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Home » Mase'ei, Ninth of Av, Tragedy

Masei: The Wandering Jew

Submitted by on July 16, 2017 – 1:24 amNo Comment | 2,909 views


Why is the Jew always wandering? We left Egypt and spent the next forty years wandering in a dessert. Throughout our exile, our people have wandered. Even today, Jews who live in stable countries, don’t remain in the same place for long. Even Jews in Israel, wander away in search of new destinations. Just check to see how many Israelis are wandering across the world at any given time.

Even the Torah emphasises our wandering. Our forty-two journeys across the desert, are each recounted in the Torah. Why does the Torah find it necessary to recount each one?

Encountering Vulnerability

Wandering isn’t fun by any means. When we wander we lose stability, we lose our anchor, we lose our resources and connections. In our home town, we know how to solve our problems. If we need money, we know where to find the bank. If the car breaks down, we know where to find the mechanic. If we want company, we know where to find our friends.

When we are on the road, we are lost. A fully capable adult, is suddenly at the mercy of others. We don’t know the language, we don’t know the customs, we don’t know whom to trust or how to find the basic resources necessary for life. In other words, wandering is an encounter with our own vulnerability.

This is the drawback of wandering, but according to Kabbalah, this is also it’s strength. When we are stable and capable, we rarely glimpse our vulnerability. We perceive ourselves as resourceful and independent and we don’t need to lean on anyone. In our wanderings, we become dependant. We are forced to recognize that some problems are beyond us and that we must turn to G-d for help.

Discovering our dependence is an asset, not a liability. When we are alone in the world, in a strange country and down on our luck, with no contacts and no friendly faces, we come face to face with G-d. We recognize that our resources only carry us so far, and at some point, we must turn to G-d. His agents arrive to help us from the most unexpected quarters, but they are His agents. We can’t help ourselves.

So long as we are stable, capable and self important, our relationship with G-d is somewhat obscure. When we experience a desperate and have no solution, we discover two things. A, we can’t solve all our problems, and B, we don’t need to solve all our problems. Some problems must be left to G-d.

Desert Fruits

In the modern day, Israel produces some of its best agriculture in the Negev Desert. An aquifier was found under the desert that is pumped out and used to irrigate the crops. The water is brackish and salty, but Raz Arbel, director of Negev Tours, explained that ironically this is the secret of the fruit’s extra sweetness. “When fruits are irrigated with brackish water, the plants are in stress and are suffering. They therefore produce fewer leaves and more fruit; smaller fruit with less water and more “meat”. This makes them much sweeter.”[1]

People are a lot like fruit. When we encounter the brackish unhappy experiences in life, we can grow sweeter. The Baal Shem Tov used an analogy of a spiral staircase. When we are at the front end, you can see our destination and the climb upwards feels purposeful. When we are on the back end, we lose sight of our destination and the climb begins to feel like a sort of wandering.

Yet, it is specifically on the back end, when we learn to trust that our climb continues to be purposeful, that we grow deeper. It is precisely because we lose our stability and equilibrium, because we experience vulnerability and insecurity, because we encounter our own nothingness and our inability to see, that we discover the sweetest and deepest aspects of ourselves.


This is why the Torah recounts our wandering across the desert in great detail, but let’s not get carried away. Despite the benefits we glean from wandering, no one likes to wander. We all prefer to stay at home in peace and prosperity. No one in their right mind volunteers for desperation.

This is why G-d doesn’t seek our opinion or permission when He foists our wanderings upon us. When Western Europe expelled its Jews, our ancestors had no choice, but to pick up the wandering stick. When pogroms broke out across Czarist Russia, Jews had no choice but to go wandering. When Hitler destroyed and displaced our people, the wandering began again.

We don’t volunteer for suffering, but once it is foisted on us, we have two choices. We can embrace the deeper relationship with G-d that our wandering accrues or we can rail against G-d. Both approaches can be justified, but we gain from the former and are hurt by the latter.

When we accept our fate as decreed by G-d and seek to extract whatever benefits it offers although we didn’t choose this fate and did not enjoy the experience, our wandering and suffering become meaningful.  If we rail against G-d for the suffering, our wandering fails to bring us closer to G-d. In fact, it distances us from G-d.

Having Both

We don’t enjoy feeling vulnerable and desperate. We are much happier when we are stable and resourceful. Yet, we can’t deepen our relationship with G-d or even activate our own deth when we live a life of complacency. It is a catch-twenty-two of sorts. On the one hand, we want the deeper relationship, but we don’t want the desperation that comes with it. On the other hand, we want the comfort and complacency, but don’t want the shallowness that comes with it.

For now, G-d, as a loving and responsible father, offers us tough love on occasion. When he sees that our relationship with him is growing shallow and we are losing touch with our own vulnerability and nothingness, He foists some suffering or wandering upon us.

However, we await the coming of the Mashiach, when will have our cake and eat it too. At that time, we will be surrounded by prosperity and luxury, yet we will not grow complacent. Our love for G-d, our sense of dependence upon G-d, and our yearning for G-d, we will be palpable.

We will not grow self absorbed or egotistical despite the great wealth that G-d will bestow upon us. We will remain centered, humble, driven and hungry for more. More knowledge, more Torah, a deeper relationship with G-d and a clearer glimpse of our own nothingness. Our own vulnerability. Our own utter and absolute dependence upon G-d.

When that day comes, there will no need for wandering and no need for suffering. Indeed, on that day, G-d will wipe away the tears from every face, and there will be only happiness and blessing.

May that day come very soon.[2]

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlUfCpuGl8k

[2] This essay is culled from a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM on June 25, 1977.

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