Putting Things in Writing Before Entering the Land of Israel

Miri Westreich teaches literature, Tanach and midrash at Midreshet Lindenbaum-Lod

Miri Westreich

Parshat Masei, which is the final portion of the Book of Bamidbar, marks the seamline between the desert and the entrance into the Land of Israel.  It is a moment of transition which constitutes a culmination of all that was, but also provides a peek into the future. 

Those who log onto the portion of Masei without having read the entire account of the Israelites’ journeys may find themselves somewhat perplexed, as they encounter verses with apparent missing information: Why did the People have no water to drink at Refidim?  Who was it that stayed behind in Kivrot Ha’Ta’ava?  What difficulty did the springs of water and the 70 palm trees serve to alleviate?  And first and foremost – what are the climactic moments and the low points of this voyage through the vast and formidable wilderness?  What transpired at the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the Sin of the Golden Calf and the Sin of the Spies?   

All that remains of all those stories at this point are mere names of places.  Only those who had followed all the previous portions closely can identify the hidden code embedded into the names that are listed, and recognize that each such name carries episodes of crisis, as well as moments of great faith.  The very fact that they are mentioned serves to echo a much greater story.

In order to try and understand the need for this encrypted list of names, let us examine the verse which introduces it and which expands on how this list was compiled:

“These are the journeys of the children of Israel, by which they went forth out of the land of Egypt by their hosts under the hand of Moshe and Aharon.  And Moshe wrote their goings forth, stage by stage, by the commandment of the Lord; and these are their stages at their goings forth” (Bamidbar 33: 1-2).

The reference to Moshe as the writer of these accounts is somewhat surprising.  After all, Moshe wrote the entire Torah.  Why then, is this fact emphasized here of all places, when the different journeys and stops in the desert are mentioned? 

The exegetes tried to explain this point in numerous ways: To show the great love for the People of Israel who withstood all the voyages (as Rashi says quoting Midrash Tanhuma: “This is likened to a king whose son was ill, and so took him on a long journey to a distant place where he might be healed.  After returning home, the father recounts all the places they had been.”). 

Another reason that is given is that the verse teaches us about the fashion in which Moshe wrote down all the events in the desert.  He would record what all the happenings in each location as these transpired, but now he wrote down an overall summary of all he had previously recorded (as the Ohr HaChayim puts it: “It appears that the Torah wished to teach us that the sequence of the journeys was not written in a single day; rather, the events were written in the order of things as these transpired, by the command of God, starting from the time of the Exodus…in such manner that each specific journey was recorded chronologically until they arrived in the planes of Moab, at which point God told Moshe to arrange all that had been written into Torah verses in the same order as these were listed in his chronicles.”).

Let us then examine the significance of putting things in writing as a leitmotif which runs through the wanderings in the desert, with a special focus on the special need to perpetuate events in writing right before entering the Land.

The process of writing plays a significant role when any two parties enter a covenant or contract, and even more so when the covenant in question is between God and His people.  Let us look at a number of examples in which this leitmotif appears – the most significant being the giving of the Torah at Sinai.  This historic event was accompanied by repeated acts of writing, not only of the Tablets of the Law – “And He gave unto Moshe, when He had made an end of speaking with him upon mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (Shemot 31:18) – but also of the Book of the Covenant. 

In Shemot 24, the Torah gives an account of the writing of the Book of the Covenant, Sefer HaBrit, when Moshe approaches the People at Mt. Sinai and recounts the words of the Lord to the People, and they, in turn, answer “so we shall do” – na’ase.  Later Moshe writes down all the words that had been spoken, then reads out to the People all he had written, upon which they answer – “so we shall do and obey” – na’ase venishma.

