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L’va’er Inyan HaMasa’os Bamidbar


THE TORAH portion Masei derives its name (which means “travels”) from the fact that it records the detailed itinerary of the Jews during the forty years of their travel through the Desert of Sinai. Each time the Jews made camp somewhere in the wilderness, that fact is recorded along with the name of the place and even, at times, how long they stayed there. All in all, we are told, the Jews encamped in 42 separate spots over that forty-year period – and we know the names of each.

An unspoken question seems appropriate: what in the world is the difference where the Jews made camp while struggling on toward the Promised Land? They left Egypt and set out for the land of Canaan, eventually arriving there after passing through the desert. Is there really some deeper significance to all those stops along the way, so much so that we need to know exactly when and where they occurred?

Of course, there can be only one answer: since nothing in the Torah is superfluous, it is obvious that G-d chose to recount the 42 encampments for a reason. But what is it?

To understand this, let us first clarify the spiritual distinction between the Land of Israel and the rest of the world, as well as the Midrashic teaching (see Yalkut Shimoni on Isaiah, allusion 503) that “[In the Messianic era] the Land of Israel is destined to spread over the entire world.”

The meaning of this statement is that in the Messiah’s time, the world in general will attain the spiritual standing that Israel enjoys today; by the same token, Israel itself will then rise to the superior level of the Holy City – Jerusalem – which will in turn be elevated to an even higher spiritual level. The Messianic age will, in fact, see an elevation of the entire universe, including all the spiritual realms.

Jewish mysticism teaches that there are four broad distinctions in the degree of G-dly revelation manifest in the universe, known as the spiritual realms of Atzilus (a state of affairs in which G-dliness is openly manifest and hardly concealed at all); B’riah (in which the concealment of G-d’s presence is somewhat greater – allowing for angels and such spiritual beings to exist as apparently separate entities, but still a lofty spiritual state); Yetzirah (a level below that); and, finally, the realm of Asiyah (in which G-d has so thoroughly concealed Himself from our perception that the creatures of this physical world cannot perceive Him at all). Each of these four “worlds” or “realms” contain ten gradations in the degree of G-dliness manifest within that particular realm, of which the highest is the spiritual attribute we refer to by its analogy to chochmah – “wisdom,” the highest attribute of humanity – and the lowest, relatively speaking, is malchus­ – analogous to the attribute of “sovereignty,” which, unlike a human king’s wisdom or other personal characteristics, is not an integral part of the king himself but is merely something that may be said “about” the king.

A person’s inner attributes may be inherent within the more external manifestations of that person: one’s deep-rooted tendency to kindness, for example, may express itself within that person’s thoughts of doing kindness to someone or other, which thoughts are themselves “enclothed” within the person’s statement or instruction that kindness be bestowed upon the recipient. An actual act of kindness performed in real life does not arise in a vacuum; it embodies the prior expressions of the kindly impulse in the doer’s speech, thought, emotional motivation and so on, until ultimately, its root can be traced to the expression of the soul itself.

Similarly, G-d has so structured the universe that His transmission to us of His benevolence, of His G-dly life-force, does not reach us directly – we created beings would be simply unable to withstand such holiness – but by investiture within the progressive levels of the spiritual hierarchy described above. That is, the life-force of our physical world comes from G-d, of course, but only reaches us as it has been “enclothed” within the high level of chochmah of Atzilus, through the succeeding levels until malchus of Atzilus, further on through the levels of B’riah and Yetzirah, and finally, through the spiritual levels of the realm of Asiyah until the point of its transmission to us by malchus of Asiyah. Nevertheless, it is none other than the life-force from G-d Himself that is bestowed upon us; it is simply “compressed,” or “distilled,” as it were, into a form we can withstand.

