Every week, parshaoftheweek.com brings you a rich selection of material on parshat hashavua, the weekly portion traditionally read in synagogues all over the world. Using both classic and contemporary material, we take a look at these portions in a fresh way, relating them to both ancient Jewish concerns as well as cutting-edge modern issues and topics. We also bring you material on the Jewish holidays, as well as insights into life cycle rituals and events...
Parshat Masei, the last portion in the Book of Bamidbar, contains a long list of the many places in which the Israelite nation encamped during their forty-year journey through the desert. The formulaic list – “and they traveled from Livnah and encamped in Risa; and they traveled from Risa and encamped in Kehelata; and they traveled from Kehelata and encamped in Har Shefer” – goes on and on for some 50 (short) verses, with very little commentary or incident reported by the Torah. It does not make very compelling reading. This, in fact, may be part of the point: the long, largely uneventful list of places reflects the long, boring, difficult, and mostly uneventful sojourn in the desert.
The opening Rashi on the parsha, however, has something very different to say about this list. Rashi starts off in the spirit of most readers, who are bored and baffled by this list of undistinguished places: “Why were these trips written down?” Rashi’s question seems to be on most readers’ lips: why waste space in the Torah on these obscure and irrelevant place names?
His first answer is enlightening: “To tell us of God’s kindness, that even though He decreed that they should be taken and moved around the desert [as a punishment for the sin of the spies – when they refused to enter and fight for the Land of Israel] you can’t say that they were moving and going from one journey to another during the entire forty year period, with no rest. For, behold, there are only forty-two journeys here. If you subtract the first fourteen, taken during the first year [after leaving Egypt] and before the decree, when they traveled from Ramses until they arrived at Ritma, from where the spies were sent…and if you then subtract another eight journeys, from the death of Aharon…during the final fortieth year, you see that in all the thirty eight years [of schlepping around because of the punishment] they only went on twenty journeys.” This explanation, which Rashi ascribes to Rav Moshe Hadarshan, is fascinating. First of all, the opening question – why in the world is this apparently pointless list of place names in the Torah in the first place? What can we possibly learn from this list of unknown (to us) places? – is very refreshing to see. Rashi seems to think that we are “allowed” to feel bored and baffled by apparently useless information in the Torah. Of course, the challenge is to find, or make, meaning out of these apparently superfluous sections, and the way Rav Moshe Hadarshan does that is enlightening.
Normally, reading this seemingly interminable list of places makes us feel that the Israelites seem to have schlepped all over the place, from A to B, B to C, then C to D, and so on and so on; a long, boring read, and a longer, more boring, trip. Rav Moshe is clever enough to point out that the message, when we stop to think about it, is actually just the opposite. Look more carefully at the list of journeys, do the math, and you learn an important lesson: as angry as God was at the time of the sin of the spies, when the Israelites refused to enter the Land of Israel, he still showed them compassion, and did not make the trek through the desert as bad as it might have been – it was only an average of less than two moves a year, not so onerous at all.
Rashi then goes on to bring another explanation for the long list of journeys, this one from the Midrash Tanhuma. God’s decision to list all the stops made in the desert is similar to a king who once brought his sick son on a long journey to see a doctor. Once the journey was over, and the prince cured, on the way back the king pointed out to his son each resting place they had stopped at on their outward journey: ‘Here is where we slept, here we were cold, here your head hurt you, etc.’ Similarly, the list of journeys in our parsha is, in fact, the record of God’s reminiscing about a journey which was actually unpleasant at first (as the prince was sick, so, too, were the Israelites, traveling through the desert to rid themselves of the fear and cowardice of the generation of the Exodus, who were afraid to fight the Canaanites), but which now, in hindsight, with the prince cured and the Israelites ready to enter the land, one can actually be nostalgic, even pleasantly warm-hearted, about.
What is remarkable about these two explanations is the way they take the immediate reaction to reading these fifty verses – what a pointless, schleppy section, as pointless and schleppy as the journey itself must have been - and turn it on its head. No, they say, when you actually stop to think about it, these are not such onerous journeys at all, quite a small number, actually, when stretched out over thirty-eight years. Once we come to that insight, we can also look at them in a more positive light, and grow positively nostalgic for a journey which, at the time, seemed like a punishment and burden but, once successfully completed, can now be remembered fondly, and with real affection: remember this place? Remember this one? This journey felt difficult at the time, but with the hindsight afforded to us by its having been concluded successfully, we can reread it as positively pleasurable.
This ability to read the text of the Torah more deeply, carefully, precisely, and sensitively, is what Talmud Torah (the study of Torah) is all about. Learning to “read’ our lives in a similar fashion, to see the actual good in what, at first glance, may look dauntingly awful, and to interpret our actions so as to understand and embrace them in an ultimately positive way, is a crucial life skill.
Rabbi Shimon Felix