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"And They Traveled... And They Encamped..."

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



"And They Traveled... And They Encamped..."

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Parshat Mas'ei opens with a list of the wanderings of Bnei Yisrael on their journey from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael. Many commentators have raised the question of why the Torah records all of this; why would it not be sufficient to say that Bnei Yisrael left Egypt and arrived at the plains of Mo'av? Many different answers have been proposed.

Rashi, quoting R. Moshe Ha-Darshan, writes that the Torah wishes to teach us that God was merciful in that He did not make them travel excessively. (Rashi later cites a different answer, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma.) The Ramban quotes the Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim, maintaining that the list of travels is meant to serve as an answer to the skeptics, who would otherwise claim that Bnei Yisrael wandered in places where there was food and water – thus denying the miracles that God performed in the desert. The Ramban himself suggests that the list of travels was recorded by God's command, and that its reason is hidden from us.

These responses fail to answer another question: why was it necessary for us to be told concerning every leg of the journey, "And they journeyed... and they encamped"? Why would it not be sufficient for the Torah to list the places where Bnei Yisrael passed through? The Rashbam (33:1) writes, "All the journeys and encampments are repeated in order to explain where they encamped" – but he provides no reason for the necessity of doing so. It would seem that the Torah wishes to teach us an important lesson. One could imagine that all of these journeys were meant only to bring the nation to Eretz Yisrael, and that they were of no special importance in and of themselves. But the Torah wishes to teach that this is not so; rather, the encampment in each place was significant in its own right and not only as preparation for the next journey.

The Or Zaru'a (Hilkhot Shabbat, siman 67), in addressing the melakha (prohibited Shabbat labor) of knotting, offers an interesting perspective on our question. The thirty-nine melakhot are derived from actions which Bnei Yisrael performed in the desert in connection with the erection of the mishkan. In order to determine where the melakha of "kosher" (tying a knot) was performed in connection with the mishkan, the Or Zaru'a quotes the Talmud Yerushalmi, which comments on the fact that Bnei Yisrael fastened the tent strings of the mishkan at each stop. However, we know that only a permanent knot (kesher shel kayama) is prohibited, and the erection of the mishkan at each stop was only temporary! The Yerushalmi explains, "Since they encamped and journeyed by God's command, it was like someone who dwells temporarily." The Or Zaru'a writes that this seems to be an orthographic error, for this fails to answer the question, and the text should properly read, "It was like someone who does NOT dwell temporarily" – since they had no intention of moving until God told them to, it was like a permanent dwelling.

It would seem that there is some validity to both versions. On one hand, each stop was really temporary, with Bnei Yisrael keeping their bags packed and ready for God to announce at any moment that they journey would continue. As they encamped, they already faced towards the direction of the next journey. On the other hand, the fact that they journey was by God's command gave each stop an element of permanence: nothing connected with God is temporary; Bnei Yisrael knew that they would stay still and not move until they received God's orders to move on.

What is true of the encampments of Bnei Yisrael in the desert also applies to the days of the week. During the six regular days of labor a person progresses and develops; he is constantly in action. On Shabbat a person has time to stop and see where he is and what he has achieved; not only to prepare his next steps but also to anchor and root himself in the place where he is. The Gemara (Shabbat 2b) teaches that if someone is carrying a load in the public domain on Shabbat and he stops still, this stop is considered as laying down the load only if he stood "to rest," not if he stopped "to shoulder it" (i.e., to rearrange the load on his shoulders). Thus there are two types of stopping: a stop whose function is to prepare the way for continuation and progress, and a stop whose function is to rest, to grasp the place where one is. The encampments of Bnei Yisrael in the desert combined both aspects.

The same can be said of a person's life in general. A person may not remain constantly in the same place – a person with no vision or aspirations is living a wasted life. But on the other hand a person's life cannot be a mad rush forward. What point is there if a person is constantly on the run, until the day of his death, without ever stopping to see where he is? A person must on one hand always progress, but on the other hand also "stop" from time to time and settle where he is.

(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Matot-Masei 5753 [1993].)


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