Mas’ei — the Journey as a Name of G-d

Parashas Mas’ei opens with a description of Benei Yisra’el’s trip through the desert, and lists the forty-two stops made along the way. An oft-quoted Zohar identifies the stops in the desert with each of the letters in Hashem’s forty-two letter name. What’s the particular significance of the journeys and stops in Sinai that give them such cosmic significance?

Taking a HUGE step back…

David haMelekh writes, “רֵאשִׁית חָכְמָה יִרְאַת ה’, שֵׂכֶל טוֹב לְכָל־עֹשֵׂיהֶם, תְּהִלָּתוֹ עֹמֶדֶת לָעַד – The beginning of wisdom is yir’as Hashem, a great intellect to all who perform them, His praise endures forever.” (Tehillim 110:10) And his son Shelomo reiterates, “יִרְאַ֣ת ה֭׳ רֵאשִׁ֣ית דָּ֑עַת חָכְמָ֥ה וּ֝מוּסָ֗ר אֱוִילִ֥ים בָּֽזוּ – Yir’as Hashem is the beginning of knowledge; but the foolish belittle wisdom and mussar.” (Mishlei 1:7)

I can see how yir’as Hashem is important, but in what sense is it “the beginning of wisdom” or knowledge?

The gemara defines free will in terms of yir’ah. “ואמר רבי חנינא: הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים, שנאמר ’וְעַתָּה֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מָ֚ה ה֣’ אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ שֹׁאֵ֖ל מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֣י אִם־לְ֠יִרְאָ֠ה אֶת־ה֨’ אֱלֹקֶ֜יךָ [לָלֶ֤כֶת בְּכׇל־דְּרָכָיו֙ וּלְאַהֲבָ֣ה אֹת֔וֹ וְלַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־ה֣’ אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ בְּכׇל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכׇל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃] ‘ — Now, Israel, what does Hashem your G-d ask of you, but to have yir’ah for Him, [to go in all His Ways, to love Him, and to serve Hashem your G-d with your whole heart and whole soul.”

The Rambam explains that yir’as Shamayim lies at the root of all human choice. He says:

In all volitional human action, it is doubtlessly [only] among them one finds obedience or rebellion. For we already explained in chapter 2 that the duties and the prohibitions of the Torah are only in actions for which a person has the choice to do them or not do them. And in this portion of the soul is the place of yir’as Shamayim. It is not in the control of heaven, rather given to human choice, as we explained. That which they said “It is all in the control of heaven [except for the fear/awe of the One in heaven]”? They only said this about natural things, which a person cannot choose – like whether he would be tall or short, or whether rain would fall or stop, whether he fouls the air or is eloquent, and the like in all matters of the world. But not the motions and rests of man.

Again, it seems obvious that yir’ah is fundamental. But the center of everything that makes us human?

Rav Shimon Shkop writes, in his introduction to Shaarei Yosher:

The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel. In this [progression] there are more levels for a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.

A person without spiritual development self-identifies with his body. It is basically an animalistic form of existence.  As the Rambam puts it (Shemoneh Peraqim, ch. 5):

For the person who [only] comes to eat pleasant to the palate, sweet-smelling and desirable food even if it is injurious, and at times could lead to serious illness or sudden death – and the the beast are equivalent beasts. His conduct is not that of a person qua person, but it is rather the action of a person qua “living being”.  in so far as he is a member of the animal kingdom, and so  “אָדָם בִּיקָר וְלֹא יָבִין] נִמְשַׁל כַּבְּהֵמוֹת נִדְמוּ] — [A person who has honor and doesn’t realize,] he is like the animals that perish.” (Tehillim 49:21)

Or, quoting Rav Shimon from earlier in the introduction (emphasis mine):

Behold, when a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community then anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy. For through this he can also benefit the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can benefit the many who rely on him. But if he derives benefit from some kind of permissible thing that isn’t needed for the health of his body and soul, that benefit is in opposition to holiness. For with this he benefits himself for that moment – as it seems to him – but to no one else does it have any value.

