Forty-Two Homes in Forty Years

Jewish Genetic Travel Code

If there’s one Parasha in the Torah which expresses the Jewish Genetic Code for traveling, I believe it’s the present one – Mas’ei (“Travels”).

Forty two times is the word vayis’u “and they traveled” repeated in the first chapter. Forty two times the entire nation, men, women and children uprooted themselves from their present neighborhood and moved on. Forty-two homes in forty years.

At first glance it seems like a lot of travel and instability for a traditional family even in biblical times, but Rashi points out a few facts which shed some light on the topic and puts things into proportion.

  1. Fourteen stops were made in the first year in the desert before the sin of the spies (see Shlach – See things as they are)
  2. Another eight stops were made in the last year in the wilderness after the passing of Aharon the Cohen.
  3. That leaves a total of 20 stops in 38 years.

On average 22.8 months of stability in each site. Less than two years.

30 Cities in 30 Days

OK, that’s not exactly long-term permanent residence, but in today’s upwardly mobile, transient, disposable lifestyle, it’s not a far cry from the modern lifestyle , when short-term job-hopping has become a norm. Of course not every job change involves relocation to a new point on the globe, but people today are far more open to change than in any other time in history. Open to change doesn’t always mean a “30 cities in 30 days” journey, but it isn’t 30 years in one job/city either.

BTW, if the idea of 30 cities in 30 days appeals to you, check out this blog; he did 30 photos in each city too…

People do like some change; whether change of scene or change of jobs and some like it more frequent than others.

Take the case of Ted Greenberg, a former suicide researcher turned comedian:

“In August of 2005, I left my position at the Columbia University department of child psychiatry to pursue stand-up comedy full time. Occasionally I receive an inquiry about the U.S. securities market. I left that field in July of 1997. Less frequently, I’m asked for a ride to the airport in a Checker cab. I gave up my hack license in September of 1988. January of 2006 represents five consecutive months of me not changing careers.” (NY Times).

Age and Willingness to Change

Of course not everyone likes frequent changes of jobs and scenery and there is a definite correlation between age and willingness to change.

Forty-Two Homes in Forty YearsAccording to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the younger one is, the shorter their tenure at one employer. The older one is, the longer they’re likely to stay at the same employer. With travel too, the younger crowd is far more likely to backpack around the world than someone in their 50’s and 60’s.

Forty-Two Homes in Forty Years

This brings me back to the 42 stops of the Jewish People in the desert. I assume that the younger kids coped pretty well with all the moving around. Maybe it was even fun and exciting and lots of action. But how did middle-aged parents manage with moving so many times? Pack-unpack-pack-unpack again and again. I’ve personally moved 15 times and the idea of another move sounds horrible to me (unless it’s to a luxurious beachfront cottage in French Polynesia). If I had to move 42 times in 40 years, I’d really lose it.

I believe this question can be answered from a few perspectives.

First of all they didn’t move because their boss suggested a job relocation. They moved because the Almighty Himself told them “GO!”. So they went. You just don’t mess with God, even if it seems inconvenient.

Secondly, they were living at an exceedingly high spiritual level. Every day they experienced open miracles; the Pillar of Cloud, The Pillar of Fire, the Mannah, the Well of Miriam and many more. When you are walking hand in hand with God (so to speak), nothing is really difficult to do. Even to pack up your house and kids 42 times.

Of course all this is valid for people who’ve experienced Mount Sinai and heard God speak, but what message can we take from their experience? We who are living in a much diminished and hidden spiritual realm (Hester Panim).

The Meaning of Travel

This reminds me again of the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Sichot HaRan 85.

Every person, however simple they are, repairs something in every place they go. After all, they pray there, they eat and bless on the food, and commit acts of holiness wherever they are.

The Jewish People knew that they had a mission to do at each one of the 42 stops. Deep spiritual acts which would affect the course of history and influence the coming generations forever after. When one knows, as they did, that a journey has meaning and significance, then it’s probably easy to pack again and go on.

It’s only when we think a trip is for nothing that we find it so hard. According to Rav Nachman of Breslov, every single trip we take is important, to us, to the people we meet and to generations to come.

Nesivos Shalom related in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov that the Torah records the nation’s forty-two encampments from when they left Egypt until they entered the Land of Israel, to teach us that every individual must endure forty-two ‘travels’ in his lifetime. Not all of those travels are physical, but every Jew encounters forty-two challenges that confront him.

One who understands that life is a process of growth, views every challenging situation as an opportunity of achieving greater spiritual heights.

Have a safe and meaningful trip.