In the present, pre-Messianic, order of the universe, the foregoing applies to the life-force of the world at large, but not entirely to the Land of Israel. The Land of Israel receives its spiritual life-force more or less directly from the realm of Yetzirah, resulting in an unimaginably greater degree of holiness and spirituality being manifest there. By contrast, the rest of the world receives its life-force, as explained above, only after it has first been enclothed within the realm of Asiyah, where it is concealed by so many barriers to its open manifestation that our sages found it necessary (Shabbos 15a) to declare the very air and earth which is not of the Land of Israel tamei, or ritually impure.

To be precise, the G-dliness manifest within the Land of Israel, too, must necessarily pass through the realm of Asiyah, but there is a fundamental difference between how it passes through Asiyah and how the life-force of the rest of the world does so. The G-dliness of the Land of Israel traverses Asiyah in a manner described as derech ma’avar, merely “passing through.” This is like sunlight which one views through a clear glass; although it is technically true that the light passed through glass, there is no real change in the degree or quality of the light. The world at large, however, only gets the “light” as it has passed through Asiyah in a manner known as derech hislavshus, i.e., the actual “enclothing” of the light in the form of Asiyah. This may be compared to an idea expressed through a parable or analogy: although one ends up getting the basic idea, one only gets it in the form of the analogy and not as it was in its original form. The G-dliness of the rest of the world therefore is fully enclothed within the concealments of Asiyah, while that of the Land of Israel is actually the same sublime revelation expressed through the spiritual realm of Yetzirah.

Now, in the Messianic era, the world will be cleansed of impurity, as it is written (Zacharia 13:2), “and I will remove the spirit of impurity from the land.” Thus, even the rest of the world – which now “conceals” G-d’s presence and is therefore “impure” – will not present an impediment to the open revelation of G-dliness. The entire world, at that time, will enjoy a manifestation of the spirituality of the realm of Yetzirah as transmitted derech ma’avar – simply “passing through” – Asiyah, as through a clear glass. This is the manner in which G-d is revealed even today in the Land of Israel; that is the meaning of the teaching that in the Messiah’s time, the Land of Israel – its spiritual status as we know it today – will spread over the entire world. And Israel itself, along with the entire spiritual hierarchy of creation, will then rise to even higher spiritual levels, as stated above.

This grand principle – that the entire universe, including all the spiritual realms, will be elevated to higher levels in the Messianic era – was made possible through the 42 stops the Jews made in the desert. For the desert is symbolic of spiritual desolation, the utter concealment of G-dliness and the resultant existence of an environment hospitable to impurity and evil. In order to pave the way for the spirit of impurity to be removed from the land in the future, in order for the possibility of evil resulting from the concealment of G-dliness in the realm of Asiyah to be nullified, some “advance work” was necessary. The spiritual purpose of the Jews’ travel throughout the desert, carrying the Ark of G-d and the Ten Commandments it contained, was to bring holiness even within the very source of impurity and evil, represented by the desert. This is alluded to by the verse (Numbers 10:35), “and it came to pass, that when the Ark traveled on, Moshe [Moses] said, ‘Rise up, O G-d, and let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You.’” The “enemies” of G-d, those who “hate Him,” so to speak, are the forces of unholiness and evil. The travels of the Ark through their domain – the desert – scattered them before G-d. This left them in such a weakened state that we Jews can now overcome them by our worship of G-d and adherence to His Torah, which will result in their permanent removal in the Messianic era.

The Hebrew name of G-d in the above verse (“Rise up, O G-d…”) is the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of G-d that is too holy to pronounce. (It is spoken, when not used in prayer or formal Torah reading, as “Havaye.”) This Divine name is frequently used in Jewish mysticism as a shorthand for the entire spiritual hierarchy of creation, for this hierarchy was brought into being through the name Havaye. (Not only does this name symbolize all the attributes of the realm of Atzilus, for example (the letter yud, the initial letter of the Tetragrammaton, representing the attribute of chochmah, and so on, as explained in many other places), but in a broader sense, it represents the entire hierarchy, as each of its four letters represents one of the four spiritual realms from Atzilus through Asiyah.) Since the G-dly life force of the universe is enclothed within all the successive levels of the hierarchy, as explained above, terminating in this physical world, elevation of this world causes a corresponding elevation of all spiritual levels throughout the entire hierarchy of the universe. That is the inner significance of the phrase “Rise up, O G-d [Havaye]”: the Jews’ encampments in the wilderness elevated not only this physical world, but the entirety of creation.

