What were they doing for 40 years?

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By Rabbi James Michaels

This week’s Torah portion is Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1.


This week’s Torah portion describes the end of a journey. The Israelites had spent “40” years in the Sinai wilderness, and the portion describes the last few stops before they encamped by the Jordan River. (I put 40 in quotes because most biblical scholars say that this round number should be understood to mean “a long time.”) The trek is often called a time of wandering, lending the impression that the Israelites were moving aimlessly in a barren wilderness, without any goal or purpose.

A close reading of Chukat indicates that, most of the time, the Israelites actually stayed put. The portion describes the various movements from one encampment to another; there aren’t very many. The people moved when necessary, but probably spent most of the “40” years staying together, developing a cohesive community.

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The Sinai experience can be seen as a paradigm for the stages of a person’s life. Individuals move on a journey from childhood to early adulthood, then on to mid-life, and then to the later stages of life. As they do, they view their hopes, goals and achievements from new and different perspectives. The intense and expansive experience of high school and college yields to the serious business of making a living and raising a family. Then as they reach their 50s and 60s, people find a new definition of fun as they see the birth of grandchildren, and expanded leisure time to explore new opportunities for learning and growth.

Life’s journey, therefore, can present many different challenges and opportunities, like those experienced by the Israelites in the wilderness. With the benefit of hindsight, we can evaluate whether we’ve used each stage for the betterment of ourselves, our dear ones and our communities.


In my experience working with older adults, I’ve often listened as people have described their lives. Sometimes, they express regret or guilt for mistakes made many years in the past. More often, they will express satisfaction that they are now able to derive meaning and satisfaction for what they experienced on their life’s journey.

The Israelites always had a goal — to reach the Promised Land. Wherever we are on life’s journey, we should continually ask ourselves if we are being true to our goal, or if we have been sidetracked. With faith in ourselves and the values of the Jewish people, we can keep our focus on the ultimate goal — knowing that, despite the detours, we will ultimately come to where we want and need to be. That will, indeed, be the Promised Land.

Questions to discuss

Can you look back and see the various periods of your journey? What thoughts and feelings do you experience when you call each one to mind?

Are you making progress toward achieving your life’s goal? If not, can you change it to something more realistic?

Is the term “Wandering Jew” derogatory? What does it imply about others’ attitudes toward our people?

Rabbi James Michaels is director of pastoral care at Charles E. Smith Life Communities.

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