When Rav Yitzchak Isaac Scher (forward to the Slabodka alumni ed. of Cheshbon haNefesh, par. 2-4) speaks of man’s physical side being an animal, we mean that literally, not merely like an animal. Since much of our yeitzer hara comes from our living in a mammalian body, R’ Scher recommends the very same strategies one uses for taming and being able to use the eyesight of a bird, the strength of an ox, the load bearing abilities of a donkey or the speed of a horse are applicable to gaining mastery over our bodies. Like any other animal, a person’s animal soul has no ability to plan toward a goal, it simply responds to whatever urge is most triggered in the moment. The animal soul must be saddled by the godly soul and guided. And Rabbi Sherr points out with the example of a trained elephant, “next to whom a person like his trainer seems little more than an ant”, to maximize its utility it must neither be overburdened or neglected, nor underused and let remind wild – and this is how we are to treat our body and our animal souls. Last and most importantly, neither an animal nor the animal within can be educated, but trained through habit and acclimation.

What breaks the equilibrium, moving us up from this ground state?

In Mesilas Yesharim (ch. 25), Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato describes two kinds of yir’ah, one of which he then subdivides again. The first is yir’as ha’onesh, fear of punishment. He quickly adds that the value of  that the value of yir’as ha’onesh is functional “nothing is more effective in distancing someone from doing something than fear that some harm will come to him” The other, more important, yir’ah is yir’as haRomemus, awe of His Grandeur, and that also comes in two parts: the first is the actual awe one should feel knowing I am standing in the presence of the Omniscient Omnipotent Creator of everything.

But the primary yir’ah that we speak of when we use the word “yir’ah” without other qualifiers is yir’as hacheit, fear of sin. This is not a fear of the harm that might befall the person because of the sin – we already said that’s yir’as ha’onesh. It is the fear of doing something wrong simply because Hashem deems it wrong. The way one would fear making a mistake and letting one’s spouse down. In a healthy marriage, this fear is not about repercussions, it is about not wanting to let one’s beloved down. We should have similar feelings about our Beloved. The Ramchal writes that when we speak of yir’ah without other qualifiers, “fear of heaven” refers to this fear of sin.

To have yir’as hacheit is to realize I was placed on the earth by a Great Creator, in the “image” of that Greatness to do something more than pursuing pleasure in animalistic ways. My actions matter. He placed a path before me. Thus, it is the development of yir’ah in particular motivates the development of the rest of our middos, the entire search for spirituality.

Before developing any yir’ah and realizing the significance of G-d, heaven and our own souls, we think of ourselves in basically mammalian terms. And this was the hedonism of the people Moshe was coming to meet orgiastically celebrating before the Golden Calf, it’s the sin of the wicked son of the seider, who thinks that the “tooth” is only for pleasure and can’t be used for service, and therefore loses sight of community or anything else beyond his own stomach, comfort, and physicality.

Thus yir’ah really is the beginning of wisdom and the key to human choice.

Success in the physical world is measured in terms of accomplishment.  A person who wins the lottery is just as rich as someone who spent the time building a career, working on a deal, and successfully carries it through to fruition. And someone who invested all the same effort but through no fault of his own the deal fell through, is still just as broke. Physicality is in the moment. The lottery winner and the successful executive only differ in one way – how they relate to that newfound wealth. Our G‑dly self-interest means that the businessman is “enjoying one kav he made himself more than nine kavin made by another.”

I believe this is what dictates the format of the berachah in Shemoneh Esrei in which we ask for wealth:

בָּרֵךְ עָלֵינוּ ה׳ אֱלֹקֵינוּ אֶת הַשָּׁנָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת כָּל מִינֵי תְבוּאָתָהּ לְטוֹבָה. וְתֵן טַל וּמָטָר לִבְרָכָה \ בְּרָכָה עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה, וְשַׂבְּעֵנוּ מִטּוּבָהּ, וּבָרֵךְ שְׁנָתֵנוּ כַּשָּׁנִים הַטּוֹבוֹת. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳, מְבָרֵךְ הַשָּׁנִים.

