The story of Am Yisrael’s travels in the desert might show us an alternative kind of journey, one that is fulfilling in and of itself – the sojourn to the Holy Land is not just going from the origin to a destination, but one that takes us through a spiritual path, a set of experiences we need in order to enter the Holy Land in the proper sequence.
Many people in this world experience life as a journey, a journey that entails searching for a home, a place of rest and peace. This kind of search often makes the journey tiresome, as it is said ‘A continuous purpose makes the heart sick’ (Prov 13, 12). However, the story of Am Yisrael’s travels in the desert might show us an alternative kind of journey, one that is fulfilling in and of itself.
Unlike the Temple (the place of God’s presence which is removed from the mundane and everyday life of the Jewish people), the Mishkan is where Hashem resides in the heart of the Jewish camp. It travels along with them, and God’s presence there is intimately embedded within Jewish life. The presence of the Mishkan creates an experience of the fullness and intimacy with God in the daily life of any Jew.
The Mishkan’s place in the story of the Jews’ voyage is a central one, as per the Pesukim that cap off this Parsha and Sefer Shemot as a whole:
and as the cloud rose above the Mishkan the Jews would set out on their journey each time, and if the cloud did not rise they stayed until the day it rose. For the cloud of God is on the Mishkan during daylight, and a pillar of fire at night to guide the Jews on their every journey (Shemot 40, 36-38)
These verses remove us from the discussion of the Mishkan itself and all its’ vessels, which we have discussed for four Parshiot now and takes us toward a macro view of the Mishkan and its’ place in the Israelite camp. For forty years, the Jews trekked through the desert, traveling and making camp many times. All the while; the Mishkan guided the Jews on their travels, serving as place of God’s divine presence along with the ascending and descending cloud marking the times for departure and return.
On their way to the Land of Israel, the Jewish people went through forty-two sites, as detailed in Parashat Masa’ei. The number of sites and journeys respectively corresponds, according to the Kabbalistic scholars to a spiritual essence, the idea being that each site and pilgrimage gave the Jewish People something they needed. The sojourn to the Holy Land is not just going from the origin to a destination, but one that takes us through a spiritual path, a set of experiences we need in order to enter the Holy Land in the proper sequence.
The sanctity of The Place and the idea of sacred space as they emerge from the story of the Jewish People in the desert give us a dual picture of the Center of the Holy. On one side is the Holy Land, that far off, unmoving axis point toward which we are all oriented in our travels. On the otherside is the Mishkan, the holiness carried by the Jewish People, that holiness that resides within us, that sometimes compels us to pause our quest toward that far off dream. This is not the final state of Geula, in which we no longer have anything for which to strive for we have reached peace and final satisfaction. Nor is it the horrid state of Galut, that state of loss, and hopelessness, from which we are constantly trying to escape.
The Ba’al Shem Tov brings a similar perspective on space in his commentary on Parashat Va’Yeitze:
For it is known that the divine sparks have fallen into Kelipat Noga, as is clarified in Eitz Chayim, see there. Also, Noga is numerically equivalent to the word Chen (חן) - meaning ‘grace’ or ‘favor’. This helps us to understand the parable ‘a place is favored by its’ inhabitants’ to mean that the inhabitant of a place is most suited to elevate the sparks out of the particular part of Kelipat Noga that he inhabits, for that is the place from whence his soul originates. So therefore, it is suited that he should collect the sparks that were lost from his own soul…
Returning to the words of my teacher z”l, that the travels one must endure from one place to another for matters of sustenance and such, is for that there are sparks of his that were lost of his soul there that must be elevated. And this helps us to understand the reason why Hashem folded up the Land of Israel beneath Yaakov Avinu, so that he would not have to travel in order to elevate the sparks of his soul, but that the entirety of the land was gathered beneath him so that he could elevate his sparks in his own place.
The Ba’al Shem Tov brings the saying from the Talmud “a place is favored by its’ inhabitants” which is to say that everyone has the place from where their soul was taken, and there it feels at home. The Ba’al Shem Tov takes this further to say that there is not one place but many different places where the sparks of ones’ soul might be scattered, and he must journey to all of them in order to elevate those sparks. It is therefore necessary that one would only remain in one place so long as it takes him to raise those sparks that reside where he currently is and would then move on to somewhere else to elevate the sparks there. All of this takes place in an overarching odyssey that is focused on an eventual destination but is still deeply aware of the value of the stops along the way. Even when we move for some earthly reason ‘such as for reasons of sustenance’ this place contains lost sparks from our soul, sparks that demand our attention, a lost part of ourselves that gives us comfort and familiarity anywhere to which we come.
This sort of feeling is one of being completely present within oneself and of being guided anywhere one goes by the Divine. It appears that The Ba’al Shem Tov is aiming to teach us how to live with a feeling of the Mishkan being within us, our families, our homes, and that we can move forward and strive while in awareness of God’s presence and guidance on our journey, a journey full of joy and life.
 Ba’al Shem Tov on the Torah, parshat Vayetze, quoted from the Zafnat Pa’aneach).