On the Road to Growth

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – July 15, 2015

The Torah portion of Masei begins (Bamidbar 33:1): “These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went forth from the land of Egypt according to their legions, under the hand of Moses and Aaron.”  Following this verse, the Torah proceeds with an extended account of the different travels that the People of Israel journeyed after escaping Egypt until they were about to enter the Land of Israel.

Citing Tanchuma 3, the renowned Biblical exegete and Talmudic commentator R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, notes with regard to the aforementioned account, “This can be compared to a king whose son was ill and he took him to a distant place to cure him.  Once they started back, his father began to count all of the journeys.  He said to him [his son], ‘Here we slept, here we felt cold, here you had a headache etc.’”  In other words, when a matter of great importance needs to be done, all the journeys and paths that need to be traversed along the way to solve this situation take on a great importance that engrains them in one’s memory.

Indeed, when there is something important to get done, it is important to launch into action, to act and do and perform, and travel from one place to the next until the goal is reached.  There is no room for standing still or complacency.  Routine behavior that one is accustomed to on a regular basis is not sufficient.  Regular activity repeated from day to day cannot suffice.  One hurries from one thing to the next and one place to the next searching and pursuing a solution until the goal is reached, and, because the goal is so important, every one of his motions and movements in the process of achieving this goal takes on special significance.

In commenting on the Torah portion of Nitzavim, the latter day Torah giant R. Moshe Feinstein notes the great importance of being constantly on the move.  While there is still blood flowing in one’s veins, a person must constantly strive to grow and improve.  While one is alive, as we are taught by G-d in His Torah, every individual is obligated to do all that is in one’s power to come closer and closer to G-d through His Word and precepts, constantly striving to reach newer and greater heights.  One cannot reach new heights by sitting still or engaging in repetitive behavior.  We must constantly travel through the roads of life to seek and search, learn and gain new insights, and, thereby, grow more and more until we can travel no longer.

The great Chasidic leader, R. Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (1787 – 1859), known as the Kotzker Rebbe, was known to have said (Simcha Raz & Edward Levin, The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, p. 10): “Just as it is the way of an ape to imitate humans, so too, a person, when he has become old, imitates himself, and does what was his manner previously.”  In other words, too many of us, tend at some stage in our lives, consciously or not, to become complacent with our actions and achievements.  We become satisfied with who we are and what we have become, and as a result, we stop striving to attain greater and loftier spiritual heights. We “shift into neutral” and are satisfied to live out our remaining days as a mere imitation of ourselves, thoughtlessly repeating our actions that we have performed on previous days.

Many, if not most, of us, by the time we reach our twenties or thirties, become comfortable and satisfied with whatever plateau we have achieved.  The rest of our days are then lived out in routine repetition of practices and attitudes that we have become accustomed to previously.  While we may attend lectures or continue to study, even on a regular basis, we tend to lack the drive for introspection and analysis of our behavior, rarely looking for anything that we can change or improve upon in our outlook on life or our practices and customs.  Even if we read of a practice that we were not aware of or witness a scholar performing an act that we too should be doing, we often tend to gloss over the matter, many a time attributing it to special righteousness, even if it is not.  Too often the only major difference that can be noticed in someone who has reached his or her fifty’s or sixty’s in comparison with his or her twenty’s or thirty’s is the amount of grey hairs.  The ways that people behave and the ways that they think as they grow older are often almost completely indiscernible from their behavior and thoughts in their early adult life.

Such stagnancy in one’s behavior and thoughts, however, is not what we should be satisfied with.  We must be in motion – on the road, so to speak. But being on the road, just being in motion, without a view to growth, cannot suffice. We must be on the road to growth. As our scholarly leaders have pointed out, we must always strive to hone and refine our ways and correct our thoughts and practices as we read and study and observe from day to day.  Only then can we hope to grow and reach greater heights, achieving more and more as we continue through our daily travels on our road through life.  Only then can we come closer and closer to G-d, perfecting our beings and psyches to be able to perceive the spiritual bliss that G-d has meant for us.