“The Never-Ending Journey of the Jewish People”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Masei, concludes the fourth book of the Bible, the book of Bamidbar (Numbers). The name Bamidbar means “in the wilderness.” It is therefore not at all surprising that the final parasha of the book of Bamidbar deals with “masei,” the journeys of the Jewish people during their forty year trek in the wilderness.

When parashat Masei is read in the synagogue, the Torah reader reads it with a special singsong melody, conveying the idea of journeying from place to place. Most verses of the opening chapter begin with the word, “vah’yis’ooh,” and they traveled or journeyed, and end with the word “vah’yah’chah’noo,” and they encamped or settled. So, for instance, in Numbers 33:18, the verse states that the Israelites journeyed from Hazeroth and encamped in Rithmah.

After recording the forty-two locations where the people encamped, parashat Masei concludes with a listing of the borders and boundaries of the land of Israel. The Torah then instructs the people to set aside cities for the Levites and the cities of refuge for unintentional murderers. The parasha concludes with the laws of inheritance of the land for women, specifically, the daughters of Zelophehad.

Not surprisingly, parashat Masei begins with a verse concerning traveling (Numbers 33:1): “Ay’leh masei Bnei Yisrael, ah’sher yahtz’ooh may’eretz Mitzrayim, l’tziv’oh’tahm, b’yad Moshe v’Aharon,” These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went forth from the land of Egypt, according to their legions, under the hand of Moses and Aaron.

In parashat Pekudei, at the very end of the book of Exodus, the Torah also speaks of the journeys of the people. Scripture there states that the journeys of the People of Israel were dependent upon the “cloud” that hovered over the Tabernacle. When the cloud moved, the people moved; when the cloud rested, the people rested. The final verse of the book of Exodus states (Exodus 40:38): “Kee ah’nahn Hashem ahl ha’Mishkan, yoh’mam, v’aish, teeh’yeh laylah boh, l’ay’nay chohl bayt Yisrael, b’chohl mahs’ay’hem.” For the cloud of G-d would hover over the Tabernacle by day, and fire would be above it at night, before the eyes of all of the house of Israel on all their journeys.

When commenting on that verse, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) first explains how the travels of the people were dependent upon the cloud. Rashi then further explains that the places where the people camped are also referred to as “journeys,” since after encamping the people would travel again to a new camp. To prove his point, Rashi cites two examples. The first example is the opening verse of parashat Masei. The second example is found in Genesis 13:3 and refers to Abram’s travels: “Vah’yay’lech l’mah’sah’ahv,” Abram proceeded on his journeys when he returned from Egypt to the land of Canaan. Rashi explains that when returning from Egypt, Abram traveled in the exact reverse order in which he traveled when he left the land of Canaan, and he stayed overnight in the same lodgings in which he had stayed on his way to Egypt.

The Yalkut Yehuda (a commentary on the Torah and rabbinic writings by Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, 1885–1946, rabbi in Yaroslav, Russia and Denver, CO), cited in Iturei Torah, elaborates on the comments of Rashi in parashat Masei, suggesting that though it may appear to human eyes that the People of Israel dwell quietly and peacefully in a particular location, it is important to recognize that their dwelling is only a temporary way-station and that a new journey always awaits.

Although it is frequently stated that one must not lose sight of one’s destination when on a journey, Judaism often regards the journey to be as important as the destination. It is not enough to reach our goals; the question must be asked, how were the goals reached? Was the journey conducted in the proper manner, in an ethical and moral fashion? Or, were innocent people possibly harmed in the process?

Frequently, it is the journey itself that builds character. Without the proper preparation, those who arrive at a destination, no matter how exciting and captivating it may be, may wind up with very little. Those who are unable to march in an organized and meaningful manner with the rest of the travelers, will hardly be able to dwell in an organized and meaningful fashion with the others, no matter how luxurious the destination.

Consequently, it is important to carefully consider and review the ancient journeys of our people, to learn from them, from both the successes and the failures, as we travel on our own personal journeys, to our own longed-for destinations.

Especially in the three week period of mourning, which concludes with the Fast of the Ninth of Av, it is important for each of us to carefully assess and consider the paths of our ancestors that resulted in the destruction of the Temple. It is, perhaps, even more important for us to review and learn from the ancient journeys, if we ever hope to avoid destruction and to succeed in rebuilding the third Temple. Our destination is clear. It is vital that the steps of our journey also be clear.

May you be blessed.