The Journeys of Israel
"And Moshe wrote their departures according to their journeys by the Word of G-d, these are their journeys according to their departures..." Bam 33:2
This verse seems confusing and redundant. The previous verse informs us that an account of the journeys is about to follow and we know that Moshe has been writing it down. And why the repetitive nature of the verse itself? "Departure according to their journeys" and "journeys according to their departures." Rabbi Yonason Hirtz states that this refers to the idea that as we look into the past we must do so with an eye to the future and when we plan for the future we must do so with an understanding of the past. We must realize that as individuals, as the people of Israel and as part of mankind the continuum of our lives contains both history and prophesy and an understanding of both is necessary for us to learn and plan in a way that conforms to the will of YHVH.
Rabbi Sha'ul wrote, "Now these things (the journeys of Israel) occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did..." (I Cor 10:6) Sha'ul emphasizes the negative here but it can be used positively as well. We can look at the history of Israel and individuals within that history, using it to avoid the bad and teach us the good. When we are confronted with a situation we can look to the men and women of Scripture to assist us in dealing with it. After all, as Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun". As our future rushes in upon us and as we plan our 'departures' in the near and distant future if G-d wills us to live that long, we must do so with an eye on the past and an understanding of how godly men and women found their direction in the will of G-d.
We must also look at the past through the eyes of the future. Most ancient civilizations had a 'golden age' that future generations looked back at with longing. Israel is a little bit different. Most of Israel's history consists of things that no one wants to repeat. If Jewish people looked at the future primarily through the eyes of the past, it would be rather depressing. A history of bondage, wanderings, persecution and exile. But within the history of Israel and the writings of Tenach there exists a strong prophetic tradition. A tradition that says that while the past has had few bright spots, we are working toward a glorious future. The Messianic age will be the 'golden age' and it is that future which influences and colors the past. The suffering is bad but it will not go one forever. Individually and corporately, things will get better.
This also relates to the phrase "by the Word of G-d". Israel made their journeys by the Word of G-d literally because they followed the pillar of cloud and of fire. We also know that the Word of G-d is Messiah, the Word (Torah) made flesh (Jn 1). Our journeys, individually and as a community are 'by the Word of G-d'. He controls the big picture and history is heading in the direction He desires. Individually we have free will but the purpose of man is to conform to His image and will at which point we too will journey according to His word. That is the place we all want and need to be.
A Personal Journey
There is more to be found as we look at all the places Israel stayed waiting to enter the promised land. The Torah lists forty-two places Israel encamped. It was during this time that Israel established itself as a nation, the only one to do so while wandering outside it's designated homeland. These 'wanderings' were more than Israel travelling aimlessly from one place to another, living out their sentence until they could make a fresh attempt at conquering their land. These journeys had a purpose, a purpose we can learn from an apply to our own lives.
Many commentators explain that the forty-two encampments allude to the mystical forty-two character name of G-d. This indicates that one of the primary purposes of these journeys was to create a greater spiritual awareness among the people of Israel. The Chassam Sofer offers a few examples. Kivrot Hataiva which literally means 'burial of desire' was the place Israel learned to confront their desires. Rabbi Sha'ul would have said they learned to put off the flesh and crucify the old man. At Chatzerot, literally 'courtyard', they began to understand the idea that this life is merely a courtyard to the next. They caught a glimpse of the world to come, they began to develop a conception of the spiritual beyond their physical reality. Everywhere they went they learned some new idea or concept, they put off more of Egypt and the slave mentality and learned what it meant to be a citizen of the Kingdom and in covenant with the Creator.
When we say our morning prayers from the siddur, one of the things we pray is for G-d to direct our steps. If we truly desire that then we must recognize that the places we are led to are in accordance with His plan. Wherever we are is a place we can learn and develop. Whatever our situation we can grow in 'wisdom and stature'. Too often we focus on where we have been or where we hope to go and we don't concentrate on living the moment to the fullest, taking advantage of every opportunity. Each stop along the way Israel had a specific 'tikkun' or spiritual repair to accomplish. Each stop was a challenge so each place on our journey is a challenge, an opportunity to accomplish a specific 'tikkun'.
