Enjoying the Journey
There is a story of a man who wanted to climb a mountain. He calculated that it would take him roughly a month to reach the top, so he bought the supplies, packed the food, and started his climb. About two weeks into his climb, he saw a helicopter in the distance. As the helicopter got closer, the pilot slowed down, lowered his window, and called out, “Are you OK? Where are you heading?”
The man shouted back, “I’m great! I’m climbing this mountain.”
Intrigued, the pilot responded, “Really? How long have you been climbing?”
“About two weeks,” he replied. “I have about another two weeks to go.”
The pilot thought for a second, and had an idea. “Why don’t you hop on board and I’ll fly you to the top. This way you’ll save so much time!”
He smiled, shook his head, and explained, “I don’t want to be on the top, I want to climb to the top.”
Very often, we want to be perfect. We don’t want to learn, we want to know; we don’t want to exercise, we want to be healthy; we don’t want to build our relationships, we want to have deep and intimate connection. But the goal of life is not to be perfect or achieve all your goals instantaneously, because you will never “be” perfect. The goal of life is to become perfect, to endlessly strive for more. You will never arrive at perfection, but you can get closer and closer every day. The goal is not to be on top; it’s to climb a little more every single day. So many people hate the journey of growth because they want nothing more than to be at the destination. The journey of growth is only enjoyable when you learn to enjoy the journey itself. When you fall in love with the process of growth — when you look forward to the daily struggle, to the incremental stages of progress, to each tiny step forward — that is when you find true happiness.
The Purpose of the Goal
In essence, the goal is necessary, but its importance lies only in how it allows you to journey toward greatness. Every goal is only temporary, for whenever you accomplish it, you will almost immediately create a new one. There are even times when we realize that our goal was not even possible or appropriate to begin with, but it still helped us progress in the right direction. The greatest joy does not come from arriving at our goals but from the journey itself — the striving itself, the process of progress, and the continued elevation of our existential self.
The Ramban quotes the claims of the fools who challenge the worth of pursuing truth. After all, if we will never reach absolute truth, as it transcends our limited minds, what then is the point in pursuing wisdom? Better not to journey at all. The Ramban responds with a profound insight: The goal is not to reach absolute truth, as this is impossible. The goal is to endlessly strive along the winding path toward truth, getting ever closer, even if the ultimate endpoint remains elusive. Every single step we take is progress, and this is the goal of life — an endless journey, but one in which we enjoy every single stage of growth and evolution. This provides an additional explanation for why the Torah describes Klal Yisrael’s journey in such detail; the journey itself is infinitely important.
This is why all the places are listed in Parashas Masei. The Jewish People were on a spiritual journey, and every step along the way was essential to that journey. It wasn’t only about arriving at Eretz Yisrael; it was about growing through every step of the journey, every step of the process.
The Personal Megillah
A worthwhile journey often includes a long winding path, twisting and turning in all directions, leading you on a seemingly endless quest. Then, at the very last moment, there can be a sudden revelation that retroactively changes your perspective on the entire journey! Like a twist ending in a great story, the last turn can change the way you perceive the entire quest. This is the nature of the final geulah (redemption). When Mashiach comes, we will suddenly see how all of history was leading us toward our ultimate destination. This is why the end of days is compared to laughter. One laughs when there is a sudden change, and the destination one thought they were heading toward suddenly shifts into something completely unexpected.
The same is true in our own lives. Sometimes, only by looking back and putting all the scattered pieces together can we finally see the beauty and hashgachah in events that occurred throughout our lives. Any individual moment of your life may seem meaningless, but held in context of your entire life, this moment suddenly shines with infinite brilliance; it’s now seen as fundamental and deeply meaningful. As we have mentioned before, this is why the baalei machshavah suggest writing your own personal “megillah,” keeping an account of events, experiences, and choices that occur throughout your life. Megillas Esther contains no open miracle, but when you put all the pieces of the puzzle together, and read them in order, you clearly see the yad Hashem (hand of God), how all the seemingly random events fit together so perfectly to create the hidden miracle of Purim. The word “megillah” (scroll) shares the same root as the words le’galgel (to roll) and me’galeh (to reveal). When we roll through the scroll of the megillah, we reveal the presence and hashgachah of Hashem.
