As we close the book of Numbers, which is really a book of counting or travels with forty-two stops for forty years, the very last portion is called Ma’asei which means journeys. But, asks the Lubavitcher Rebbe, if the whole point was to arrive at a particular destination and encampment, and indeed most of those forty years were spent in resting places, and not in travelling, it should be called, Machanot, encampments, as modern day summer camps are called. He replies with the reminder that humans are called Mehalchim, walkers, and not, as the angels are, Omdim, standers. Like the Israeli scientist and philosopher Yitzchak Bentov wrote years ago, in a book called “Stalking the Wild Pendulum,” we travel in successive approximation to particular goals, but never fully achieve them. Hence the need for second chances, to accomplish more than we have achieved till this elusive point. In life, even our places of repose are meant to reinvigorate us to be able to continue our journey and to, as the Kabbalists put it, retrieve the divine sparks found in each situation. However, rarely do we get it fully right the first time around. Hence the need for second chances.
Many films focus on second chances. One of my favorites is ‘Seabiscuit.’ It is a true horse racing story, but much more than that. I loved this movie and the book it was based on, for several reasons. I like all the main actors a lot: Jeff Daniels, Chris Cooper, and especially Toby McGuire, of later Spiderman fame. But the story of three men and a horse making a comeback after life tragedies, simply enthralls me. Especially inspiring as they all help each other to overcome physically and psychologically debilitating challenges.
Here’s a synopsis: Three separate men have their own personal challenges around the time of the Great Depression. Charles Howard opens a bicycle store, moves to selling cars, and then becomes super wealthy. However his young son dies in an automobile crash, and his family falls apart. The future jockey, young Red Pollard is ‘given away’ by his parents who lose everything in the market crash. Tom Smith, the horse trainer, has been a loner most of his life, and he is much more comfortable around horses than people. Howard meets and marries a more kindred spirit in Marcella Zabala, and they decide to buy some racehorses. He hires Tom Smith as his trainer, and they discover a colt who is a grandson of the illustrious Man O’ War, but the colt is small and ornery. Smith notices that the jockey Pollard has traits similar to Seabiscuit and hires him to be the colt’s jockey.
The three men and the horse have many successes but also some failures due to various circumstances. Red Pollard fractures his leg right before a match race with the champion War Admiral, and Red’s friend George Woolf rides Seabiscuit. A little later, Seabiscuit injures his leg. The dream of winning the upcoming Santa Anita Handicap seems hopeless. However, the injured jockey serendipitously now has the time and patience to nurse the injured horse back to life, eventually entering and winning the race- literally a second chance! Pollard says that the story of Seabiscuit is not merely of three men who rescued a broken down horse, but of the horse that rescued the three men, and helped them heal one another.
How do second chances differ from ‘ordinary’ Teshuva- repentance or return? Well, second chances usually do not involve a person doing something wrong. It is more about what, ironically, some call ‘Acts of G-d,’ and others may call unfortunate calamities, experiences that are so extreme that people may feel crushed by them. The list is very long: children dying, divorce, losing one’s job or not being able to even get one. How does a Torah perspective view these situations and how to cope with them? The Hassidic masters insist we not lose faith in G-d, even as we may cry out with anger and pain. After all, believers have to explain suffering, but atheists have to explain everything else. The Torah shows us that hurdles aren’t meant to end our travels; they are meant to stimulate us to find a way to overcome them.
The classic example in the Torah is about Pesach Sheini. When the men who, according to the sages, were doing the big mitzvah of carrying Yosef’s coffin through the desert, became ritually impure in the process, they were not able to participate in the first seder after the Exodus! They came to Moshe and uttered two famous words, ‘Lama Nigara?’ why should we lose out (of that mitzvah)? When Moshe then inquired of G-d what to do, the response came that they could celebrate Pesach a month later from the first, hence the term ‘Pesach Sheini’, the second Pesach, or as some explain, the holiday of second chances. Some commentaries extend this second chance to other situations where people missed out on the first opportunity, even if they did it on purpose!
The entire book of Bemidbar which we are now concluding has been called the Torah of mistakes. The Mei Hashiloach gives an example of people walking around and often stepping into mud, before they realize that they need to step in a different place. Often our missteps can lead to our greatest accomplishments. This message is what Moshe leaves the Israelites with, in his final ‘farewell address’ to them. His opening statement reminds them of the places they travelled and, rather diplomatically also, of the places they sinned. Why do that, especially to the new generation who didn’t commit those transgressions? Each generation has its own bin of mistakes that is left for the next generation to remedy. Thus when Moshe mentions those places reminiscent of past transgressions, he does not mean to get them depressed. He wants to tell them that if they come across similar pitfalls, they can recognize them and use them to enhance their accomplishments on the road. Rabbi Abraham Twersky z”l provides us with a graphic example of growth through adversity from a lobster: when its shell gets too small, it goes into a cave, sheds its shell, and grows a new, larger shell. Similarly, the discomfort we encounter can lead to the greatest personal growth.
There is a famous teaching from the Baal Shem Tov that everyone faces these 42 journeys in their lifetimes. I can’t help noticing the Hashgacha of the number 42. It is the amount of letters in the V’ahavta, after Shema, and is said to correspond to a 42 letter name of G-d. I find myself thinking of the modern American association with 42- the number on Jackie Robinson’s uniform. Jackie had to go through quite a few hurdles to get him to where he dreamed of going. Watching the movie “42,” I was moved by the scene where a formerly hostile teammate predicts, ‘Someday we’ll all be wearing 42.’ And they did! Just as in “42,” the stars of “Seabiscuit,” including the horse, had to overcome many hurdles before tasting victory. They had to pool their resources into One common, united effort in order to be winners.
These themes are very much in sync with Torah values. However it’s interesting that the actual book ends on a more somber note in the sense that after Seabiscuit was retired, the main characters also kind of retired from life. That is, they were still physically alive and somewhat functional, but their zest for life was lost. Their raison d’etre that had mobilized them so much around the wonder horse was now gone. How different this is from a Torah perspective that challenges us every day, even every moment to tap into the newness of recreation. We may not have the excitement of a winning racing horse or grand slam homerun, to wake us up in the morning, but each day we do have a slew of mitzvot, -and their respective angels- whether in actions, words, or even positive thoughts to make each moment fill us with anticipation of another step closer in a purpose-filled journey of life.
We conclude the book of Numbers during the Three Weeks, the Achilles heel of the Jewish calendar, where many tragic events took place in Jewish history. There is a verse in the book of Lamentations, ‘All who pursue her will find her between the straits.’ Usually ‘between the straits’ is understood as the time between the two fast days of the seventeenth of Tamuz and the ninth of Menachem Av. But- and And- the Hassidic interpretation reads: ‘All who look for the Divine Presence can find Her (more easily) in this time frame.’ May we be able to realize both our travels and resting places in our lives, both individually and collectively, as opportunities for growth, until the coming of Mashiach speedily in our days.