“Optimism: The Call of the Hour”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Masei, the reading of the Book of Numbers is concluded. Parashat Masei opens with a listing of 42 locations where the people of Israel encamped during their 40 year journey in the wilderness as they traveled from Egypt toward the Land of Canaan.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) notes that this list underscores G-d’s loving-kindness for the people of Israel. Even though it had been decreed that the people would wander in the wilderness for 40 years and never enter the Land of Canaan, the biblical itinerary shows that the people enjoyed extended periods of rest. The first 14 locations on the list are places where Israel encamped before G-d decreed that the people would not enter the Land of Canaan. The final eight locations (Numbers 33:41-49) were in the 40th year, after Aaron had passed on. From this, Rashi concludes that during the intervening 38 years there were only 20 journeys, and 19 of those years were spent at a single location known as Kadesh.

The Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) maintains that the long and seemingly monotonous list of locations that the Torah records contains many important secrets that may be uncovered when the names of the 42 locations are studied in depth.

Parashat Masei opens with a rather straightforward declaration (Numbers 33:1): “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.” The following verse, however, is rather confusing. Scripture states in Numbers 33:2, “Va’yich’tov Moshe et moh’tza’ay’hem l’ma’ah’say’hem al pee Ha’shem, v’ay’leh ma’ah’say’hem l’moh’tza’ay’hem,” Moses wrote their goings forth according to their journeys at the bidding of G-d, and these were their journeys according to their goings forth.

The rabbis are perplexed by the awkward wording of this verse. The verse opens with the phrase “moh’tza’ay’hem l’ma’ah’say’hem,” first citing the peoples’ goings forth and then their journeys. The verse, however, concludes with “ma’ah’say’hem l’moh’tza’ay’hem,” reversing the order–the peoples’ journeys are noted first followed by their goings forth. The Machazeh Avraham, cited in the Artscroll Torah Treasury, Otzar Hatorah, suggests that the change in the textual syntax provide a key to understanding how to correctly look at life.

The Machazeh Aharon points out that many incorrectly think that positive or negative events occur to people because they happen to be “at the right place at the right time,” or “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” This, however, is not necessarily true. When the People of Israel traveled through a particular place it was only because G-d wanted something to happen to them at that place. The Jewish people did not find bitter water because they came to Mara, they came to Mara at G-d’s behest so they would find bitter water.

The events that occurred to the Jewish people were not according to “their journeys,” as the people thought, but rather they were at G-d’s bidding. Their travels were Divinely orchestrated to enable the Jewish people to experience what G-d wanted them to experience. That is why the second part of the verse states that their journeys were according to their “goings forth.”

The Iturei Torah cites a parable of the Dubna Maggid (Rabbi Yaakov Wolf Krantz of Dubna, 1740-1804, famed itinerant Torah teacher, particularly known for using parables in his teachings), in which a young man whose mother had passed away was traveling on a wagon with his father to be married to a woman whom his father had picked for him.

Several times during the journey, the son asked the wagon driver “How far have we gone?” A while later, the father asked the wagon driver how much further they would need to travel before arriving at the bride’s town.

The son was surprised at the father’s question. “I asked how far we traveled, while you want to know the remaining distance until our destination. Why didn’t you phrase the question the way I did?”

Replied the father, “You have never been in that city, nor have you ever met your future wife or her family. What you know about the bride is only second-hand information. You don’t know that your future father-in-law is a respected pillar of his community, a man of impeccable character and lineage and a fine scholar. Furthermore, your bride is beautiful, charming, and has a sterling personality. You only have one thing on your mind. You wish to escape from your stepmother and get as far away from her as possible. You therefore keep asking how far we have traveled from home. On the other hand, I am focused primarily on how good your new home will be for you. Having met your future wife and father-in-law I am anxiously awaiting our arrival. Therefore I keep asking, “When will we arrive?”

The Jewish people were primarily interested in escaping Egypt and put the physical and spiritual torture to which they had been subjected there behind them. They were only concerned about the “journeys” and about how far they had traveled from Egypt. Therefore, the Torah emphasizes first, “And these were their journeys according to their goings forth.” For Moses, however, the goings forth were of preeminent importance. As opposed to the people, Moses was well aware of the superlative qualities of the Land of Israel and that it held the key to the peoples’ physical and spiritual success and happiness. He knew that this journey would result in the union of G-d and the Jewish people in G-d’s land. It is therefore written, “Their goings forth according to their journeys.”

This same sense of optimism is reflected in the Talmudic story (Makkot 24a) regarding Rabbi Akiva and his three colleagues who were walking through the remains of the destroyed Temple. When they saw a fox run out of the area where the Holy of Holies had been, Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues broke down in tears. However, Rabbi Akiva began to laugh. He explained that the fox running through the devastation was a fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy of the destruction of the Temple. G-d will now have mercy and start the redemption, which the Bible also prophesied.

According to some recent psychological studies, optimism, more than intelligence or any talent or skill, may be the key ingredient to success. It was optimism that Moses possessed as he looked forward to forging ahead to the Promised Land, even though he knew that he personally would not be allowed to enter the land. It was this optimism that the people of Israel lacked as they focused on distancing themselves from the enslavement in Egypt.

For contemporary Jews, while we must never ignore the fearsome challenges that we face, we nevertheless need to constantly reassure ourselves. Like Rabbi Akiva, we need to feel that there is always hope and that from the ashes a new Temple will spring forth. And, like Moses, we need to be constantly focused on reaching the Promised Land.

Optimism must be the call of the hour.

May you be blessed.