Bless upon us, Hashem, our God, this year and all of its kinds of produce for good. Give
Winter: dew and rain for a blessing
Summer: blessing
upon the face of the earth, and satisfy us from its goodness. Bless our years like the good years. Blessed are You, Hashem, the One Who blesses the years.

The berachah is not directly for wealth. Yes, that’s the topic of the body of the blessing – rain, crops, and prosperity. But it opens asking for a blessing on the year and the blessing’s thesis, its closing, is that  Hashem is “the One Who blesses the years.”

We do not ask for wealth, we ask for the process that leads to wealth. Unlike with physical accomplishment, spirituality inheres in the process, the journey – are we climbing the ladder, or descending it? We ask in this berachah not just to have resources, but that we have the opportunity along the way to develop ourselves to be able to use it wisely.  That the year not only be prosperous in material terms, but also leaves us with well carved “tablets” ready to hold Hashem’s Torah and internalize its values

The existentialist philosopher Sören Kierkegaard, characterized his own relationship to Christianity in a way we can apply to Judaism: The ideal is not to be a good Jew, but becoming one.

Jean-Paul Sartre, another existentialist, when asked to summarize the philosophical movement in philosophy, gave the following dictum: Existence precedes essence. To unpack that truism, it may help if we contrast the existence and essence of people to those of tables. When you build a table, in principle you could study the plans for the table, the wood and other materials from which it will be built, and with a some math and science know anything you would want to know about the eventual table. We can say that the essence of the table precedes its actual existence. But with human beings, it is the reverse. I have existed since (at least) my birth. However, who I am today, my current essence, is not what I was or even knowable back then. Thus, with human beings, our existence comes before our essence. The journey is to take ownership of that essence and actively become who we ought to be.

The same point was made before the existentialists by the Kotzker Rebbe. The Kotzker asked his Chassidim, “If you see two people on a ladder, one on the fourth rung and one on the tenth, which is higher?” The book where I saw this thought doesn’t record his students’ answers. I assume some recognized it as a trick question, and gave the counter-intuitive answer just to sound wise – the fourth rung. And some may have answered the person on the tenth rung – figuring the rebbe was leading them somewhere. I am sure others were silent. But the rebbe’s answer was succinct and neither, “It depends who is climbing the ladder, and who is going down.”

When we stand for Shemoneh Esrei we do so with our feet together to emulate the angels. “Veragleihem regel yesharah – and their legs are one straight leg [each].” (Yechezqeil 1:7) Angels stand on a single leg, a pedestal, stationary. As Zechariah (3:7) repeats Hashem’s message to Yehoshua Kohein Gadol, “וְנָתַתִּ֤י לְךָ֙ מַהְלְכִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָעֹמְדִ֖ים הָאֵֽלֶּה — then I will give you to walk (mehalkhim) among these that stand still (ha’omedim).” People are mehalkhim, goers; angels, omedim, standing still.

Angels might be on a higher rung on the ladder, but since only people have the power to ascend it, we have the potential to be loftier. This is because we have free will, the ability to make and remake ourselves. And this ability to self-define is what makes us in the “image” of G-d.

And so, Mas’ei benei Yisrael, the journey and growth in the desert, was to imbue the Jewish people with the essence of being a nation of kohanim. That jouney begins with yir’as Shamayim and in it inheres our ability to reach for G-dliness. Therefore, it truly is His Name, a representation of Hashem’s Presence in this world.

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  1. February 24, 2007 – ו׳ באדר תשס״ז

    […] Angels are stationary, which is why the prophet describes them as “standing upon one regel“. See the idea in greater depth in this post on the travels of parashas Mas’ei. Regel connotes the ability to stand, stability. Tables have raglayim. We see from the pasuq in Tehillim that the Ibn Ezra uses, “and he will place his feed on the path”, that pa’amos has a greater connotation of legs as motion. This is more like people than angels. People move, they progress. […]

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