Let us now delve a little deeper and examine how this actually worked, as well as why 42 encampments in particular were required to accomplish the goal.

As noted above, the flow of G-dly life-force into the universe may be categorized broadly into four levels of manifestation, the four spiritual realms enumerated earlier. The ten attributes, or sefiros, within each of these are structured in a manner comparable to the human composition, in that the highest spiritual level is known as chochmah, the highest faculty of humankind. It is technically the conceptual faculty, the point at which new ideas spring into one’s mind as if from nowhere. Just below this in level is what we call bina, “understanding,” the faculty which takes the germ of an idea as conceived by chochmah and expands upon it until it has been understood. Next comes da’as, where one has so thoroughly realized and assimilated the idea that it becomes an integral part of one and motivates one to act upon it. Beneath these three “intellectual” attributes are six “emotional” attributes, chesed, gevurah, tiferes, netzach, hod and yesod, which are primarily functions of love and fear and which, collectively, are often called by the abbreviation z.a. (for the Kabbalistic expression z’eir anpin, “small face,” and pronounced “za”). Finally, at the relative “bottom” of this hierarchy is malchus, sovereignty, so called because (among other reasons), just as a king’s command brings into reality his wish as formulated in his own mind and emotions, malchus expresses to others the contents of the preceding nine intellectual and emotional sefiros.

Now, we said earlier that a person’s actions embody within them all the prior steps in speech, thought, emotions and intellect that motivated those actions. The same is true spiritually: things in this physical world implicitly “contain” all the preceding spiritual levels. What we do on this world – particularly through Torah study and practical performance of mitzvos – expresses the G-dliness inherent throughout the spiritual hierarchy of the universe.

However, there is an element of “danger” to this. Since it is part of G-d’s plan that evil exist – so that we should have the opportunity to overcome it – He allows for its being, but G-d does not directly transmit His life-force to evil. Instead, the forces of unholiness are forced to derive their sustenance by usurping what they can of the life-force flowing into the realms of good. Let us return to the analogy to the human composition for understanding of this concept.

If a person wants something emotionally, say, to obtain a job, he or she must first know intellectually that it is desirable to have a job. Although this sounds simple, it is certainly a prerequisite for the particular desire or emotion we are discussing. There is no emotion openly manifest at this purely intellectual level, although, to be sure, the emotional wish to have a job may be thought of as inherent in potential within the intellectual understanding. Expressed another way, understanding of the everyday economics of life and how a job facilitates one’s practical existence carries with it automatically the eventual desire of the person to have a job him- or herself.

Once one’s emotions have been aroused – the person actively yearns for the job, fears the consequences of being jobless, etc. – the possibility exists that they may be misdirected. Motivated by their desire to attain the goal, or their fear of the consequences of failure to attain it, the person might (innocently or deliberately) step over the line of propriety and do something inappropriate in pursuit of that end. This cannot happen on the purely intellectual level, however: “understanding,” by itself, would not motivate one to act, improperly or otherwise. It requires the emotions born of understanding to motivate one’s actions. And these emotions must be full fledged: just because the emotion of desire for a job is implicit within an understanding of economic reality does not mean that, at that “potential” level, the emotion will be used to motivate anything.

The same applies to the life force of the universe. On the exalted spiritual level of bina, “understanding,” the ensuing emotional attributes exist only in potential. They do not really exist yet in their own right. It is only after the G-dly life-force has proceeded to the level of za, the six “emotional” attributes, that these in turn acquire the ability to transmit the life-force further. However, just as human emotions can be misdirected if a person wants something “too much” or fears something “too much,” the “excess” of the spiritual life-force expressed through za is susceptible of being “pirated,” usurped, used to animate evil instead of good (G-d forbid).

