“The Lesson of the Journeys”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Masei, the second of this week’s double parashiot (Matot-Masei), opens with a summary of the travel itinerary of the people of Israel. Commencing with the Exodus from Egypt, it concludes with the people reaching the Jordan river, poised to enter the land of Canaan.

In Numbers 33, the Torah lists all 42 locations (stations), where the people encamped during their 40 years in the wilderness. This litany of seemingly extraneous information is often made more appealing by synagogue Torah readers who traditionally chant this portion in a special singsong as they read the locations, allowing the audience to vicariously experience what it must have been like to journey with the people of Israel. As with most so-called “repetitive” portions of the Torah, the recorded locations, when analyzed carefully, have much to teach. In fact, the Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) notes that G-d commanded Moses to record these places for posterity because great secrets are to be found in the 42 journeys.

One can just imagine how arduous the journey was. The 603,500 men over age 20, probably represented close to 2-2.5 million people together with women and children, not to mention personal belongings and flocks! 22,000 Levites were responsible for transporting the Tabernacle, erecting it and disassembling it each time the people traveled. This was obviously no pleasure cruise.

Ironically, the commentators feel that this list of sojourns emphasizes G-d’s compassion on His people, because the biblical travel records inform us that there were many extended periods of rest in between the 42 encampments. Of the 42 locations listed, 14 stations were stops that were made before the evil report of the spies and the decree that the men of the Exodus generation would not enter the Promised Land. The last eight stations were in the 40th and final year, after Aaron had died. Consequently, only 20 journeys took place during the 38 intervening years.

Mordechai HaCohen, in his studies on the weekly parasha, Al ha’Torah, based on the interpretation of the Abarbanel, suggests that the reason the Torah details the marches that the people had undertaken, as well as their various starting points, is because future generations of Jews would also need to march. By studying and analyzing these portions, future generations would be able to save themselves much grief, gaining insight from these early journeys on how to travel efficiently and achieve much success.

Interestingly, Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) was also troubled by the many stops that were enumerated in this parasha. At first blush, Maimonides suggests that these enumerations are quite useless, but then he states boldly that the need for these details is very great. According to Maimonides, the enumerations have significant contemporary import as well.

Maimonides (Guide to the Perplexed III, 50) was greatly concerned with the credibility of the ancient miracles. Would future generations believe that these miracles happened? Obviously, those who actually experienced the miracles would be certain of their faith. However, for future generations, the story of the miracles are mere hearsay, and a strong possibility exists that those who hear these narratives will simply dismiss them.

Obviously, miracles themselves cannot last permanently through successive generations for all to behold. But, maintains Maimonides, one of the greatest of the ancient miracles that may still be witnessed is the 40 year sojourn of the people of Israel in the wilderness, and the Manna that came down to feed the people every single day. Listing the locations where the people camped makes it possible for contemporary travelers to actually visit the sites and verify for themselves what scripture says about those places where the ancients sojourned.

In Deuteronomy 8:15, the Bible states that the wilderness was a place “wherein were serpents, fiery serpents, and scorpions, and a parched land where there was no water.” These were places that were very remote from cultivated land and unnatural for human habitation. As the Bible in Numbers 20:5 says, “It is a wretched place, with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates.” The prophet Zachariah (7:14), maintained that the land was so barren “that no man passed through it and returned [alive].”

The Al-mighty knew, says Maimonides, that people would not believe the miracles. Instead, they would conclude that the children of Israel sojourned in a wilderness that was close to cultivated land where man can live, similar to the present day wilderness inhabited by the Arabs. Future generations would think that the wilderness consisted of places in which it was possible to till and reap, or to feed on plants that were to be found there. They may also presumably believe that it was natural for the Manna to come down in those places, or that there were wells of water to be found in nearby locations.

By enumerating the sojourns of the people of Israel, the claims of the skeptics may be silenced and the miracles confirmed. With the detailed itinerary, people can actually visit the wilderness and see for themselves how great was the miracle that the people of Israel experienced, surviving in that difficult environment for 40 years.

This ancient lesson brings to mind a contemporary experience that is quite poignant. When the supreme commander of the Allied Forces, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was informed by his soldiers who had liberated the concentration camps of the horrendous discoveries that were made when the Allied soldiers entered the camps, he ordered that all possible photographs be taken of the camps and of the victims. He also ordered that the German people from surrounding villages be ushered through the camps and made to bury the dead. His reasoning behind this order was: “Get it all on record now, get the films, get the witnesses, because somewhere down the road of history some bastard will get up and say that this never happened!”

We know only too well how prescient Eisenhower’s observation was!

The Al-mighty recorded all the locations and stations where the people sojourned during their 40 years in the wilderness, so that future generations could see for themselves how improbable, nay impossible, it would be for 2.5 million people to survive on their own during this lengthy period.

The account of Israel’s travels in the wilderness is hardly a simple catalog of people’s travels to exotic places. It is an authoritative record of the Al-mighty’s miracles, and a reflection of His profound care and love for His people Israel.

May you be blessed.