Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Parashat Masei: On Travel and Encampment

The Torah honors the journey, the process. What matters is not just the final destination-point, but also the journey itself -- each and every leg of it. And so the Torah takes the time in this week’s parsha to name the 42 stopping points of the Israelites’ journey through the desert. Vayisu . . . Vayahanu. . . Vayisu . . . Vayahanu. . . They travelled . . . they encamped . . . they travelled . . . they encamped.

Such is our life. As the Sefat Emet says, we humans are not like angels, standing still on one leg. We have two legs, in constant motion. The human is a mahalakh, a walker, a traveler, with his feet spread apart, like the letter ayin in the end of the word nasa, to travel. We constantly search and move and grow and change. The fact of our movement is as important as where we end up.

Not to take part in this journey is to be dead spiritually. The Torah aptly contrasts the movement of the Israelites out of Egypt to begin their desert sojourn with the Egyptian burial of their dead. “And they [the Israelites] travelled out of Ramses . . . And the Egyptians were burying those whom God had smitten (Numbers 33:3-4).” Those are the options: either movement or burial, the ultimate standing-still, the ultimate rootedness to place. Not to take part in this journey is to be buried alive.

But the Torah does not describe a life of pure movement to the exclusion of rest. The Torah does not write: Vayisu . . . Vayisu . . . Vayisu . . . Travel is interspersed with encampment, movement with rest, change with stability. Such is the rhythm of life and such is the rhythm of the week, according to the Torah. Six days of struggle and change, and a seventh day, Shabbat, of hanayah, encampment, and menuhah, rest.

Perhaps the one is meant to lead to the other. It is no accident that the Torah begins with Vayisu and concludes with Vayahanu. Travel leads to encampment, struggle and change to equanimity.

On the one hand, travel can be extremely discombobulating. You don’t have a home. You don’t have all your belongings. You don’t know the local culture, the language or the people. And they don’t know you. You are stripped of all the things that normally give you a sense of comfort and identity and belonging. And yet, out of this experience of movement and homelessness, can come a deep sense of peace, a sense that one’s identity is simply one’s skin, that one’s home is simply the world. Travelling provides a kind of clarity of vision about what really matters. Stripped of one’s normal environment and comforts, one discovers that one still exists without them. One discovers that one is lighter, more flexible, and less dependent on one’s environs than one thought, and this knowledge is indeed a kind of peace, a new kind of hanayah, encampment == a coming home within oneself.

Tefillat HaDerekh, the prayer said while travelling, asks for one thing over and over – peace, shalom. Make our journey end in peace, O Lord, and sustain us and make us arrive at our destination in peace. We pray that we travel in peace – that we are not physically harmed along the way – but perhaps we are also praying that this journey be a movement toward peace within the self . Let its lesson, its spiritual destination point be peace and rest, like the Israelites who travelled and then encamped. Vayisu . . . Vayahanu.

1 comment:

  1. It contradicts the Torah ably movement of Israel from Egypt for the start of the retention of the desert with the burial of their dead Egyptian.

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