Life Is a Journey – The Road to True Self Realization

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL

Man is regarded as one who is constantly moving. He must perpetually move from one level to another. If he will not go steadily upwards he will, indeed, decline steadily. For it is impossible to remain on one level. (The Ga’on of Vilna)

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Back in the day when modern travel was not even a dream, people would depend on a horse drawn carriage as means of transportation. Each of the components in this mode of travel tended to have its own divergent perception of reality vis-à-vis the journey.

Aware that upon arrival it would receive a hearty bowl of feed, the horse perceived it all as evolving around oats. The impending reward was enough to motivate it to run from point A to point B all day long – day in and day out.

In the eyes of the coachman – a simple person who was often a bit uncouth – it was not very different. He could hardly wait to reach the impending destination and receive his wages so he could be off to the local tavern for a good drink of aqua vitae and a healthy bite to go along.

As for the passenger inside the coach – often an important dignitary or nobleman – the purpose was of an entirely different order. To him the true objective of the voyage was the important business to which he needed to attend.

“Just because the horse has oats on his mind,” goes an old Chassidic adage, “Does that diminish the true intent of the journey?”

In other words: Just because as far as the horse is concerned the entire journey is about a bowl of feed, or for that matter, the coachman is motivated by a good steak and glass of vodka, does that change the actual purpose behind the voyage?

The moral is simple enough. Life is a journey from point A to point B. Like the horse, some people understand the voyage in terms of what amounts to a bowl of oats, or its human equivalent, while others, like the coachman, live for more sophisticated monetary pleasures, i.e., opera and the fine arts, etc. Still, observes the adage, their immature perception of life’s purpose does not negate the reality of a deeper meaning.

Much as it has been throughout history, the journey of life in our current age of enlightenment is no less susceptible to confusion and distortion. Even our attempts at higher existence seem to remain mired in misconception.

Overwhelmed by the torrent of raw data in our high-tech society, people are seeking to get back in touch with their spiritual side, yet they tend to stab in the dark.

Approximately one tenth of our nation, over 25 million Americans, profess to be involved in new-age spirituality – an ideology that is based on a brew of myth, mystery, and metaphysical reality, which promises supernatural healing, one-on-one communication with G-d, and the development of extra-sensory perception.

At the core of this phenomenon is a thirst for meaningfulness and purpose. People want deeper fulfillment in their lives. They seek to renew a lost sense of community in their relations with others and regain the inner security that comes from living with spiritual purpose.

Although the desire for spiritual purpose is a positive thing, the chosen path sadly has little to do with real personal self-refinement and growth. John Naisbitt, in his book High Tech High Touch, summarizes the “Feel good” approach that the pursuit for meaning tends to take on:

“Feeling a recurring void, we blindly search for something to fill it and ambiguously call it meaning. Some Americans join book clubs, poetry groups and martial-arts-classes, or peruse quiet interests like bird watching, gardening, or fung-chu. But in the United States, the most common venue of the pursuit of meaning is religion. Today more Americans belong to a church, synagogue, temple or mosque, (seventy percent today, compared to seventeen percent in 1776) than at any other time in history.

America is in the midst of a religious revival. We are seeking and welcoming a religious or spiritual context in nearly all aspects of our lives – on television and film, in the workplace, in hospitals, in books, in advertisements, on campuses, in mega-churches…

Yet, despite all our seeking, we still feel a spiritual void. Something is not quite right. In an intoxicated zone, spiritual supplements are big business. The equivalent of a quick hit of caffeine; they take the form of books, new age magazines, relaxation tapes, chimes, candles, crystals, incense, essential oils, prime time religious shows, astrology, numerology, aroma therapy, rock fountains, magnetic therapy and meditation.

These detox supplements promise to make us more centered, rejuvenated, relaxed, peaceful, connected, fulfilled and reflective, while giving us inspiration, happiness, harmony, visions, vitality, clarity, self discovery, depth, enlightenment, subtle energy and balance. . .

We have become an over the counter society with an across the board supplement mentality – everything from religion to nutrition. Since the 1960s, we have been dismantling traditions, leaving deficiencies, for which supplements are viewed as correctives or antidotes.”

In short, the spiritual quest, all too often becomes a search for the individual high, a catharsis of inner yearning instead of a systematic process of self-development based on a proven discipline. In the 60s, members of the drug culture used to say that because Americans are such a materialistic people, G-d put spirituality into chemicals. Fifty years later, real progress has been made. Overall, people have realized that growth must come from increased awareness. Still, this awareness is usually thought of as descending from above; unearned bliss.

We cannot expect spiritual growth to come by itself. A harvest cannot be reaped without sowing seeds. There is no such thing as spirituality without a process. The road to spiritual fulfillment and growth includes self-discipline, the courage to face oneself and good old-fashioned work. Judaism espouses that spiritual achievement is a life-long odyssey; it demands a steady display of moral strength and stamina.

