Torah portion: Must enlightenment hurt?

I visit a hospice patient whom I would call a sage. All the folks from my hospice who visit him marvel at his sweetness, the depth of his spirituality, and his ability to enjoy and engage each of us distinctly.

His illness has progressed to the point that he is now severely disabled and rarely leaves his bed. Yet his mind is clear. He could spend a lot of his time being angry at his utter dependence on others, but I find him mostly to be at peace. He does have moments of self-pity, though, like when he asks me, “Did I have to become disabled to get close to God?”

I think there’s an answer to his question in this week’s parasha, Masei. It contains a list of places where the Israelite clans journeyed and camped in the wilderness — 41 by my count — beginning with leaving Egypt on the 15th of Nissan and ending with their arrival 40 years later in Abel-Shittim, the place where they would cross the Jordan and enter Canaan in Joshua 3:1.

The first words of the parasha are “Eleh masei,” “These are the journeys,” or as other translators have it, “the wanderings,” “the marches” or “the marching-stages.” So either they were taking marching orders, traveling in intentional formation like a platoon of soldiers, or they meandered in an accidental cluster, like the band of ex-slave families you might expect them to be. 

Another version of how they traveled comes to us from the Chasidic Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (“HaShelah”). He connects our parasha’s journeys with the exhortation attributed to a Rabbi Nehorai (meaning “enlightenment”) in Pirke Avot (14:4): “Wander afar to a place of Torah.” HaShelah links the texts, saying they both are about “wandering,” but in Hebrew they are different words — Pirke Avot uses the word “galut” — exile. It is urging us to uproot ourselves to a place of Torah — to take matters into our own hands, leave the comforts of home and familiarity, and send ourselves to a place where we can really learn and grow.

I see here three interpretations of how the Israelites traveled, which parallel the three stages of growth we go through in any area of personal development. Philosopher Ken Wilber calls them pre-rational, rational and trans-rational. In the area of spiritual growth and understanding of human suffering, they can be seen this way:

1) Accepting marching orders 

First, we learn and follow the rules. In spirituality, this means taking all direction from God — or deviating at our peril. God is experienced as the supreme parent, doling out strict discipline and limited compassion in direct relationship to our own actions and thoughts. We see our illnesses and misfortunes as our own fault. We earn our suffering. 

2) Meandering and wandering

At some point, many of us come to question a literal understanding of Spirit, and see that, logically, there is no real one-to-one relationship between behavior and news, good or bad. We experience life as a string of coincidences, and suffering is random and (often) unavoidable. 

At this stage, without God “watching over” us, there is a serious danger that material comforts and distractions, the “other gods” that the Torah so exhorts against, can lull us into a complacency that takes us away from our path of personal growth. 

3) Exiling ourselves

When we realize that we have been away from God long enough — and this realization is the key — we begin to look for a new, integrated way to experience faith. This new way is not literal, but metaphoric. This is the meaning of uprooting ourselves to seek out answers of faith. What does God mean to me now? How will I understand the suffering I have gone through or am now experiencing? 

It is a shift away from ego to presence. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik said, “Suffering comes to ennoble man, to purge his thoughts of pride and superficiality … to repair that which is faulty in a man’s personality.”

Which is to say, no, not everyone has to go through what my hospice patient has — actual physical trauma — to attain closeness to God. But that might have been what it took for my friend to let Spirit/truth/enlightenment break through. To quote “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a children’s book about how toys become real:

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. 

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt. … By the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”