THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
The Jewish people are unique in that they are truly one, not a collection of individuals coming together to form a nation, but a single collective soul divided up into separate entities, each of whom has an identity defining his unique role as an integral part of the whole.
The Jewish people are unique in that they are truly one, not a collection of individuals coming together to form a nation, but a single collective soul divided up into separate entities, each of whom has an identity defining his unique role as an integral part of the whole. Just as the human body will not properly function unless every component part is performing its job, so too does the collective Jewish neshoma (soul) fall ill when the individuals who compose it do not fulfill their responsibilities; and when the body is not well, all of its parts suffer.
The power and responsibility entrusted to us by Hashem is awesome, and the consequences of our failures are potentially cataclysmic. The Creator, in His infinite wisdom, understood that most of us would inevitably stumble from time to time in our passage through life in this world, so He built into His design of creation a contingency plan: Where one man stumbles, another may catch him; when one Jew damages the universe through wanton or careless acts, another Jew may repair that damage done.
Those tzadikim, the righteous who immerse themselves in the study and practice of Hashem's Torah, are the repair crew. By coming to ever greater levels of understanding and observance through their sensitivity to every nuance and intonation of the Torah's words, they set right the mistakes made by the rest of us and guide us towards a greater understanding of ourselves, that we should not err again.
In the words of this week's Torah portion lies a subtle allusion to these ideas. When one recounts his travels, he will normally say that he traveled to a certain place and stayed there. The Torah, however, in its recounting the travels of the Children of Israel, employs an awkward phrasing, reporting that they journeyed from one place and encamped in the next, without mentioning their arrival at all. Furthermore, the list begins by stating, "And Moses wrote their goings forth to their journeys. . .and these were their journeys to their goings out" (Numbers 33:2); aside from the apparent inconsistency and redundancy, the simple meaning of the verse is elusive.
The words of this verse contain the following allegorical meaning: In our journeys through life, as with the Children of Israel's journeys through the desert, sometimes we "journey" away from the path that Hashem has prepared for us and become lost in a spiritual wasteland. At such moments, the righteous among us "go out" to rectify what we have done; through their own diligence in Torah study and practice, they guide us back to the proper path by the example they set. Thus, after we "journey" away from one place, they "encamp" at the next, meaning that they reestablish the supernal balance of the universe and restore the direction of the Jewish people to its correct orientation.
Who are these tzadikim, these righteous ones? No one should be satisfied with his achievements, our sages tell us, until he has attained the level of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Is this not an impossible task? Daunting, perhaps, but not impossible, for the sages intended with their words to convey to us that just as the patriarchs developed themselves by realizing the full potential Hashem had given them, so too will we be like them if we develop our own potential to the fullest. Thus do we ask Hashem three times a day in our prayers to "place our lot with them -- the righteous -- forever," that He should guide us and help us develop ourselves to the limit of our potential so that we may be counted together with the righteous in this world and in the next.
Adapted from Sefer Noam Elimelech, a 19th century Chassidic rebbe and one of the founders of the Chassidic movement.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson is a teacher at the Yeshiva High School of Atlanta.
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