It is axiomatic that spiritual fulfillment is not an effortless process. There are no magical buttons or devices that can accomplish this. The only way it can be realized is through effort and exertion. Man must cultivate and develop his higher spiritual essence, his Divine soul.

Constant effort is necessary so that one does not succumb to the many challenges, which inevitably present themselves as obstacles to our fulfillment of the G-dly way of life.

“There is a folk saying that the worm that infests the horseradish must think that this is the sweetest place in the world. It is human nature to idealize the status quo, and making the necessary effort to change requires motivation. The motivation to work harder is usually the product of the desire to acquire more assets or to achieve a position of greater prestige. In the pursuit of spirituality, the motivation to improve oneself must come from a desire to become closer to G-d and to maximize the spiritual potential within oneself. Too often people lack the aspiration to achieve greater spirituality.” (Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky M.D., Living Each Week).

It would be fabulous if the road to paradise were as straight as a die, but it’s simply not the case. The path to higher existence is rather steep, rugged and winding, fraught with formidable obstacles. There are curves called failure, intersections called confusion, bumps called challenge and potholes called danger.

Following the opening words of our Parsha, Massei: “Eileh Massei Bnei Yisrael – these are the journeys of the Children of Israel,” our Parsha proceeds to list every single location where the Israelites encamped during their forty year sojourn in the desert – forty two encampments in all.

Few of these places are actually recognizable today. For the most part we have little or no idea as to what these names refer, or whether they still exist. What little we do know of these encampments, as noted by Rashi, they do not represent the proudest and most glorious moments of our history. So, what is the purpose of this long catalogue of names; why all the detail in the Torah’s account? Do we really need to know exactly where the Jews slept every night while they were wandering in the desert?

Given that the Torah never wastes a single word, and that one redundant word or letter warrants pages of commentary, we must reconcile the seeming superfluous nature of what amounts to an entire chapter. How is this information relevant to our lives? Why is this needed?

Moreover, why would the Torah introduce the discussion as the recounting of the “journeys” and then focus its attention on the “encampments?”

The answer is that there is far more to the narrative of these travels than meets the naked eye. Indeed, according to Maimonides, our ancestors’ forty year sojourn in the desert incorporated, microcosmically, the entire subsequent history of our people. Hence, by recounting the travels, the Torah inexorably imparts crucial insights regarding the complex and precarious nature of the odyssey.

By taking the pains to recall each of the 42 travels along with its encampment, the Torah attests to the significance of life’s journeys and struggles. The forty years that the Jews spent in the desert were filled with spiritual struggle and growth. The “Travels” represent that process.

The Torah attests to the fact that not only did the Jews travel to point A, but they camped/grew there. The lesson for us is simple and true: If you want your journey through life to be one of growth and spiritual achievement, make sure you take a road map (Torah), a guide (Rabbi). Only then will the voyage be productive.

This is true of the “Travels” – the tangible and positive forward movement – as well as the “Encampments” – the seeming stagnation and even regression, i.e. the various perceived voids, quarrels and rebellions that occurred during the encampments. No part of the journey was insignificant – something which could not be utilized in their “Journey,” towards the “Promised Land”– otherwise the Torah would not include it as part the “Journey.”

The Ba’al Shem Tov takes the precursory quality of the 42 historic travels a step farther. According to the Ba’al Shem Tov the fingerprint or “soul-print” of each individual lies within the 42 ancestral journeys as much as that of the nation as a whole. This is to say that the 42 journeys discussed in our Parsha, serve as a blueprint and outline of our individual journey, from our first to our final breath.

Our Parsha’s lesson hence applies to the individual as much as to the nation. Our every journey and encampment, both personal and collective, is a moment of progress, enlightenment and growth. There is purpose to our encampments – our trials and tribulations – as there is to our moments of growth and achievements – our journeys.

It is interesting to note that when we chant the last chapter of Devarim; as we finish reading the entire Torah, the Israelites are still to be found in the desert, never having gotten over the journey. Is the Torah a book without an ending – is Judaism a journey without a destination? Heaven forbid! The Torah is a book with the ultimate ending and Judaism provides the ultimate destination; the end that lies within the journey itself.

The Parsha of Massei, which always coincides with the season of sorrow – the period of mourning over the destruction of the Holy Temple – contains a fundamental message of hope and consolation. It teaches that each event, no matter how negative, wasteful or stagnant it may seem, plays a role in achieving individual, as well as universal, elevation and redemption. Each journey, static and agonizing as it may appear, is a step closer to the fruition of G-d’s ultimate and grand scheme – a time when the ultimate journey will become manifestly one with the final cosmic destination.

We have indeed experienced the final encampment and are in the midst of the ultimate journey. Moshiach, the time is now.

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