Water from the Well: Parashat Masai

Do you ever feel like you are moving in circles—one step forward, 2 steps back? It’s impossible to know what to expect these days and the path just keeps shifting. Turning to Torah this week, parashat Masai, for some wisdom about the journey, we find an exhaustive list of the many places the Israelites stopped and camped throughout their wilderness wanderings. In all, 42 places are listed one after another, along with some of the details about the important events that occurred in a few of these places. Some of the details include moments when the Israelites rebelled against the journey, against G-d and Moses. Other details recount the miracles performed in a particular place.

Our Sages ask the question: why are these 42 steps enumerated? The Midrash gives us two answers. First, we are told that G-d is reminding the people of all the miracles that were performed for them. But later the Midrash points out that G-d wanted to remind the people of times when they rebelled or tested G-d. If we put these two ideas together, G-d appears to say, here are all the times and places you people tested me, pushed me away, and fell into the pit of despair  AND here are all the times and places I would not let you go, where I performed miracles for you and continued to express my love for you.  This was not one 40-year-long journey through the wilderness. Here are 42 individual stops throughout our relationship. Here are all the places where we fought and made up, where we struggled and reconciled, where we experienced obstacles and overcame them.

Torah lays out for us a model for the life journey. Each of us can most likely recall moments in our lives when the path we tread did not lead to the expected outcome and so we needed to stop, change course and take a new path. Each step along the path of our lives is a necessary stop. Each stop allows for learning, growth and ultimately, transformation. Our holy Torah also teaches us that at each stage of our personal and collective journey, we will face obstacles or inner resistance. But if we remember that spiritual support is available to us, we might experience the journey as one full of blessings and miracles rather than strife.

It is fascinating to me that in our mystical tradition we have a teaching that one of G-d’s unpronounceable names is composed of 42 letters. The same figure as the number of stops on the Israelites’ journey to the promised land. In other words, the number 42 is associated with an expression of Divine Presence while it is also connected to the “journey.” We might then view these 42 stops along the journey as 42 opportunities to encounter another aspect of the Divine Presence along the path of our lives or 42 ways in which an obstacle can be transformed into a blessing.

There once lived a Rabbi named Nechumiah Ben Hakanah, in the 5th century who wrote a prayer of 42 words. The first letter of each word comprises the 42 letters of the secret name of G-d. That prayer is called Ana Ba’Kho-ach and is traditionally recited on Friday night just before L’kha Dodi. It begins with a plea to G-d to untie the ties that bind us. Help us G-d, to release the obstacles that hold us back from being our best selves. Ana B’koach reminds us to remember the big picture, to connect with the myriad of possibilities for Divine connection so as not to get lost in any step along the journey.

Let’s consider, as we move forward, both personally and as a community through these most challenging times, that we will undoubtedly confront obstacles and challenges. We are surely wandering through an uncharted wilderness and we will likely, at times find ourselves taking one step forward and two steps back. But let us also consider that within each step, no matter the direction, lies the potential for new learning, for growth, and even for blessings. Each step along the way holds out the promise of the living well hidden within the rock.

Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman

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