Parashat Matot-Masei – The 42 Journeys

by Xus Casal


This is no doubt a difficult season. In this week we have a “double-Portion” reading, consisting of the last chapters in the book of Numbers –the two portions are: ‘Tribes’ (Matot) and ‘Journeys’ (Masei) – being technically the end of the exodus, since Deuteronomy is basically a repetition of the whole story. Within these two readings and the first reading of Deuteronomy we have three weeks that cover the 17th of Tamuz to the 9th of Av in the Jewish calendar. A time in which we bring to our memory the sin of the Golden-Calf and the destruction of the two Temples. These days enclose a period called: ‘bein haMetzarim’ (between the hardships, or: between the days of distress). This is from the verse:

“Judah has gone into exile because of suffering and harsh labor. She dwelled among the nations but found no rest; all her pursuers overtook her in the midst of distress [bein hametzarim]” (Lam 1:3).

“In the midst of distress” can also read: “between [the days of] distress” (cf. Rashi).

In total, this is a period of 21 days and 21 nights = 42.

The portion called ‘Masei’ records 42 journeys in the desert, from Egypt to Yericho.

“These are the journeys of the sons of Israel who went forth from the Land of Egypt”(Nm 33:1).

eleh Masei Bnei-Israel asher yatzu meEterz Mitzraim

If we read the text hyper-literally, the text says: “these are the journeys of the sons of Israel who are going forth from the land of restrictions/oppression” (Nm 33:1).

In this interpretation the text says that every son of Israel is in a spiritual confinement (Mitzraim) and from there to their liberation they must pass 42 journeys.  Thus our sages taught: In each and every generation a man must regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Mitzraim” (Pesakhim 10:5).

We can learn several spiritual lessons from the name and numerical value of each one of the 42 journeys, but that would take too long and is not the matter at hand.

I want to bring into consideration that the sons of Israel (especially those who were seduced by the ‘Erev Rav’ – the mixed multitude –, by the ten spies and by Midian) messed it up big time many times during their wandering (a wandering that became by consequence 40 years longer than originally expected).

Yes, Israel left Egypt physically, and Israel experienced God’s liberation in their first journey. But their spiritual oppression continued for 41 journeys more.

These 42 Journeys tell the story of every Jew and every convert who is oppressed in the slavery system of this world, and is rescued from it, both physically and mentally, step by step (because one can be born a Jew and raised in a religious family and still be bounded and spiritually oppressed to the physical material things (the forbidden fruit) of this world, or passing through a spiritual desolation – ie. in the desert).

Think of the first Temple era.

Everyone contributed to the construction of Solomon’s Temple. The best Craftsman of Tyre (2Chr 2:13), with cedar trees from Lebanon (2Chr 2:16), bronze worked on Yarden (2Chr 4:17). The first Temple was more sublime than any other Temple on Earth, since the divine Presence of God could be literally seen from the distance dwelling on it.

Yet, it didn’t take too long to realize that the sons of Israel were yet slaves; Slaves to Immorality, and Idolatry. Bloodshed didn’t take long to spring up (cf. Yoma 9b), and of course abandoning the Torah was the logical next step (cf. Nedarim 81a).

As a consequence of all the above, God could not “dwell” in there anymore and allowed the Babylonians to invade Jerusalem and destroy the Temple: a tragic event that cost the lives of 1 million civilians and sent Jews back to captivity.

Sometimes we have to think retrospectively to remember that sins have consequences, and that one sin leads to another. Without ‘Fear of God’ a nation does not have guarantee of perpetuity; not even Israel, as it’s written that without any weapon the Midianites were able to cause 24,000 Israelites to die (Nm 25:9).

But after the war with the Midianites, when the Fear of HaShem was restored, it’s recorded: “no one of us is missing” (Nm 31:49), even though in ordinary wars there are casualties in both sides (cf. Meam Loez).

The Zohar thus teaches us an important lesson, based on the verse: “the princes take counsel together, against God and against his anointed” (Psal 2:1,2). As long as the sons of Israel are in tune with the Creator, nothing will defeat them. Even if they raise the Third Temple and the rest of the world opposes to it, as long as it was in tune with God, they will prevail. In the words of the Zohar:

In the future seventy generals of armies of all the nations shall gather from every side at that time with the hosts of the entire world to wage war against Jerusalem, the Holy City, and to plot against God, saying: Let us take vengeance against the Patron first, and then against His people and His sanctuaryThen God will laugh at them, as is written: He who sits in the heavens laughs: God mocks them” (Psal 2:4) (Zohar Beshalakh 58a).