“And Moshe wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the mount, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel… And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: All that the Lord has spoken will we do, and obey.”  (Shemot 24: 4-7)

Only towards the end of this sequence does Moshe go up to receive the Tablets of the Law:

“And the Lord said unto Moshe: Come up to Me into the mount and be there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the law and the commandment, which I have written, that you may teach them.” (Shemot 24:12)

What is described here is a dual writing process: both on God’s part as well as on the People’s part.  This dual process finalizes the covenant between God and the People, which is ultimately manifest in the giving of the Torah at Sinai.  Similarly, when the Second Tablets are given (in the portion of Ki-Tisa) we find the same leitmotif again – the process of writing.  Moshe begs God to forgive the People, and says that should God refuse to forgive – “then blot me, I pray Thee, out of Your book which You have written” (Shemot, 32:32).  It follows then that the very act of putting words in writing is what makes the covenant between the People and God valid.

Furthermore, the same leitmotif appears time and time again in the description of the giving of the Torah at Sinai in the Book of Devarim:

“These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice, and it went on no more.  And He wrote them upon two tablets of stone, and gave them unto me.”  (Devarim 5:18)

It must be noted that oftentimes when the Torah speaks of the act of writing, it also cautions not to break the covenant.  The warning is both for the entire People – “If you will not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awful Name, the Lord thy God.  Then the Lord will make your plagues extraordinary, and the plagues of your seed, even great plagues, and of long continuance, and sore sicknesses, and of long continuance” (Devarim 28,:58-59) – as well as for the individual who might have thoughts of breaking the covenant:

“And it come to pass, when he hears the words of this curse that he bless himself in his heart, saying: ‘I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart–that the watered be swept away with the dry. The Lord will not be willing to pardon him, but then the anger of the Lord and His jealousy shall be kindled against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under the heaven”.  (Devarim 29:18-19)

Upon entering the land, the breach in contract, which is expressed by engaging in idolatry – “Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them” (Devarim 11:16) – can be reversed in the following manner:  “And you shall write them upon the door-posts of your house, and upon your gates.” (Devarim 20:11)

The theme of writing comes up once again at the end of the Book of Devarim (31:19):  “Now therefore write you this song for you, and teach you it the children of Israel; put it in their mouths.”  The song which is perpetuated in writing serves as a dual testimony.  When the people are at a low point, during moments of hester panim (when God’s face is hidden), the written words of the song will remind the People of their God:  “Then it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed; for I know their imagination how they do even now, before I have brought them into the land which I swore” (Devarim 31: 21). 

But no less important – the written words will also remind God Himself of His people:  “… that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel” (Devarim 31:19).  This testimony will ultimately give rise to the Redemption when the People return to the Land. 

This notion is also reflected in Parshat Masei.  Upon learning that Moshe wrote down the chronology of the journeys in the desert, and in keeping with the abovementioned examples, the following explanation presents itself: perhaps these voyages are a type of covenant between God and the People.  This explanation seems all the more feasible in light of Yirmihayu’s retrospective prophecy likening the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert to the love of two betrothed persons:  “Thus says the Lord: I remember the affection of your youth, the love of your espousals; how you went after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown” (Yirmiyahu 2: 2). 

The act of writing, which is highlighted in the description of the numerous journeys in the desert, reinforces the dimension of remembrance and covenant.  The wanderings in the wilderness and all that these entailed – as encoded in the list of short names; the transformation the People underwent as they moved from one location to the next, falling down and rising up again; the metamorphosis from a nation of slaves into a nation about to enter the Land; the People’s faith and the very fact that they trekked through an unsown land, a wilderness – all of these facts led to the inception of the covenant with God and served to reinforce it. 

And now, at the final stop before entering the Land, there is nothing more apt than to recall the long journey upon which the People had embarked, and the physical and emotional progress they had made as they journeyed from one stop to the next.  The act of writing, which symbolizes the moments of na’ase ve’nishma at Mt. Sinai, serves to highlight the bond that grew all the stronger during the long years in the desert. 

It is also the reason why at the point when the long journey is finally over and all the events are put in writing, the People, who are about to enter the Land, are warned against idolatry: “Then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images, and demolish all their high places” (Bamidbar 33:52).  Even once the People leave the desert, they must not forget to fulfill the contract and honor the covenant, nor must they ever forget the long and winding road they had travelled and all they had learned from this difficult journey.  The lesson here is that the People must continue to listen to that inner language, comprised of encrypted names of places, which conceal an internal code, and the writing of which gives it shape and form in reality.    


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