This wasn’t your typical trip to Israel. The travelers were not aboard an air-conditioned aircraft, and there were no stewards or stewardesses serving meals. And it took much, much longer than the 10-hour flight from Kennedy to Ben-Gurion.
Bene Yisrael’s journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel spanned 40 years, and took place mainly through uninhabitable, arid, desert lands. They traveled under the protection the miraculous clouds of glory, and were fed by the heavenly manna that rained down each morning and a supernatural traveling well of water. These conditions are very difficult for us to relate to, and our ancestors’ experiences might thus seem too remote to bear any practical relevance for us, who live in a digitized world of apps. But we believe with unwavering faith that each and every letter of the Torah has volumes to teach the Jews of every generation, and it therefore behooves us to learn and apply the lessons of the desert even to 21st-century life.
Of particular note is a section in Parashat Behaalotecha (Bamibar 9:15-23) in which the Torah describes the system of travel during those 40 years. A cloud, representing the Divine Presence, served as the nation’s “GPS,” charting their route and directing them, and when it lowered over the Mishkan, this was a signal to Bene Yisrael to encamp. They would not travel again until the cloud rose, at which point they would journey until the cloud descended once again. The system was quite simple, but the Torah appears to afford it great importance. No fewer than seven times (!), the Torah writes in this section, “Al pi Hashem yahanu ve’al pi Hashem yisa’u – They encamped according to Gd, and they journeyed according to Gd.” The Torah repeatedly emphasizes that the Jews obediently followed Gd’s “navigation,” obeying the cloud’s signals of when to journey and when to encamp. If the Torah found it necessary to make this point with such emphasis, we may assume that there is a significant lesson for us to learn from this system.
“The Kindness of Your Youth”
One reason for this emphasis is to extol the virtues of that generation. We all know how challenging it is to travel – packing and unpacking, keeping track of our things, physical exhaustion, and the monotony of hours of travel that puts our patience to the ultimate test. Bene Yisrael – some three million people – would travel for days or weeks on end, without knowing when they would be able to stop, and would also spend months encamped, not knowing when they would be required to pack up their things and set out again. And except for a handful of unfortunate incidents recorded in the Torah, no one complained. Nobody ran ahead, nobody protested, and nobody disobeyed. This group might have been the most patient, disciplined and obedient group of travelers of all time, despite traveling under the most difficult and agonizing conditions.
Like all good deeds, Bene Yisrael’s patience and faith paid off, providing merit for future generations. Centuries later, Gd proclaimed through the prophet Yirmiyahu (2:2-3), “I have remembered for you the kindness of your youth…following Me in the desert… Israel is sacred to Gd – all who devour it shall be held accountable…”
Our generation is a very impatient one. We do not take kindly to delays, inconveniences, sudden schedule changes, or anything that takes more time than we want it to. A 15-minute wait at the toll booth is enough to get us fuming. One lesson we should learn from the generation of the wilderness is to accept inconvenient and uncomfortable situations without complaint and without losing our cool. Our journey through life, like our ancestors’ journey through the desert, will not always be smooth or predictable. Many difficult and unexpected situations will arise, and many last-minute changes in our plans will have to be made. We would do well to learn from the “kindness of your youth,” from the righteous generation that faithfully followed Gd through the desert, about remaining calm and patient no matter where Gd brings us in life, confident that we will eventually reach the destination He has set for us.
Sparks of Holiness
But there might also be an even deeper message for us to learn from our ancestors’ sojourn.
The Torah emphasizes that Bene Yisrael’s “itinerary” was very inconsistent. There were times when they would travel or encamp for just a day or two, while on other occasions they would travel or encamp for months. Outwardly, this system appeared random and haphazard, without any rhyme or reason dictating when they would journey and when they would stay in place.
In truth, of course, this was hardly random. Kabbalah teaches us that the purpose of Bene Yisrael’s travels was to reveal the “nitzotzot,” the holy sparks, latent within all the locations where they traveled. Their purpose was to drive away the forces of impurity that existed at the various places through which they journeyed, in order to bring out the dormant forces of sanctity. Gd, in His infinite wisdom, knew precisely what was required for this goal to be achieved in each location. There were some locations that required Bene Yisrael’s presence for an extended period, while in others it sufficed for them just to travel through. Bene Yisrael’s travels were thus carefully designed down to their last detail, in accordance with the particular spiritual needs of each location.
