One Lifetime to Make 42 Journeys


Among Ashkenazi Jews, it is the custom to name a newborn child after a loved one who has passed away to honor his or her memory.

MATOT-MASEI, Numbers 30:1-36:13
Among Ashkenazi Jews, it is the custom to name a newborn child after a loved one who has passed away to honor his or her memory and forge connection between the generations. At important moments in our lives, the flow from one generation to the next becomes almost tangible.
I remember a young woman from one family who asked me to conduct a baby naming for her newborn. We had met when I was a chaplain at the hospital where her mother had been a patient. I had spent many hours with her and her family as they lovingly surrounded her mother while she was dying. Several years later, the daughter had sought me out to help with this next chapter in her life. 
The whole extended family had excitedly crowded into the home of the new parents. As I held the small child in my arms, I recalled the way her grandmother had lived with tremendous vitality. She had a sharp sense of humor and always made me laugh. This was her first grandchild and I imagined how happy she would have been to be present that day. As we welcomed this baby girl into the world and named her after the grandmother she would only know in stories, I was struck by the power of the moment that could hold both the wonder of precious new life and the loss of a beloved woman. It provided a glimpse into the nature of eternity.
Judaism recognizes life as a journey through different landscapes, varied in color, texture and tone, each one adding necessary depth and vibrancy to the whole. This week’s Torah portion is also about sacred journeys. We read: “These are the journeys of the children of Israel going out of the land of Egypt.” The text then describes the 42 individual stages of the Israelites’ sojourn between Egypt and the Promised Land.
Commentators throughout the ages have interpreted this text as a metaphor for the human journey. The Baal Shem Tov taught: “The 42 encampments from Egypt to the Promised Land are replayed in every individual’s life, in his journey from his soul’s descent to this world at his birth until his return to his Source.” A person’s birth is like the Israelites leaving the confinement of Egypt for a new life. And the Promised Land symbolizes the mystery that lies beyond death.
The Torah’s emphasis on each stage of the journey reminds us that each stop has significance. Even though, at the moment, some may appear to be setbacks or wrong turns, in the end they all have a role to play in making us who we are.
Another Chasidic teaching offers: “All 42 journeys — not just the first — were a ‘going forth out of the land of Egypt.’ Each stage was a new exodus; even a single journey is liberation from some personal Egypt.” Each stage of life presents its own challenges, its own “Egypt.” And with each new Egypt, a new exodus must be discovered.
How many of us have searched for love and found it, only to be faced with the new challenge of intimacy? Or if our desire to become a parent is fulfilled, we soon learn about the demands of raising children. And if we are lucky enough to live into old age, we may experience physical frailty and loss. Each stage, each new blessing in life, brings with it new challenges to overcome. Of course, the growing and stretching, no matter how uncomfortable, are an essential part of the journey. They make us who we are, they give our lives richness and texture and they allow us to glimpse the intricate web of interconnection that lies beneath the surface of our conscious reality.
In moments of celebration, in times of sadness and in all the days in between, may we be able to find the sacred in each stage of our journey. May we see the ways in which loss and joy are inexplicably intertwined. And may we embrace the complex beauty of each moment with a full heart. 
Rabbi Elisa Goldberg is a community chaplain and co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.


  1. I am so happy to find you again. You were my wonderful teacher in the ParaChaplain course in Philadelphia. Would like to do more.


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