“On the Road: The Lessons of Hindsight”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Masei, concludes the fourth book of the Torah, the Book of Numbers. Parashat Masei is always read during the period of the “Three Weeks,” which begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, commemorating the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem. The “Three Weeks” conclude with Tisha b’Av, the Fast of the 9th of Av, the day on which the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed.

There is, not unexpectedly, a confluence between the theme of the 42 stops that the people made during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and the steps that led to the destruction of the first and second Temples. The details of the ancient Israelites’ itinerary in the wilderness should not be summarily disregarded. In fact, studying the travels of the ancient Israelites is important for those who wish to understand the developments of both later and contemporary Jewish history. Jews must always be familiar with Jewish history, in order to learn from the lessons of the past.

An oft-cited aphorism in rabbinic literature (based on a Midrash Rabba Genesis 48:7, and cited in Nachmanides’ commentary on Genesis 12:10) that conveys one of the most profound lessons of Jewish history is, מַעֲשֵׂי אָבוֹת סִימָן לְבָנִים, the experiences of the ancient ancestors are often predictors of the Jewish future. Aside from the fact that history in general, and Jewish history in particular, has a tendency to repeat itself, it is important for any intelligent person to heed, and learn from, the errors of the past. It matters little whether the errors were perpetrated personally or by others.

In our analysis of Matot-Masei 5769-2009, we noted that the 42 locations are enumerated in the Bible to refute the claim of the skeptics who refuse to accept that miracles occurred in each one of the 42 locations. By enumerating the detailed itinerary of the journeys of the Jewish people, travelers can actually visit the wilderness and confirm for themselves how great the miracles were that the people experienced during that time, surviving in that most challenging environment for forty years.

In our analysis of Masei 5771-2011, we noted that a vital message of the parasha was not only that one must not lose sight of one’s destination when on a journey, but that the journey itself is often as important as the destination. Not only must the destination be reached, but that the destination be reached in a proper, ethical and moral fashion, is at least as important as the journey itself, if not more.

Many commentators, both ancient and contemporary, are struck by the numerous repetitious phrases found in the opening chapter of Parashat Masei. The parasha begins with the words, Numbers 33:1, אֵלֶּה מַסְעֵי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְצִבְאֹתָם, בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן And 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. When listing the earliest journey, in Numbers 33:3, the Torah states, וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרַעְמְסֵס, noting that the people traveled from Ramses on the fifteenth day of the first month of the first year, after the Exodus. And then, in Numbers 33:5, scripture records, וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס, וַיַּחֲנו בְּסֻכֹּת, and the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses, and encamped in Sukkot. The phrase, וַיִּסְעוּ, they traveled, and the phrase, וַיַּחֲנוּ, and they camped, are repeated 42 times in the Biblical itinerary.

Rabbi A. L. Scheinbaum, in the eighth series of Peninim on the Torah, notes that most people think that in order to correct the mistakes that are made in life, it is necessary to live life over again. Rabbi Scheinbaum, however, quotes HaRav Moshe Swift, z”l who rejects this as a non-Torah point of view. While the Kabbalists believe in reincarnation and soul migration, normative Jewish tradition maintains that to right the wrongs that people have committed, one need only look back. This powerful message of parashat Masei, is the reason for the repetition of the phrases, “And they journeyed,” “and they rested.”

Life is a journey of both opportunities and challenges, very often of opportunities and challenges that repeat themselves. If we pay attention to our previous experiences, or those of others, we can almost always learn how to properly respond to both the opportunities and the challenges, the good fortune and the misfortunes. It is often only from hindsight that we learn how grateful we must be when we are blessed with good health, and the courage we need when faced with ill health.

The popular Hebrew motto (apparently of medieval Jewish origin), אֵין חָכָם כְּבַעַל הַנִּסָיוֹן, There is no person as wise as the one who has already faced the experience, rings so very true here.

This, of course, may be the reason for the frequent coinciding of parashat Masei with the dreaded days of the Three Weeks.

Unfortunately, the “Three Weeks” visited the Jewish people early this year, in the form of the “18 Days,” during which the Jewish people prayed fervently and spared no physical or spiritual effort in order to ensure the safe return of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach. Alas, it was not to be.

There is certainly much that we can learn from hindsight from the recent tragic kidnaping and murder of the three yeshiva boys in Israel that relates to the theme of וַיִּסְעוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ, they traveled and they rested.

A number of important issues were quickly raised as a result of the tragedy that are presently being discussed and addressed.  Among them is the safety of hitchhiking and the lack of secure public transportation in the area where the kidnaping occurred. Another is the concern about the lack of an immediate response to the boys’ distress call. Within weeks a new operational app was activated to address this issue.

It was fascinating to learn that it was local civilians who discovered the graves of the kidnaped boys. They were the ones who knew the area well, and were almost able to pinpoint the location of where the boys’ bodies were buried, all because of experience. Because they traveled and they camped.

We also learned, so tragically, that apparently Jews are capable of committing atrocities as well. Whether as an evil act of revenge or of insanity, these nefarious acts must be carefully reviewed in order to avoid any recurrences in the future. The future of our people may be determined by these vile actions.

One of the most important lessons that emerged from this very tragic scenario, is the unity that crises such as these create among the people of Israel and of Jews worldwide–the remarkable and unprecedented outpouring of spirituality and prayer, that impacted on us all.

This universal unity is a truly rare occurrence in Jewish history, and should not be allowed to be frittered away. The brotherhood and love that the crisis created among the people, should be carefully preserved, to serve as a true and everlasting memorial to the lives of the three boys. The selfless devotion that was in evidence during this incredible period of charity and kindness must also be preserved. As reflected in the theme and the title of the book written by Mrs. Sherri Mandell, whose 13-year-old son Koby was also a victim of murderous terrorists in May of 2001-–these surely are the “blessings” of a broken heart.

May we all learn from our travels, the ancient travels of forty years in the wilderness, the travels that the Jewish people endured between the periods of destruction of the first Temple and the second Temple, and our contemporary travels. Let us heed these lessons well and benefit from the incredible opportunities that hindsight affords us.

May you be blessed.

The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) was observed this year on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorated the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the Three Weeks period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha b’Av that will be observed on Monday night and Tuesday, August 4th and 5th.


In light of the precarious situation in Israel, we offer the following prayer on behalf of the well being of the citizens of Israel:


“Our brothers, the entire family of Israel, who are in distress and captivity, whether they are on sea or dry land-may the Omnipresent One have mercy on them and remove them from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, now, speedily, and soon-and let us say: Amen.”