This week’s parsha commentary has been sponsored
by the Charif family of Sydney, Australia
in memory of Hymie Charif
(Refael Chaim Yishayahu ben Yitzchak)
whose 25th yartzheit is on 2 Av
Parshat Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2 – 36:13)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “And Moses recorded the places of origin toward the places of destination… and these are the places of destination toward the places of origin” [Numbers 33:2].
Undoubtedly, the Exodus stands as the central event of our nation’s collective consciousness, an event that we invoke daily in the Shema, on the Sabbath, on festivals, and after every meal. Still, when we consider the detail that our portion of Masei devotes to recording all 42 stops of the 40 year desert sojourn, we’re a little taken aback. One chapter devotes 45 verses to listing all 42 locations, and since each location was not only a place where the Israelites camped, but also a place from which they journeyed, each place name is mentioned twice. Why such detail? Different commentators take different approaches.
The Sforno maintains that the plethora of locations is a way of highlighting the merit of the Jewish people, who, “in the loving kindness of their youth, followed God into the desert, a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). And the Sefat Emet suggests that the names of the encampments are included to demonstrate that wherever the Jewish people travelled through our long history, we have been able to create Tikkun Olam – making a profound impact on our environment.
This week, I would like to concentrate on the commentary of Nahmanides. Apparently, he is troubled not only by the delineation of each stage of the journey, but also by the additional declaration that “…Moses wrote their goings forth, according to their stations, by the commandment of God…” (Numbers 33:1-2). These words suggest that the actual recording of these journeys has importance. In approaching the issue, Nahmanides first quotes Rashi who says that Moses “set his mind to write down the travels. By doing this, he intended to inform future generations of the loving kindness of God…who protected His nation despite their manifold travels”. Nachmanides, then quotes Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed, 3: 50) who understands the detail as a means of corroborating the historical truth of the narrative. He adds that later generations might think they sojourned in a “desert that was near cultivated land, oases which were comfortable for human habitation, places in which it was possible to till and reap or to feed on plants, areas with many wells…”, hence the enumeration of all these way-stations is to emphasize the extent of the miracle of Israelite subsistence. After quoting these views, Nahmanides concludes with his own most intriguing comment: “The recording of the journeys was a Divine commandment, either for reasons mentioned above, or for a purpose the secret of which has not been revealed to us…”. Nahmanides seems to be prompting us to probe further.
I would submit that the secret he refers to may indeed be the secret of Jewish survival. After all, the concept of “ma’aseh avot siman l’banim” – that the actions of the fathers are a sign of what will happen to the children – was well known to the sages, and one of the guiding principles of Nahmanides’s Biblical commentary. Perhaps, the hidden message of this text is an outline of the future course of Jewish history. From the time of the destruction of the Temple, until our present return to the Land of Israel – the “goings forth” of the Jewish people certainly comprise at least 42 stages: Judea, Babylon, Persia, Rome, Europe, North Africa and the New World. As Tevye the Milkman explains in Fiddler on the Roof when he is banished from Anatevka, “Now you know why Jewish adults wear hats; we must always be ready to set out on a journey!” Moreover, each Diaspora was important in its own right, and made its own unique contribution to the text (Oral Law) and texture (customs) of the sacred kaleidoscope which is the Jewish historical experience. Are not the Holocaust memorial books, where survivors try to preserve what little can be kept of lost worlds, examples of our sense that God commanded us to write things down – to remember? Perhaps the Jews didn’t invent history, but they understood that the places of Jewish wanderings, the content of the Jewish lifestyle, and the miracle of Jewish survival are more important than those hieroglyphics which exalt and praise rulers and their battles. The “secret” Nahmanides refers to may not only be a prophetic vision of our history, but a crucial lesson as to what gave us the strength, the courage and the faith to keep on going, to keep on moving, to withstand the long haul of exile.
If we look at the verse where Moses writes down the journey according to the command of God, we read that Moses recorded “their starting points toward their destinations at God’s command and those were their destinations toward their starting points”. What does this mean? Why does the same verse conclude “destinations toward starting points?” Fundamental to our history as a nation is that we are constantly traveling – on the road to the Promised Land, on the journey towards redemption. That direction was given to us at the dawn of our history: in Hebron, with the Cave of the Couples, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, and their gracious hospitality to everyone, their righteous compassion and just morality; and in Jerusalem, the city of peace. Even as we move down the road of time, we must always recall the place of our origin.
When S.Y. Agnon received the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was asked about his birthplace. To the interviewer’s surprise, he answered that he was born in Jerusalem. The interviewer pointed out that everyone knew he had been born in Buczacz, a town in Galicia. Agnon corrected him: “I was born in Jerusalem more than 3,000 years ago. That was my beginning, my origin. Buczacz in Galicia is only one of the stopping-off points”.
Only two princes of tribes who served as scouts reached the Promised Land: Caleb and Joshua; Caleb because he visited the graves of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron, and Joshua because the name of God, the author of the revelation was added to his name. Only these two set out for the Promised Land with their place of origin at the forefront of their consciousness. Only those with a proud past can look forward to a glorious future.
As long as we wander with our place of origin firmly in mind, we will assuredly reach our goal. We may leave our place of origin for our destination, but our places of origin in Israel will remain our ultimate destiny.