The Ba’al Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, 1700-1760) taught that each and every one of us, like our ancestors, passes through different stations in life according to the spiritual purposes we are each destined to fulfill. Just as Bene Yisrael needed to pass through and spend time in different areas in the desert, each person is led through various places and situations in life to enable him to make the tikkunim – spiritual “rectifications” – that he is supposed to make. Our journey through life, although we might not always recognize it, is also “al pi Hashem” – led and designed by Gd, who ensures to bring us to the places we need to be to fulfill our special mission in the world.
This is a very comforting thought, one which should help us avoid the aggravation that so many people experience when unexpected and unwanted situations arise. Imagine, for example, a person schedules an important business meeting in Chicago. He packs his bags, goes to the airport, takes a taxi to the office, and the secretary tells him to wait. While he’s waiting, she brings him a drink of water, and he recites a beracha and drinks. A short while later, the secretary receives a phone call, and apologetically informs the man that an urgent matter came up and the executive had to cancel all his meetings that day. The man naturally feels very frustrated, and likely angry, that he went through all this trouble for nothing, wasting time, money and energy on a meeting that never was. According to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teaching, however, he has no reason to feel any disappointment. He traveled to Chicago “al pi Hashem,” because Gd brought him there. He may assume that he was brought there because a beracha needed to be recited at that very spot there in Chicago to reveal the holy sparks concealed within that building. Perhaps on his way into the building he politely smiled at and thanked the doorman, which is also a mitzva and thus brought holiness to that place. This is true as well of the berachot he recited and the page of Gemara he learned on the airplane.
I was once visiting a religious neighborhood in London with two of my sons, and in the late afternoon, as it was getting close to sunset, we could not find a synagogue for Minha. We walked around for a while, hoping to find a Jew, but to no avail. We had no choice but to pray Minha on the sidewalk outside a building. We were disappointed that we could not pray with a minyan, but at the same time I felt gratified knowing that my prayer was needed to reveal the holy sparks of that particular location. Gd must have brought us there to that very spot in order to make a necessary tikkun, which we achieved through our recitation of Minha.
With this perspective, a Jew is never lost. He is never in the wrong place. If a person takes a wrong turn on the highway, if the train does not come on time, if there is a traffic jam, or if he goes to a store to find that it is closed or that the product he needs is sold out, he has no reason to feel frustrated. He is right where he is supposed to be. Gd brought him there just as Gd brought Bene Yisrael to their 42 stations in the desert, for some vital spiritual purpose.
The Shelah (Rabbi Yeshayah Horowitz, 1558-1630) infers yet another lesson from the Torah’s description of Bene Yisrael’s travels. The phrase “al pi Hashem yahanu ve’al pi Hashem yisa’u,” he writes, not only describes the procedure followed by our ancestors, but also instructs us how we should all “journey” and “encamp.” When planning any kind of trip, the Shelah explains, we should make a point of saying, “Be’ezrat Hashem” – that we will go “with Gd’s help.” And when we “encamp,” meaning, when we reach our destination safely, we should verbally acknowledge and express gratitude for Gd’s assistance which allowed us to complete our trip. Just as Bene Yisrael traveled and encamped “al pi Hashem,” under Gd’s guidance and protection, we, too, travel and encamp only with Gd’s assistance. It might appear that our trip was successful because the car was properly maintained, or because the pilot underwent proper training – and, undoubtedly, these factors are very important – but ultimately, it was Gd who brought us safely to our destination, and we must make a verbal acknowledgment to this effect when we leave and when we arrive.