The same is true for our own personal story. Each individual event or experience may seem insignificant and happenstance, but if we put all the pieces together, connecting the dots between the seemingly random events, we begin to see the magic manifest in our own personal megillah. We can suddenly see the turning points in our lives; we retroactively perceive the life-changing decisions and events that until now seemed meaningless and random. Whether it was choosing a specific school, meeting a friend or spouse at a specific time, or visiting a certain place when we did, our past becomes a masterpiece, ready for us to admire and appreciate. On a larger scale, only by seeing all the various stages and details of Klal Yisrael’s journey in Parashas Masei could we appreciate the bigger story that was taking place.
There is another layer to this idea as well. Very often, we set out in life with grand goals and a vivid vision for our future. Many years later, when recalling that vision, we realize that we ended up somewhere drastically different than we had originally intended. This is the beauty of a spiritual journey. We set out with tremendous hishtadlus, hoping that our goals are rooted in the pursuit of a higher truth, a higher purpose. But simultaneously, we must have a deep sense of bitachon that wherever we end up is the ratzon Hashem.
Humanity as Journeyers
Until now, we have shown the beauty and depth of the spiritual journey, but we have not yet reached the essence of what it means for mankind to journey. There is a profound truth within the concept of journeying that touches on the very root of what it means to be human. As humans, we don’t simply journey; we are journeyers, we are becomers. Our very essence is to become, to expand, to evolve, and to transcend our limitations. Our tzelem Elokim — the spark of Godliness within us — does not grant us innate perfection but rather gives us the innate ability to become perfect.
The Gemara describes Moshe Rabbeinu’s journey as he ascended Har Sinai to receive the Torah. Upon his arrival on top, the malachim began complaining to Hashem, claiming that man has no right to receive the Torah. The malachim believed that they were far superior to mortal beings, and the Torah should therefore remain with them. After all, human beings are lowly and fallible, and will only desecrate it. Hashem tells Moshe to respond to these claims. Moshe is initially too scared to respond to the malachim and tells Hashem that he is “afraid that they will burn him alive.” Rav Tzadok explains that malachim are perfect, without any limitation or sin, so Moshe felt unworthy to respond to their claims. Hashem therefore tells Moshe to grasp on to the Kisei Hakavod (Divine Throne) and respond.
Moshe proceeds to do so, asking, “What is written in the Torah?” Hashem tells Moshe the Aseres Hadibros, including, “I am Hashem your God who took you out of Mitzrayim, don’t serve idols, keep Shabbos, honor your parents, don’t kill, and don’t be jealous.” Moshe then turns to the malachim and asks, “Did Hashem take you out of Mitzrayim? Do you struggle with a desire to worship idols? Do you perform melachah during the week, that you must desist from it on Shabbos? Do you have parents? Do you have a yetzer hara? Do you get jealous?” At this point, the malachim accepted Hashem’s will to give the Torah to the Jewish People, even giving Moshe spiritual gifts, and Moshe was able to descend with the Torah.
What is the meaning of this cryptic passage? Moshe’s claim for why the Jewish People are deserving of the Torah focuses on the weaknesses and challenges of human beings, not their perfection. We are limited, imperfect beings with a yetzer hara, prone to mistakes and jealousy. Why is this a mark in our favor? The simple answer to this question is that Moshe wasn’t trying to show humanity’s greatness; he was only trying to clarify why human beings needed the guidance of Torah, and how the Torah was more applicable to the Jewish People than malachim. There is, however, a much deeper layer here as well.
Two Forms of Perfection
There are two different types, or aspects, of perfection. The first is static perfection (sheleimus), where something is, has been, and always will be absolutely perfect. Such a being does not struggle, has no conflicting wills, and never fails. The second type of perfection is more nuanced, and in some sense, even more powerful. This is the aspect of becoming perfect (hishtalmus), where a being is created imperfect and has the ability to become, evolve, grow, and work to achieve perfection. This second type of perfection comes with great risk, as the struggle to become perfect will inevitably include moments of failure, difficulty, and even hopelessness.
