official who owned a precious gem that had a scratch on its surface. The official consulted with expert jewelers. Could the stone be fixed? The experts replied that a small trace of the scratch would always remain.

But then, a wise and intuitive person came along and said, “I have the solution: Though this stone is indeed exquisite, it can be even more precious if you give me the chance to beautify it by carving on it various designs of vines, grape clusters, flowers, and finally, your name!

“Know that the beginning of my work will be from that very scratch, as from that spot I will be able to draw out all the other beautiful lines.”

It was evident that the very mishap and downgrade that occurred with this stone is what caused it to increase in value, for after it was carved, it was exquisitely beautiful, worth sevenfold more than before.

The same thing with God. He gives us two opportunities in our journey of life. One is the positive mitzvot and positive actions we do and the second is taking our failures and making them opportunities and realizing that it is not a stop in the road but a challenge to get us to a higher destiny and journey.

This is the most important lesson in life: failure is not meant for failure. Failure is part of our journey and it is in our hands to use it and grow with it and become a beautiful flower.

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