As the emotional sefiros are contained in potential within the intellectual sefirah of bina (a state in which they are Kabbalistically likened to an embryo in the womb of their “mother,” bina) the sefirah of malchus is not a factor in its own right. This is because, as explained above, the function of malchus is to bring into actual reality what had previously existed only in potential. But within the “womb” of bina, the attributes of za themselves only exist in potential; they cannot themselves motivate action, as though they existed in their own right and their potential consequences could be made real by the sefirah of malchus. Thus, malchus itself, as a separate sefirah, has no place within this scheme of things; it has no function.

On the other hand, each sefirah within za is a composite of all the other sefiros – including malchus. That is, the attribute of chesed is actually comprised of the chesed aspect of chesed, the gevurah aspect of chesed, and so on, even to the point of a malchus aspect of chesed. The attribute of gevurah, likewise, contains the chesed aspect of gevurah through the malchus aspect of gevurah, and the same applies to the rest of the six attributes of za. Malchus is included within each sefirah of za because at that level, it represents the capacity of the sefiros themselves to make the transition from their potential state within the “womb” of bina, as it were, to actual existence as sefiros in their own right – in other words, to be “born.” But a separate sefirah of malchus – that is, not as a component of the other sefiros but as a sefirah unto itself whose function is to actualize the potential consequences of the “emotional” sefiros as though those had already been “born” – has no place in the “womb” of bina.

It develops, then, that, as the “emotional” sefiros are contained in potential within bina, they collectively contain 42 components: the six attributes of za, each comprised of seven aspects.

We are now in a position to understand the role of those 42 stops in the wilderness. As explained, the general purpose of the journey through the wilderness was to weaken the forces of unholiness, which, as we now know, derive their life-force by usurping whatever is “left over” from the higher points in the spiritual hierarchy. But they can only “pirate” spiritual energy from the attributes of za as they exist as separate “emotions” unto themselves, much as a person must have an active emotion in the first place before it can be misdirected into improper activities. The way the Jews’ journey subdued the forces of evil was by means of the elevation of all the spiritual realms we discussed earlier regarding the verse “Rise up, O G-d, and let Your enemies be scattered….”

The 42 specific encampments in the desert served to spiritually lift the forces of holiness out of the reach, so to speak, of the forces of evil, by elevating the spiritual hierarchy back up to its origins within the 42 components in the “womb” of bina, where evil has no hold.

Finally, in light of the above, we can also understand why we count the omer – the period between the first day of Passover and the holiday of Shavuos – for 49 days, as opposed to the encampments of the desert, which were only 42. The purpose of the mitzvah of counting the omer – as explained elsewhere – is to draw down from above, upon us in this physical world, an infusion of the spiritual life-force and holiness of the higher realms. Since this involves transmission downward of influence from the sefiros, it necessarily means that the sefiros are entities unto themselves, capable of transmitting to others – that is, we are speaking of the sefiros after their “birth” from bina. On that level, it is appropriate, indeed necessary, that the separate sefirah of malchus be included in the process, for malchus is what does the transmitting, the conversion of spiritual influence to us from potential to actual. Malchus, like the other sefiros, is a composite of all seven, so that sefiras ha’omer – the counting of the omer – by including malchus, involves a bestowal upon us of the spirituality of 49 separate levels. By contrast, what was accomplished through the encampments of the desert was not transmission from above down, but elevation from below up, to the sublime level of bina at which malchus is not a separate factor, leaving 42 levels in all.

Lo Tov Heyos HaAdam Levado
Mayim Rabim Lo Yuchlu L'Chabos
B'Etzem HaYom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom
Erda Na
Chayei Sara
V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim
Vayachp'ru Avdei Yitzchok
Vayashkeim Lavan Baboker
Vayeavek Ish Imo
VeHinei Anachnu M'Almim Alumim
Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha
Vayigash Eilav Yehudah
Chachlili Einayim Miyayin