According to statistics, the majority of auto accidents occur within five miles of home. This is very surprising and counterintuitive, as we would have expected most accidents to happen far from home, where drivers are less familiar with the roads and are thus less comfortable. Some attribute this statistic to the fact that people drive more recklessly and less attentively in familiar neighborhoods, but I believe there is a deeper reason. When people embark on a long journey, they sense the risks involved, and thus naturally recognize their dependence on Gd’s assistance. People who travel are more likely to pray, to mention “Gd willing” when discussing their plans, and to generally feel that their safety is in the Almighty’s hands. But when people drive to work in the morning, or to the grocery store or mall a few blocks away, they don’t think twice about it. They feel perfectly in control of their fate, confident in their ability to reach their destination safely without requiring divine assistance. The Shelah teaches us that even these “journeys” must be undertaken “al pi Hashem,” with the awareness that our trip is entirely in Gd’s hands. These trips, too, are completed successfully only “be’ezrat Hashem,” with the assistance and protection of the Almighty. And when people travel without this awareness, they forfeit Gd’s existence and put themselves at the mercy of the order of nature. Hence, people are more prone to getting into accidents close to home, where they feel confident in their independent ability to travel safely, than when they travel long distances and place themselves under Gd’s protection.
The Secret of Tefilat Haderech
We are all familiar with the halachic requirement of tefilat haderech, to recite a special prayer when embarking on a trip. It is worth noting the Gemara’s wording in formulating this obligation. The Gemara teaches that when one leaves on a trip, “Himalech bekonecha vetze – Seek permission from your Maker and leave.” We might ask, why must the Gemara instruct us to “leave”? If a person is planning a trip, he will obviously have to leave! Why does the Gemara conclude its formulation of this law by telling the traveler to embark?
The Sages teach that Gd initially planned to create the world with the attribute of strict judgment (din), but then realized that it would not survive unless He also introduced the element of compassion (rachamim). This means that the laws of nature are cruel and rigid, and if we would be fully exposed to these laws, we would face grave danger each and every moment of our lives. In order to survive, we must connect with the divine Name of Havayah, which signifies the divine attribute of mercy that overrides the attribute of judgment and offers us special protection. As discussed, if we do not seek Gd’s protection and rely instead on the forces of nature, we put ourselves at the mercy of the countless dangers and threats posed by the natural world. But if we connect to Gd’s attribute of compassion, we can lift ourselves above the rigid laws of nature and access His supernatural protection.
One of the divine Names which represent nature and strict judgment is the Name of Ado-nai (which relates to the word “din – judgment”), which has the numerical value of 65. When we connect with the divine Name of Havayah, we merge this Name with the Name of Ado-nai, which has the numerical value of Havayah is 26. Hence, the notion of tempering the attribute of judgment with the attribute of mercy is represented by the number 91, the combination of the two Names (65 + 26). This is why the Gemara instructs the traveler, “Tze” (“leave”), which has the numerical value of 91. By reciting tefilat haderech, expressing our awareness of the fact that our fate lies in Gd’s hands, and placing ourselves under His protection rather than under the laws the nature, we help ensure a safe, successful journey. When we travel “al pi Hashem” – under the guidance of the Name of Havayah, we overcome the dangers of nature and earn the special protection of Gd, represented by the word “tze.”
We’re Always in the Right Lane
Our ancestors’ travels through the desert thus teach us the foundational principles of Divine Providence, of Gd’s control over our lives. They remind us that at all times our lives are governed and directed by Gd, and specifically through this recognition we access His assistance and protection.
I learned this lesson in an especially meaningful way from a simple yet profound remark made my daughter one Friday night. It is my practice at the weekly Shabbat table to discuss stories of hashgahah, where Gd’s Providence was seen and experienced in a direct, personal way. One Friday night, by daughter related the following incident as her story of hashgahah: “This week I was in the car with Mommy driving into the city. As we were getting into the tunnel, there was one lane with lots of traffic, and the cars were moving very slowly, and another lane without traffic, and the cars were driving quickly. We were in the lane with a lot of traffic.”
She stopped talking at that point, and we all anxiously waited to hear what happened next. Did a car suddenly make way for them in the other lane? Did they avoid an accident by being in their lane? I asked my daughter to continue, and she said, “That’s it. We were in the lane with traffic, and I am sure there was a good reason why Hashem wanted us in that lane.”
This is true emunah (faith) – believing that no matter what, we are always in the “right lane.” Whatever happens, wherever we find ourselves – that is precisely where we’re supposed to be. Sometimes we’ll be able to see why, but at other times – like during my daughter’s trip to the city – we’ll never know. But regardless, we can rest assured that we are always traveling “al pi Hashem,” going precisely where Gd wants to take us, and taking the exact route He wants us to take to get there.