Making sense of your life’s journeys – Masai

The Midrash asks why the Parsha opens with a recounting of all 42 places that the Jewish People stopped in the desert. After all, some of the stops are going to remind them of the darkest times along the journey. The places where the Jewish People lost faith and rebelled. Why dredge up tragedies like the ‘golden calf’ and the ‘ten spies’, to name a few.

The Midrash answers this question with a story. A man took his son on a long journey to seek urgent medical care in a faraway land. Along the way, his son had many medical emergencies but always managed to recover enough to continue the journey. After they reached their destination the son was cured. On the way home, the overjoyed father made sure to point out to his son all the places where his son experienced critical health issues.

Learning life’s lessons 

One might wonder why the father felt the need to have his son relive all the trying times along the way. The point is, the father did not see their numerous stops as simply places where they experienced pain. Rather, they were places where challenges were overcome. Learning and growth was achieved.  For the father, who was overjoyed with the recovery of his son, this was his way of drawing strength from each challenge, expressing his gratitude and instilling this value in his son.

The Midrash is suggesting that each stop was a critical stage in the development of the Jewish People in preparation for entering the land of Israel. Perhaps the message is that each of us can find gratitude when looking back at our own painful experiences and difficulties along our own journeys.  When you assess the big picture you can see how each episode in your life was a learning opportunity and a stepping stone to your next challenge.

In fact, in Chassidic writings, this idea is taken one step further.  Corresponding to the 42 stops of the Jewish People in the desert, every single person goes through 42 journeys in their lifetime.* Ultimately, all the pieces of your life fall into place. The only way to arrive at your destination is to grow from the stumbles along the way.

Punishment vs. instructive experiences

This leads to an intriguing theological question. Were the 40 years in the desert a punishment or, as the Midrash implies, just a period of reflection and growth? The Parsha ends with the obligation to set up cities of refuge for those who murder by accident. The Midrash actually compares running to a  city of refuge to the Jewish People going into exile and Adam being banished from the Garden of Eden. Can we extend the idea of “opportunities for growth” to all three scenarios? Perhaps there are no pure punishments in the entire Torah? Even the death penalty isn’t a pure punishment. It grants forgiveness to the recipient so they can come clean to the next world.

A guiding principle of divine punishment is מידה כנגד מידה (measure for measure), which speaks to the fact that God wants us to learn from our moral failings. A classic example is when someone steals $100 they have to pay back $200. $100 is the principal that has to be returned to the victim. Paying out another $100 allows the thief to experience the emotional damage he inflicted on the victim. What does it feel like to suddenly be out $100?

God does not punish for the sake of vengeance. This is a tragic misconception – a common outgrowth of a superficial reading of the Torah. Especially those reading translations or, in the case of most of the world, an English mistranslation of a Latin mistranslation of a Greek mistranslation.  No wonder my French Professor in college told me that she read the Bible and found God to be very cruel.

There will come a time when the world will have a deeper understanding of God, For now, God is waiting patiently for everyone to complete their journey.

*This is quoted in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, the Slonimer Rebbe and the Shem Mishmuel.

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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