The Wandering Jew
Any botanist will tell you that the "Wandering Jew" is a unique species of plant which - when given minimal sustenance - will nevertheless spread and grow. Similarly, if you cut out its roots and plant it in other soil, it will regenerate itself and start anew.
This plant's nomenclature is, of course, a comment on the Jewish People's ability to adapt to varied environments and conditions. "Wandering" is what Jewish history has been all about. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs were nomads. The Jewish nation itself was forged in Egypt and while wandering through the Sinai desert - the only nation ever to establish its identity while wandering outside its homeland. And for the past 2000 years we have been wandering the world.
This week's double Parsha, Matot-Masai, details the Jewish wanderings through the Sinai desert. No less than 42 locations are listed as encampments throughout the 40 years in the wilderness.
The wanderings have, however, been the subject of some misunderstanding: They are often portrayed as a "shlep" from one place to another. In fact, the commentators raise several fascinating issues regarding these wanderings. First of all, why does the Torah bother to mention the names of all 42 encampments? Furthermore, why does the Torah alternately describe the travels as "going forth to journey" and "journeying to go forth?"
The commentators explain that the number 42 alludes to the mystical 42-letter name of God. This indicates that the Jewish People acquired a greater spiritual awareness as they traveled through the desert. The Chasam Sofer, a great 19th century sage, offers some examples: At Kivrot Hataiva (literally "burial of desire"), they learned to confront their desires. At Chatzerot (literally "courtyards"), they understood the concept that "this world is a courtyard to the next world." Thus, the entire desert experience was a journey of growth, incorporating new elements of insight into the collective Jewish consciousness.
Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch suggests that the Torah's differing description of the wanderings - "journeying to go forth" versus "going forth to journey" - reflects different attitudes among the Jews of that time. To some, the purpose of "going forth" was "to journey" -to a goal of new growth. For others, the purpose of the "journey" was to simply "go forth" - to relieve the challenge of their present condition.
The Sfas Emes, a great 19th century Chassidic master, explains that each of these 42 places offered a unique challenge to the Jewish People. In each place, the Jews were to accomplish a specific tikkun, a "spiritual repair." Just as the Israelites' leaving Egypt had eternal significance, so too the Jewish People met challenges at their 42 encampments!
The Sfas Emes explains that we all have various stations -good and bad - as we travel through the "journey of life." Each has its unique purpose and challenge. And each can help us achieve the repairs we must accomplish on our souls.
As we embark on the various journeys that create the tapestry of our lives, it is important to remain focused on the exciting goals we are moving towards. In that way, with God's help, we will find the strength and courage to stand up to the myriad of challenges life may present.