With Fear of HaShem Israel is able to conquer even the great fortified city of Yericho. But what happens without Fear of HaShem? Even a small city like Ai is cause of trouble and destruction for Israel, who has no choice but to flee from it (Jos 7:1, 3-5).


Chapter 33 of Numbers uses repeatedly two letters to determine the end of a journey and the beginning of the next. For example we read: “They departed from Sukkot and camped in Etham” (Nm 33:6). Or for example: “They departed from the mounts of Arabim and camped in the plains of Moab by Yarden” (Nm 33:48).

In all cases, what is translated as “from” is the letter Mem מ, and what is translated as “in” is the letter Beit ב. The two together form the Gematria, and are used to represent in Hebrew the number 42 (מב).

The Zohar teaches us that:

“The world was graven with forty-two letters, all of which are the ornamentation of the Holy Name” (Zohar Bereshit 30a). “God brought [the Jews] out of Egypt [in 42 Journeys] by the mystery of the 42 letter Name, with which he created Heaven and Earth” (Zohar hadash Maamar).

The Hebrew title for God: “Eloka” equals 42. 42 = 2 times ‘Ehyeh’ (‘I will be’ = 21); the name used by God when introduced Himself to Moses with the famous phrase in which: “Ehyeh” is repeated twice (Ex 3:14).

This teaches us that 42 is very connected to God and conceals the source and reason for His Creation.

So, when a soul descends and becomes a human being, it must pass 42 stages of ascension; 42 stages in which the “beast” – that is: our ‘evil inclination’ and ‘the forces of the Other side’, rule the wilderness (cf. Zohar Terumah 157a). In this sense, each one of the 42 Journeys is an opportunity to sin, fail and die, falling in a deeper slavery. Interestingly, in Japanese culture, the 42 is perceived as a “Bad luck number”.

On the other hand, the 42 journeys are also an opportunity to scale and progress, leaving behind the past, the slavery, and bringing a bit more of holiness into the world.

As it’s written: And it came to pass, that when the Ark traveled on, Moses said: Rise up, HaShem, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you” (Nm 10:35). Our Hassidic Masters teach that the enemies of God are the forces of spiritual darkness and evil, which are weakened more and more as we go through the 42 journeys.

This is not only a “personal journey” but also a collective Journey that affects everyone. This is taught by our sages in the ‘Dream of Pharaoh’, who saw 7 years of abundance and seven years of famine = 14 (Gn 41:26). Our sages say: Pharaoh dreamed, and then retold the dreams to Yosef, and Yosef repeated them. These 3 sets of 14 make a total of 42 (cf. Bereshit Rabbah 89:9).

Israel had been dwelling in Rameses (Nm 33:3) [the first name in the list]. Rameses is made of two words: Rah and Masas (רע מסס) – “Evil” and “Melting” (cf. Likkutei Dibburim, vol. 4, p. 767), as it’s written: “and they despoiled the Egyptians, and the sons of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Sukkot” (Ex 12:36-37). It’s also written: “as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God” (Psal 68:2). So Rameses is where our exodus in this spiritual trek began, Rameses is the physical rejection and spiritual melting of the dominant power that has been oppressing our soul – as the Gematria of Rameses equals: Nefesh (soul). Only after this we reach the next stage: Sukkot (Booths; when we realize that all these steps in our life are temporary dwellings, and we have a bigger goal to attain).

רעמסס = נפש = 430

The last stage, the number 42, is Yericho (Nm 33:48). Yericho derives from ‘Reiakh’ – smell. What is so important about the smell, ריח? The smell is a sign of Messiah, for it’s written: “[vaha’Rikho] and his smell will be in the fear of HaShem” (Is 11:3). Our sages say of Messiah that he will smell someone and be able to Judge him [moirakh veDain] (Sanh 93b).

The 42 stages are a means to attain the Messianic consciousness, and the end of all our journeys: the coming of Messiah. This last journey takes two steps: (a) Yehoshua fighting the battles of HaShem and paving the way, and (b) King David finishing the Job for God’s permanent dwelling among us. These are the aspects known as Messiah ben Yosef (who prepares the way), and Messiah ben David – the Ultimate King Messiah, and the process is known as the footsteps of Messiah.

There’s no other goal in the story of Israel, and there’s no other goal in the Torah than bringing the Messianic era. Messiah is the goal of the Torah. And since each one of us has a spark of Messiah’s soul within, we can experience the Messianic era within, as we pass through the 42 Journeys and purify ourselves today for that beautiful day, in which the whole world will be purged and purified, may it be speedily in our days.