Our possible attitudes toward these opportunities for growth and development are described in the phrases 'journeying to go forth' and 'going forth to journey'. Those of us who have Avraham's faith and spirit have an attitude described as 'going forth to journey'. The purpose of going forth is to further the journey, to take hold of new opportunities for spiritual growth and finding some new thing out about the G-d we serve. To boldly go into new places and situations that will stimulate us to new spiritual horizons. To hold on to life's moment with both hands and wring everything out of it we can, eagerly moving on from opportunity to opportunity.
The other possibility is described as 'journeying to go forth'. This reflects the attitude of those who simply want to get out of the situation they are in so any journey that takes them 'forth' out of where they are will do. The people of Israel, every time they made the call to return to Egypt, had this mentality. But as would have been the case with them, often when we allow desperation to set in we make choices that take us out of the refining fire and into the fires of destruction. When it is time to leave, we had better make sure our eyes are on the cloud and the pillar of fire and not on our own will.
Life is meant to be lived and the process of that living is a journey filled with challenges. Yahushua described it as a narrow road, a difficult path. It is not an easy thing to constantly be stretched and tried. We all have 'tikkun' to accomplish in our own lives and in the world around us. If we keep the attitude of Avraham and remain focused on the pillar of fire we will find the strength and courage to stand up amid the challenges and remain excited about the goal. We will build on the good things of the past, learn from the bad, and let our bright future give us the ability to persevere.
In parasha Masei, as Israel prepares to go into the land, YHVH instructs them to set aside several cities that someone who unitnetionally caused a death can flee to and be safe from the avenger of blood. In the levitical city a court will determine whether the death was accidental or not. If not, the killer will be turned over to the avenger of blood and killed. If it was accidental, the manslayer must stay in the city until the death of the High Priest. At that point, the avenger of blood can no longer touch him.
The ‘avenger of blood’ is really the ‘redeemer’. The word is ga’al which is most often used in Tenach in phrases like ‘the Lord our redeemer’. In our parasha, the ‘redeemer’ is out for blood, the blood of the one who killed their close relative. Why is he refered to as a redeemer? To understand why we must look at what it means to redeem and the function of the one who does the redeemeing. Redemption is a transaction, often a monetary transaction. If one becomes poor and is sold into slavery, the next of kin can redeem them by paying for their freedom (Lev 25). If a piece of property is sold, it can be redeemed by buying it back (Lev 27). Redemption is also paralleled with salvation, or at least the idea of salvation. Ya’akov praises YHVH who redeemed (saved) him from evil (Gen 48:16). God redeems Israel from slavery in Egypt. It is specifically paralleled with ‘yasha’ in Isaiah 49:26. So far so good. Now we must bring in another meaning. In Dan 1:8 it is translated as ‘defiled’ when it says Daniel would not ‘defile/redeem’ himself with the king’s food. In Malachi 1:7 and 12, it is translated as polluted, ‘you offer polluted/redeemed food on my altar. Job 3:5 parallels it with darkness. It seems as if ga’al can have a positive or a negative connotation. It brings salvation and it defiles. How can we reconcile these things and apply them to our understanding of the redeemer of blood?
Ga’al is made up of three Hebrew letters-Gimel, aleph and lamed. In the ancient pictographs, a gimel is a foot that carries a burden, it is where ‘camel’ comes from. The aleph is the strong ox and the lamed is a staff, that which guides or leads. Ga’al then means something like, ‘the burden of the strong leader’. Isaiah 63:9 says “....with His compassion He redeemed them, He lifted them up and bore them all the days of the world.” The strong leader would be the person who does the redeeming. What is his burden? It is to restore balance/shalom to the world. Redemption is necessary when there is an imbalance of something. When a man falls into poverty and sells himself, he is not in shalom, he is not fulfilling his function as the free man God made him to be. The redeemer comes and purchases him and restores that balance. When blood is shed and someone dies, there is an imbalance in the land and the law of God/the universe requires that the blood of the killer be shed to restore balance. It is a burden the nearest kin carries until he fulfills his mission. This is the darkness that hovers over the redeemer until balance is restored. He cannot have shalom until it is done. If the killing is unintentional, blood must still be shed, in this case it is the blood of the High Priest whose death atones for many. This is, of course, a picture of Y’shua our high priest whose blood redeems us from our unintentional sin. A defiled animal carries the burden of it’s defect. Something that needs redemption is not in shalom and is therefore defiled.
