“Man was born to toil,” said Iyov, and indeed, how we toil! We seem to be under constant pressure, ever working to provide for ourselves and our families while trying to find time to enjoy the fruits of our labors. But did you ever notice that when we attempt to relax, it sometimes can be difficult to apply the parking break? While attempting to unwind, we tend to become restless, straining to return to the world of activity and achievement. And this makes us ask why we are so compelled to always occupy ourselves. Why, when we finally do have a chance to relax, do we find it so difficult to detach ourselves from the throb and hum of our daily lives?
At least part of the answer lies in the fact that “life” and “activity” are really synonymous. Creative activity is the ultimate expression of human life. Inanimate matter is fixed in its place, and even animals can do little more than move from one place to another. Only we humans are endowed with the innate ability to channel our talents toward meaningful growth and advancement. By creating us in this fashion, HaShem gifted us with the capacity to emulate Him, to become partners in the creation and development of His universe. As we move along the road of life we are naturally growing, developing, blossoming and maturing. At times it may not appear as if we are realizing any major accomplishments. Nevertheless, we can be assured that core values and morals are continually refining themselves as we learn from our past mistakes and move towards a better tomorrow.
This concept is beautifully reflected in the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, “These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt . . .” . The Torah continues to devote many lines to detailing each of the forty-two locations where the Jews encamped during their forty years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness. The questions are obvious: why does the Torah devote so much space to delineating the precise places that the people traveled from and to which they arrived? Furthermore, it was only the very first journey, from Ramses to Succos, which took them out of the land of Egypt. Why then does the Torah associate all of their journeys with their Exodus from Egypt by telling us with each segment “they traveled from . . . and they encamped at”? Would it not have sufficed to simply record the historical location of each stop that they made in the wilderness? It is also interesting to note that the Shabbat Torah reading this week is recited in a melodious tone that is also used the recital of the other ‘songs’ in the Torah. Why is this historical narrative to be sung and celebrated?
The commentaries explain that the forty-two journeys enumerated here represent the many journeys, wanderings, and seemingly fragmented episodes that occur to all of us during our own lives. Just as the Children of Israel were distancing themselves from the ancient land of Egypt, so we, during each of our own stages of growth, are attempting to remove ourselves from our own mini-Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt-Mitzrayim is rooted in the word for boundary and constraint. “Egypt” expresses much more than the place of our physical slavery: it symbolizes the daily constraints and limitations imposed upon us by the terms of our very existence.
Throughout our life’s journey, the physical body constantly moves forward, serving as the vehicle of our growth, while our soul and conscience take the role of an internal compass that steadily guides us across the wilderness, prodding us to leave our ‘little Egypt’ while drawing us ever closer to our very own promised land. Each stage and phase of our lives represent essential chapters in our personal life documentary. Each stage and phase has a celebratory note, for at each station on our journey we glean invaluable insights and pointers that bring us one step closer to our ultimate destination.
This important concept is reinforced with a Torah commandment that obliges us to honor and stand up before an elderly person. Why is it so important to venerate a senior fellow? Many older people do not seem to have accomplished that much in their lives, so why do we confer upon them so much esteem and reverence?
The commentaries explains that our esteem for the elderly is grounded in our appreciation for the reservoir of experience that they have inevitably garnered as they charted and navigated their passageway through life. The insight and understanding that they have gained with the passage of time are the ‘goods’ that we pay deference to and stand up for ! Thus, even if the older person may not have any groundbreaking accomplishments in their life’s portfolio there is much that still deserves our respect.
This explains the Torah’s lengthy description of the people’s journey through the wilderness. Each stage of their journey was enriching. It enabled them to distance themselves from the constraining influences of Egypt and drew them one step closer to their destination. In our lives too each chapter invariably will leave us with valuable insights and lessons that guide us forward towards a more meaningful tomorrow.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.