Between Egypt and the Promised Land: 42 Steps to Life

Over the first weekend of Pesach, my fiance Laura and I visited the Huntington Library and Gardens in Pasadena. It’s a beautiful space, with calm Chinese and Japanese Gardens, mysterious greenhouse collections mimicking jungle biomes, and even a Shakespeare garden collecting plants found throughout his writings.

In addition to the gardens, the library houses an impressive number of books both ancient and relatively contemporary. A prized piece takes up central residence in the main room – an original Gutenberg Bible. In the 1450s, the newly invented Gutenberg press printed the first mass-produced books in the Western world.

There were 180 Latin Bibles printed, of which only 49 remain today, and only a handful of which are fully complete. What caught my attention, however, was not just that this was one of the oldest and most valuable books in the world, but rather that the Gutenberg Bible is sometimes called a 42-line bible, because each page has on it exactly 42 lines.

This photo of The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is courtesy of TripAdvisor

This reminded me of course of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which famously claims that the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is…42. The rest of that book involves trying to figure out what the real question was. As it turns out, 42 is a significant number in Judaism as well.

In the book of Numbers, appropriately enough, we read, “These are the journeys of the children of Israel…” (Numbers 33:1). The Torah spells out a number of starts and stops, a number of waystations while the Israelites wander in the wilderness. When counted, these microjourneys add up to 42. The larger narrative of the Israelites journey from Egypt to the Promised Land consists of 42 smaller stages.

The Baal Shem Tov adds that “the forty-two “stations” from Egypt to the Promised Land are replayed in the life of every individual Jew, as one’s soul journeys from its descent to earth at birth to its return to its Source.”

It turns out that in a way, 42 is the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. On a communal level and an individual level, life is a journey and that journey has 42 segments to it.

Now the question is, how do we know which of the 42 journey segments we are on? I suspect that there are many times when we simply don’t know until we see the turning points in retrospect and realize what made one period of life distinct from another, what struggle defined certain years but was resolved in the following years, what new questions opened up with changes in relationships, what new answers resonated with changes in careers. Sometimes the transition from one stage to another is our choice, sometimes we are forced along, sometimes serendipity entices us into the next exploration.

In this period in the Jewish calendar, we finish the Passover celebration of freedom from Egypt and begin to wander the wilderness with our ancestors yet again. As they begin their 42-stage journey, we are issued an invitation to consider where we are at in our journey. And I know that for myself, I spend a lot of time retreading where I’ve already been, trying to fix what’s in the past, or imagining my footsteps somewhere in the future. It is so easy to mistake my current position for where I’ve just been, or to forget my surroundings in the quest for where I dream of going.

What I hope that we take from the invitation this year is to let go for a while of that grasping for who we used to be, and that grasping for who we yearn to become, and to simply move mindfully along the path where we are right now.

The Zohar, Judaism’s primary mystical text, tells us that God’s true name is 42 letters long, one letter for every step of life. May we connect to that loving divine letter and be accompanied by it, and may we be compassionate with our fellow travelers, as we continue this sacred pilgrimage we call life.