The Wandering Jews

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley







The Wandering Jews


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



This week, we finish our reading of Sefer Bamidbar with the double reading of its final two parashiot, Matot and Masei.  We shall concentrate on the beginning of the second parasha, Masei, which lists the journey that the Jewish people took for forty years in the desert.  The listing appears simple – indeed, many Torah readers [ba’alei koreh] will try to read this section as quickly as possible.  As such, most people don’t realize that these forty two desert journeys that open Parashat Masei became a reason to break out in song, and are generally read in an uplifting four part cadence that echoes the reading of Shirat Ha-yam (the song sung by Moshe and the people at the Red Sea).  In fact, there is a fascinating custom among German Jewry that has the forty two journeys written in the Torah scroll in double columns, like Shirat Ha-yam, parashat Ha’azinu, and other songs and poetry in the Torah.  Finally, the unique nature of this listing is reflected in the commentary of the Magen Avraham, one of the classic commentaries on the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayim [428:8]), who notes that based on Kabalistic reasons, we don’t break up the forty two journeys while reading (this means that when Matot and Masei are read separately, the first aliya on the Monday and Thursday morning reading becomes a massive fifty three verses.  At first glance, these details appear incongruous with the text at hand – the listing of different stops that the Jewish people took in the desert.  What is the meaning behind this?


An enigmatic verse commences the parasha:


Moshe recorded their departures for their journeys according to Hashem’s command; these were the journeys for their departures.  [Bamidbar, 33:2]


It is hard to miss the inversion of the words journeys and departures.  We will return to discuss this issue, but first we will ask a simpler, more fundamental question:  Why record all the stops at all?  The Akeidat Yitzchak suggests that at each of the locales, Hashem performed a kindness for the Jewish people.  However, he doesn’t explain why some of the actions are listed in the Torah and others are ignored.  Certainly, particular locations bear repeating, due to the miraculous nature of the events that occurred therein the first place? Certain famous and/or notorious locations deserve special mention; Yam Suf where Hashem split the sea, Marah and Refidim, where He provided for the people despite their mumblings, Sinai where they received the Torah, and mount Hor, where their beloved Aharon died.  However, other names, such as Ritma, Kehala, and Tahat appear to add little to the Torah’s message.  Why do they appear?


Rashi suggests that the Torah’s main purpose in this expansive delineation is to demonstrate Hashem’s kindness. If we consider that the first fourteen journeys took place in the pre-spy era march to Israel [the 1st sixteen months] and eight happened on the back end [after thirty nine years] re-march to Israel, then we realize that even though Hashem punished the people to wander the desert for a generation, they in fact enjoyed more than a modicum of stability. In fact, Bnei Yisrael stayed in one specific location [Kadesh] for 20 years!! Thus their punishment is somewhat mitigated – for Hashem’s benevolence extends to all.


The Seforno, however, argues that the purpose is not to praise Hashem, but rather the Jewish people.  He comments on the inversion we noted above (journeys for their departures/departures for the journey) and answers by distinguishing between two types of travel.  Sometimes, we leave in order to go; other times we go in order to leave.  In the former it is the destination that is important - while for the latter it is the departure that is key.  Sometimes, the Jews desperately wanted to leave their location, due to the dangers and difficulties it presented; other times, however, the place was so benign that to move represented a tremendous hardship.  In each case, however, the People followed Hashem forward. 


In a similar vein, the Bait Ha-Levi interprets the apparent redundancy of the opening verse of Parashat Vayeitzei that Yaakov left Be’ersheva to go to Haran.  Yaakov went to Lavan for two reasons – to flee his brother Eisav’s murderous anger (and he left – irrespective of his destination), and to fulfill his father Yitzchak’s dictate to marry an appropriate woman who could enter into the covenant of Avraham. 


The Rambam, in his philosophic work the Moreh Nevuchim (3:50), suggests a third approach.  The Torah’s focus on the extensive details verifies the miraculous nature of the desert existence [an effective antidote to historical revisionism]. By listing the specific locales, the barrenness of the desert is borne out, effectively highlighting the incredible Divine miraculous sustenance of a nation, two million + strong.  The Rabbeinu Bachye suggests that the lesson was twofold, both for the generation themselves, to impress the supernatural nature of the existence that they had enjoyed, and to strengthen the faith of future generations. 


How does this listing impress us today?  The Sefat Emet suggests that the physical journey undertaken by the people reflects the spiritual journey from the 49 levels of impurity that they went through (adding the 42 stops with the 7 places where according to tradition they backtracked and repeated).  In addition, the Sefat Emet argues that this listing helps to impress upon us the lesson that the Land of Israel is only acquired through suffering.  Without the tribulations in the desert, the Jewish people could not have entered the Land.


We turn again to Rashi, and will develop a final idea based upon his second insight:


R' Tanchuma expounds: This is compared to a king whose son was ill, and he brought him to a distant place for treatment. When they returned, the father began enumerating all the journeys. He said to him, "Here, we slept; here, we were chilled; here, your head ached, etc.'


To Rabbi Tanchuma, the recap represents more than a nostalgic peek back at places that represent significant experiences that were and no longer are. Instead, the recounting presents the beneficiary [the son] with a deeper retrospective appreciation of what was accomplished at each stage, and how he arrived at his present destination.  The Torah listed every section of the journey because each was an opportunity for growth.  Without each stop, the Jewish people would not have merited to enter the land of Israel.  As such, Rashi is no less then redefining for us the meaning of a journey. For most, travel is a means to connect between two points, and whatever way is shorter or more efficient constitutes the best available path.  However, it is not always possible to map out life on a GPS.  The Torah wishes to emphasize that the journey is as important and essential as the destination.  Life is a dynamic process, not a static pathway between two points.  There is always more to accomplish and achieve if we appreciate where we are along the way.


This notion is expressed beautifully in Kabalistic terms by the 19th century Moroccan mystic the Or Ha-Chayim [Rabbi Chayim Ibn Attar].  He teaches that the purpose of each stop was to allow the Jewish people to draw out and internalize the resident sanctity, the sparks of holiness, found in every desert locale. Once this task was accomplished, Hashem moved them forward to the next destination.  The more holiness found in a certain location, the longer the stay.   That Kadesh was the stop for 19 years gives us an insight into its importance to the ultimate development of the people into a holy nation.  Without these hidden infusions of holiness, the people would never have been able to enter the Land of Israel.   For us, we have to recognize that every challenge we face, every situation that we are placed in, provides us with the potential to develop, and like the anonymous steps in the desert, are necessary stops for our ultimate growth.