By Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
The second of this week’s two portions is named Masei, Travels. It begins by enumerating the various stops along the Jewish nation’s forty year trek through the desert. The first verse opens the narrative. “These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went forth from the land of Egypt according to their legions, under the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Numbers 33:1). The second verse seems to have a redundant and unclear clause. “Moshe wrote their goings on according to their journeys at the bidding of Hashem, and these were their journeys according to their goings on (ibid v.2). But the phrase seems to be juxtaposed differently at the beginning and at the end of the very same sentence. At first the Torah says “Moshe wrote their goings on (experiences) according to their journeys,” and when the Torah begins listing each stop it precedes the listings by stating “these were their journeys according to their goings on (experiences).”What does the Torah mean ” journeys according to their goings on”? The word translated as “goings on” is motzoaihem, which means experiences. The Torah is relating not only the geographical destinations of the Jews as they wandered, but also the historically eternal implications of each rest-stop. Thus the Torah tells us more than the journeys. It tells us the journeys according to their experiences. Were the journeys listed according to the experiences or were the experiences listed according to the journeys?
The story is told about the Toldos Ahron Rebbe. He was sitting at his table with one of his Chasidim. After a very long while, the sexton brought a bowl of beautiful fruit to the table. It was quite appealing and the Rebbe noticed the sparkle in the eye of the hungry patron. The Rebbe invited his disciple to make a blessing over the shiny crimson apple.
The guest declared that such a beautiful fruit was worthy of a beautiful blessing and he resolved to make a blessing with all his heart one truly befitting this marvelous creation. The student stood up, held the apple in both his hands, and spent a few minutes contemplating the delicious fruit that Hashem had created. His eyes sparkled in anticipation, which enthused him even more. Carefully he annunciated every word of the blessing. Swaying back and forth he began, “Boruch Atah, Blessed art Thou . . . ”
After what must have been the most eloquent blessing the man ever recited, he bit excitedly into the delicious fruit, and after swallowing, he once again praied the beautiful taste and appearance.
The man seemed to revel in his act of spirituality, and the Rebbe knew he had to explain something to him.
“You made a beautiful bracha my dear disciple,” he began. “Now I will teach you the difference between your blessing and the blessing of a complete tzadik.”
“You saw the fruit. You wanted to eat it. But alas, one is not allowed to eat a fruit without a blessing over it. And so you made a most beautiful blessing. It is truly commendable.
“A complete tzadik, however, does not have his mind set on fruit. He wants to bless Hashem for his beautiful handiwork. But alas, one is not allowed to make that blessing without partaking in the pleasure of His handiwork. And so he looks for a fruit. When he finds the fruit, he is now ready to make the blessing he had long waited to make.”
Every meaningful experience is comprised of temporal circumstances and spiritual, philosophical or ethical ramifications. In the larger picture, in view of the greater picture one may ask: Was it the circumstance that is the foremost character of the experience, or was it the experience that makes the circumstances pale in retrospect.
The Torah tells us that Moshe wrote their goings on according to their journeys. That seems to say he wrote the occurrences, the various events, traumatic and otherwise, that occurred as a result of the journeys. After all, as a result of their journeys certain events occurred. Fate brought them to certain places and thus certain events occurred. To our human eye that is what happens in life. We go places. We do things. Events occur. But the Torah itself announces these journeys with a twist. It declares the journeys in a different light. It does not precede the events saying this is what happened as a result of the journeys. Just the opposite! It tells us “These are the journeys according to the experiences.” The journeys were secondary to the experiences, the journeys were listed according to the experiences! Maybe in life’s journeys and the ensuing experiences, perhaps in all our actions it is worth reflecting. Do we bless to eat or do we eat to bless? Do we mark our experiences according to where we travel, or do we mark our travels according to where we have had our experiences? It is critically important to understand what has occurred and its ramifications, perhaps more than the mere geographic vehicle that brought us to our life’s true destination.