The redeemer of blood was a crucial person in the life of the people of Israel. It was he who had the responsibility of carrying out justice in the land. If the blood of the slain one was not redeemed either by the death of the killer or the high priest, the land would become chaotic with all the accumulated imbalance. It would then vomit out it’s inhabitants. That is what happened to the residents of the land before Israel got there. It is what happened to Israel after they let injustice accumulate. The restoration of balance/shalom in the world is very important because it will be restored. We can do it or we can let the cause and effect nature of God’s universe do it. The latter is catastrophic. The former allows us to partner with God effectively. May we always do our duty and choose the partnership.
In this parasha we have one of the several places in the Torah where Israel is to engage in the complete removal or annihilation of the Canaanites; men, women and children. Today, we might call it ‘ethnic cleansing’. It seems so radical, so extreme, so.....unnecessary. It just rubs us the wrong way to think that our loving God would order the murder of these people, including their defenseless, innocent children. Why was such action required for Israel?
Israel had already shown her inability to resist the temptations offered by the surrounding peoples. They could not grasp an unseen God and a missing Moshe so they followed the surrounding pattern and made the golden calf. Their lust for midianite women was so great they would do anything, even engage in idolatry, to satisfy themselves. Even the fact that they had abandoned their nomadic lifestyle so quickly and completely in the time of Yosef was demonstration enough that these people did not posses the mental and spiritual fortitude to withstand the pressures of the surrounding peoples, nations and cultures. Their history after this time also bears this out. Shlomo and the kings after him were no different than their contemporaries. The period of the judges is sad testimony to the fact that only oppression caused them to wake up to their compromise and the ills it brought them.
The road to high spirituality Israel was supposed to be on could not be engaged in simultaneously with participation in the activities or ideas of the surrounding peoples. The removal of the ego, a society based on the rule of law and equality among men, the ability to access higher levels of existence were all found on a road that ran in the opposite direction from the prevailing cultures. If Israel was to go on the correct road she needed to do so without any company. She had already shown a propensity for off ramps, so such detours needed to be as inaccessible as possible. If this generation, that of Pinchas and Yahushua, has understood the lessons and shown themselves worthy and they removed from the land any evidence of a way other than the correct one, what would the next generation be like? YHVH’s way would be the only way they knew, it would be ingrained in them and even if they came into contact with other cultures outside the land as adults, such an ingrained mindset would not easily be set aside. We know that our behavior is the same way.
The elimination of temptation by such practical and physical means seems rather extreme to us. But we also know that very few people reach a level of will and spiritual power that they can walk in the midst of filth and remain unaffected, clean. This is why the life of a hermit or in a monastery is so appealing to people who have strong spiritual drives. They know that constant contact with a decaying culture will hold them down no matter how hard they try to be free. As long as one is in the mud with everyone else, no amount of verbal protest or soap will keep the mud off. It is only when one climbs out of the mud hole that the process of cleansing can start. For most this will require the same kind of radical action it did for the Israelites. Not that we are going to kill everyone around us. But removal from the culture and it’s ideas and entanglements will require a big change in lifestyle. For most it requires downsizing and simplification. It will probably require a physical move. Communication with the surrounding culture should be minimized. Sound cultish? Sure does, but cults understand that if they are to ensure your loyalty, there cannot be anything else in your life. The same thing was true of Israel in our parasha.
Jeff and I have decided, as my regular readers know, to leave our culture by embarking on a nomadic journey. In the nomadic lifestyle, lengthy contact with any one people or culture is eliminated, allowing the clan or tribe to develop it’s own culture. It will not be completely unaffected by others but the assumption was that the elders of the group or the clan leader would be wise enough to filter out the bad and retain the good. It is a radical step, it is a very practical step. It eliminates attachment to much of our culture and it’s ideals and it is a lifestyle that forces one to develop proper spiritual qualities and ideas. Perfection is difficult but at least we will be out of the mudhole!
Chazak, Chazak, Venischazeik!
Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened