Fans of the hilarious and farcical sci-fi series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are well aware of the significance of the number 42. If you’re not familiar with the books, a super computer was built to determine the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. The computer’s answer? 42. The only problem is that they never were able to figure out what the exact question was which prompts that answer.
Despite the series’s absurdity, the number 42 actually has quite a significance in Judaism. Kabbalistically one of the names of God is made up of 42 letters. When Nechemia rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem, he does so in 42 parts. Even the name of this book of the Torah, Bamidbar, במדבר breaks down as 42 (gematria of במ) and dvar (דבר) which means words. And the first paragraph of the Shema has 42 words. Then in this week’s parsha, Masei, we’re hit with 42 right from the start.
Are We There Yet?
The parsha begins with a listing of 42 locations the Jews traveled between leaving Egypt and arriving just outside the land of Canaan. In terms of a narrative, this is the final parsha of the book of Bamidbar (Numbers), so technically this is the ending of the Torah as the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is just Moses reviewing much of the story as a review. And it is interesting that the Torah never tells the story of the Jewish people entering the land of Israel. It leaves that for the book of Joshua. The Torah seems to be emphasizing the perspective that, “It’s not about the destination, but about the journey.” That’s a great lesson, but you don’t really need the Torah to tell you that. There must be something more.
So why are there 42 locations listed? The journey starts with the Jews leaving Egypt. According to the Talmud (Pesachim, 116b) each and every Jew is supposed view themselves as if he or she personally left Egypt. As I’ve mentioned before, leaving Egypt is about freeing ourselves of our spiritual struggles, and Pesach helps us do that. But if you think eating some matzah and sitting through a seder is going to fix all your character traits, you’re sorely mistaken.
As Rabbi Elchonon Jacobovitz points out in an excellent teaching, lasting change is a long, slow, and dizzying process. Going from Egypt to Israel is not a straight line, but rather a zig zag. It’s not a quick trip, it’s a life time of work. Growth is a slow transition, which is why the Jews spent 40 years in the desert.
The Baal Shem Tov is known for saying that these 42 stops in the wilderness parallel the 42 stages of a person’s life. We tend to think of our lives in just a few steps; diapers, childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, parenthood, middle age, the part where you finally get social security, and diapers again. According to the Baal Shem Tov, a person goes through many more intermittent steps. New jobs, relationships, dealing with hardships, finding new mentors, achieving new spiritual levels, and, of course, many set backs.
Though the number 42 is a constant, the stages each person experiences are unique to the individual. This is an essential outlook in an age where people often compare their lives and get their sense of success by measuring themselves against their peers. Just as the Torah lists each of the stops of the Israelites, it is incredibly helpful to reflect (from time to time) on the benchmarks of our lives to regain perspective of where we’re going and to see how much progress we’ve made. “For an exploration of these personal/spiritual stages, look at 42 Journeys.”
As I mentioned above, the Torah ends before the Jews enter the land of Israel. One hell of a cliffhanger right? But there is an important piece of wisdom the Torah is communicating. Many of us believe that there is a level we will reach where we’ll finally be happy. Maybe it is when we’re married, or when we get that promotion, or perhaps it’s when the mortgage is finally paid off. Talk to anyone who has reached old age, we never get there. There’s always something else we need or some problem to solve. That’s why it is often said, “if you can’t be happy now, you’ll never be happy.”
This also applies to growth. Whether it is a cross fit routine or attaining new spiritual levels. The minute you become content, you start to decline. Our travels never end. Which actually strikes true in another place in the Torah portion. God commands the Jewish people that when they enter Israel they will need to establish 42 arei miklat or cities of refuge. If a person is careless and through negligence kills another person (manslaughter), the victim’s next of kin has the right to kill them as retribution. But the manslaughterer has the option to run to one of these cities of refuge as safety from the vengeful next of kin.
This is a very odd commandment given that the death penalty for regular murder requires such a high bar to actually enact (Two witnesses, warning the assailant, going before he Jewish supreme court, etc). Why would a less severe offense [manslaughter] allow for the aggrieved to take justice into their own hands without the legal stringencies of a capital crime? The thing to understand is that the mitzvah isn’t about revenge, but instead creating a scenario where the negligent must flee into exile. The lesson being that if we stop growing we become careless, and if that carelessness extends to endangering human life, the Torah will force us to grow by uprooting our lives and sending us on a new journey.
So Long and Thanks for All The Fish
Our travels, whether they are about building a family, building a community, building a relationship with God, or hitchhiking around the world rarely take us where we expected to go. And though esoteric teachings like gematria and Kabbalah aren’t usually my thing, I have to admit I am fascinated by the prominence of this number made famous by British popular culture.
The book’s author Douglas Adams, grew up a religious Christian, but in the end embraced atheism. (Though there’s some debate about that.) So I wonder if in choosing the number 42, he was aware of just how significant that number actually is. But the fact that Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is about a never ending journey (I think, I never finished them), it’s an eerie coincidence that it’s most remembered joke relates to the travels of the Jewish people so profoundly.
I would like to give special thanks to David Sacks. Much of this blog came from his amazing weekly podcast, particularly the episode The Soul’s Infinite Travels.