Portion of the Week Israelite Travel Log

Haim Sabato
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Haim Sabato

Parashat Masei The closing portion of the Book of Numbers, Parashat Masei, opens with a list of journeys that the Israelites made in the wilderness as they proceeded toward the Promised Land. A total of 24 journeys, spread over the Israelites' 40 years in the wilderness: from the Children of Israel's Exodus from Egypt to their arrival in the Land of Canaan; from their emergence from the rule of Rameses "with an high hand in the sight of all the Egyptians" under the leadership of Moses and Aaron "on the morrow after the Passover" (Numbers 33:3), until they set up camp on the plains of Moab following the deaths of Aaron and Moses, while awaiting the divine command to enter the Promised Land.

In his "Guide for the Perplexed" (Rabbi Joseph Kappah's Hebrew translation; part 3, chapter 3), Maimonides writes: "You should be aware that every narrative in the Bible has a vital usefulness whether it is intended to corroborate a view that is one of the Torah's principles or to correct the impression created by a given act so that injustice and wickedness will not dwell among mortals ... A rumor has spread that the enumeration of the Israelites' journeys has no intrinsic usefulness whatsoever. To dispel this doubt which a mortal heart could, God forbid, harbor, the Bible tells us: 'And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of the Lord' (Numbers 33:2)

"The enumeration of the journeys indeed fulfills an immense need. The truth of all miracles is known only to those who saw them being performed; however, in future, the memory of those miracles will become a narrative, which could be denied by the audience, as it is a fact that the wonder created by a miracle gradually fades and disappears after many years ... Since the Lord, may his majesty ever increase, knows that mortals might one day in the future harbor doubt as to the veracity of these wonders as mortals eventually come to doubt all narratives ... all doubts are removed through the explanation of all the Israelites' journeys."

In Maimonides' view, the purpose of the detailed list of the Israelites' journeys, which includes the names of places and the ways in which the various journeys were made, is to prevent the possibility that mortals might eventually see the biblical narratives as mythological tales that are actually only fiction. Such tales usually inform the reader that the witnesses who could corroborate their validity lived in ancient times and generally give no details such as dates, the names of persons or the names of actual places. Instead, the description they give is vague and has the aura of a legend. In contrast, the Torah, intending to prevent anyone from thinking that its narratives are mere myths, gives detailed lists of censuses that are taken and include the names of individuals recorded by family, as well as lists of the Israelites' journeys with dates, the names of the places and the routes they took.

Journeys of love Other interpretations have been given as to the reason why the Torah lists the Israelites' journeys. For example, the Midrash Rabbah tells us (Bamidbar Rabbah 23:3)

"This passage can be explained with a parable. A king's son becomes ill and the king takes him from place to place to find a cure for the illness. On their way home, after his son has recovered, the father begins to enumerate the various journeys they made and he says to his son, 'Here is where we slept for the night, here is where people honored us and here is where you complained of severe pains in your head.??

When a couple is in love, the partners often tend after their marriage to recall every stage in the long route they have taken. They will tend to recall all the various journeys they made and all the "encampments" they set up along the way some of which were fortuitous and some not. The prophet Jeremiah describes the Israelites' journey through the wilderness as the expression of a youthful love: "Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the Lord; I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown" (Jeremiah 2:2). In the Book of Ezekiel we read: "Nevertheless I will remember my covenant with thee in the days of thy youth, and I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant" (Ezekiel 16:60).

When such journeys are recalled, they rekindle the feelings of love. Although they include painful episodes such as bitter complaints, rebellious behavior, the sin of the Golden Calf and the episode of the spies sent to view the Promised Land, the recollection of all these journeys recalls the way the Israelites, in their youth (as a nation), followed God with love in their hearts, the divine cloud that constantly preceded them and the Divine Presence (Shekhina) that dwelt among them on Mount Sinai and in the Tabernacle. (See, for instance, additional explanations in Prof. Nechama Leibowitz's "Studies in the Book of Numbers".)

Our mortal lives are more than just our starting point in life and the point at which we end our journey on earth; they also include all the journeys we make in between. From each of them, we derive the building blocks needed to create our personality. Similarly, the building of the Jewish nation is more than just the starting point, the Exodus from Egypt, and the final destination the Promised Land. The various journeys made by the Israelites in between cannot simply be ignored: Each of them leaves its individual stamp on the national character.

The Jewish people and its national infrastructure are a cumulative result of many different factors: all of the Israelites' experiences and all the events in which they participate in the wilderness; the relationships between individuals leading up to the creation of the tribes; their attitude toward Moses; their behavior toward God; the difficulties of life in the wilderness and the way they deal with them; and, especially, freedom's long educational process from the time of bondage in Egypt until liberation in the form of the tribes of God. This is a process that entails major and difficult inner transformations, moments of greatness and moments of abysmal decline. Thus not one journey in the Israelites' passage through the wilderness can be omitted. That is why the Bible tells us: "And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of the Lord."

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