Moshe showed the malachim that while angels are created as static, perfect beings — the first form of perfection — humanity is capable of becoming perfect, through hard work and free will. The Torah contains infinitely deep spiritual wisdom, and the malachim knew that humanity would never be able to understand its depths on the level that they themselves were capable of. They therefore claimed that the Torah should not be given to humanity but should be kept by those who could properly grasp its depths. Moshe countered that the Torah’s true purpose is to be both a reflection of higher truth and a gateway for humanity in their journey toward becoming perfect. The Torah and its mitzvos provide us with guidance, refine us, and help us become more and more perfect. The Torah helps us conquer our yetzer hara and overcome our weaknesses. It is therefore irrelevant for malachim, as malachim are already perfect and have no free will.
Rav Tzadok explains that this is why Hashem told Moshe to hold on to the Kisei Hakavod. True kavod is something that must be chosen, not forced. One gives true honor to something or someone that he approves of, values, and associates with truth and perfection. Malachim cannot give true honor to Hashem, because they cannot help but honor Hashem. It is impossible for them not to acknowledge Hashem and the truth of reality. Humanity, however, is capable of giving true honor to Hashem, because we are capable of choosing not to honor Him. Only because we have free will and can choose to ignore the truths of reality can we also choose to acknowledge Hashem as our Creator and Root Source. It is because we are limited and fallible that we can achieve a unique form of greatness: that of becoming perfect (hishtalmus). This is why Hashem told Moshe to grab onto the Kisei Hakavod; it is the place that represents our ability to give kavod to Hashem, as it is the “place” in the spiritual world where Hashem reveals Himself to the created world.17 It is also the place within the spiritual world that is rooted even higher than the makom (place) of malachim. This is why Hashem tells Moshe to “grab” onto the Kisei Hakavod; it is the very concept of maasim (actions) that reflects humanity’s superiority to malachim. Only humanity can choose to perform physical mitzvos in the physical world, and our ability to be Hashem’s sheluchim (messengers) in the physical world is what makes humanity superior to the perfection of malachim. Our greatness lies not in our static perfection, but in our ability to become perfect.
A fascinating illustration of this principle is the exchange between Rabbi Akiva and Turnusrufus, as described in the Midrash.18 Turnusrufus questions the mitzvah of bris milah, asking Rabbi Akiva whether he believes that man is more perfect once he undergoes circumcision than he was when Hashem originally created him. In other words, how can man become more perfect through a human act than he was when Hashem originally created him?
Rabbi Akiva explains that this is exactly what he believes — that the human act of circumcision elevates man to a higher level than he was when originally created. Turnusrufus could not understand this concept, and at first glance, this seems to be a tremendously controversial statement. However, Rabbi Akiva understood that Hashem creates us imperfect to give us the opportunity, ability, and responsibility to perfect ourselves. That is the true perfection of humanity.
Creating Your Torah
Our higher root is static perfection, but our mission in this world is to work through the process of becoming our higher, true selves, struggling to transform our imperfection into greatness. This is exactly the theme of the Gemara that we have discussed several times before, which states that while in the womb, a malach teaches us kol haTorah kulah, revealing all the deepest truths of reality. Right before we are born, we lose access to that transcendent Torah. The goal of life is to enter this world imperfect and rebuild all that you once were in the womb. However, this time it will be real, because you have built it yourself. Only by overcoming challenge and difficulty, only by asserting your willpower, can you fulfill your true potential. In essence, our entire life is a story of becoming — of journeying toward our original, higher, and true self.
The Journey toward Greatness
We all traverse through the journey of life, trying to grasp the ultimate objective truth as well as fulfill our own personal purpose within that higher truth. As Parashas Masei teaches us, every step of our journey is of ultimate importance. But more important still is the necessity to be a journeyer, to continuously grow through life. We are here to achieve greatness, and living without a higher “why” is not truly living. We are the unique creation of Hashem that has been placed in a confusing and dark world, in a state of confusion, with the mission of becoming perfect. Find your unique mission, embrace the struggle, and head toward the infinite while enjoying every step of the process.
Excerpted from The Journey to Your Ultimate Self by Rabbi Shmuel Reichman