Life is a Sacred Journey

This week's Dvar Torah was written by Rabbi Hector Epelbaum, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel and one of the instructors of Adult Learning/Melton & More

This Shabbat we finish the reading of the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers/ Sefer Bemidbar , and with the end of the book, ends the story of the Exodus, the travelling through the wilderness, and the complaints of the Israelites (though, in fact those never quite end).

In this parasha, Mattot-Mas’ei , we find, among other interesting topics and events, a detailed list of all the places where the Israelites camped along their journey . The text says: “ These are the journeys of the children of Israel, who left the land of Egypt unit by unit, under the command of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches ….”

In the extensive list of 42 places at which the Israelites camped in the wilderness, the Hasidic Masters notice that the letter “ zayin ” – written in Hebrew as ” ז ” (the 7 th letter of the Hebrew alphabet) does not appear even once. Surprised, they offered a few explanations for this strange omission.

According to a midrash / rabbinic commentary, the letter “ zayin ”—corresponding to the number 7-- does not appear connected to the places the Israelites camped because the number 7 symbolizes Shabbat, the 7 th day, and on Shabbat, they stopped and did not travel. 

In addition to being the 7 th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the word " zayin " has an additional meaning that another midrash / rabbinic commentary relates, that of “ weaponry .” And from that the rabbis learn that the people of Israel did not need any weapons on their journey.

At first glance, these two interpretations are quite strange. On the one hand, the travel ban on Shabbat is only hinted at in Exodus 16:29 and gets much more fully developed in later rabbinical times. On the other hand, the fighting and struggles that the Israelites had to wage from the first moment of their departure from Egypt are mentioned repeatedly in the Torah itself.

So let us understand that the midrash wants to deliver a powerful message and teaching for us , rather than a strictly logical explanation.

If we understand life as a journey, as a sacred pilgrimage, then stopping and reviewing each stage of the journey is part of our individual growth . Shabbat calls us to take a spiritual break in our lives, to review how our life’s journey is going. And this stopping can act as a kind of weapon in our human existential struggle against routine and a lack of meaning.

And that brings us to a third midrash : “ For the journey we must undertake, no weapon is more powerful than the spirituality of Shabbat.”

May Shabbat serve us as a “weapon” of the spirit in our travels through life , and may our opportunities to learn Torah create a kind of travel log that will be written in the Book of our Life, serving as a guide for our children and grandchildren.

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Shabbat Shalom


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