Parashot Matot-Masei: Comings and goings

The Exodus stands as the central event of our nation's collective consciousness.

darga desert  (photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
darga desert
(photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
"And Moses recorded the places of origin toward the places of destination... and these are the places of destination toward the places of origin" (Numbers 33:2) Undoubtedly the Exodus stands as the central event of our nation's collective consciousness, an event we invoke daily in the Shema, on the Sabbath, during festivals, and after every meal. Still, when we consider the detail that our portion of Masei devotes to recording all 42 stops of the 40-year desert sojourn, we're a little taken aback. Chapter 33 of the Book of Numbers devotes 45 verses to listing all 42 locations, and since each location was not only a place to encamp but also a place to journey from, each place name is mentioned twice. Why such details? Different commentators take different approaches. The Sforno maintains that the plethora of locations is a way of highlighting the merit of the Jewish people, who, "in the loving kindness of youth, followed after God in the desert, a land not sown." The Sfat Emet argues that each location has a potential for tikkun olam, since the Israelites transformed the barrenness of the wilderness into a singing garden. But this week I would like to concentrate on the commentary of Nahmanides. Apparently he is troubled not only by the delineation of the 42 stages, but also by the additional declaration that "...Moses wrote their goings forth, according to their stations, by the commandment of God..." (Numbers 33:1-2). These words suggest that something about the recording of these journeys is uniquely important. In approaching the issue, Nahmanides first quotes Rashi (who cites the words of Rabbi Moshe the Preacher) that Moses "set his mind to write down the journeyings. It was his intention thereby to inform [future generations] of the loving kindness of God..." After all, He protected His nation despite their manifold travels. After quoting Rashi, he then turns to Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed, Section 3, Chapter 50), who understands the detail as a means of corroborating the historical truth of the narrative. He adds that later generations might think they sojourned in a "desert that was near cultivated land, oases which were comfortable for human habitation, places in which it was possible to till and reap or to feed on plants, areas with many wells..." Hence the enumeration of all these way-stations to emphasize the extent of the miracle of Israelite subsistence. After quoting these views, Nahmanides concludes with a most intriguing comment: "Thus the writing down of the journeying was a commandment of God, either for reasons mentioned above, or a purpose the secret of which has not been revealed to us..." Nahmanides seems to be telling us - if not beseeching us - to probe further. And I would submit that the secret may be the secret of Jewish survival. After all, the concept of "ma'aseh avot siman l'banim" (the actions of the fathers are a sign of what will happen to the children) is well known to the sages, and one of the guiding principles of Nahmanides's biblical commentary. It may very well be that the hidden message of this text is the fact that we are being given an outline of what we should expect over the course of Jewish history. From the time of the Exile after the destruction of the Temple, the "goings forth" of the Jewish people - until our present arrival in the Land of Israel - would certainly comprise at least 42 stages: Judea, Babylon, Persia, Rome, Europe, North Africa and the New World. As Tevye the Milkman explains in Fiddler on the Roof when he is banished from Anatevka, "Now you know why Jewish adults wear hats; we must always be ready to set out on a journey!" Moreover, each Diaspora was important in its own right, and made it own unique contribution to the text (Oral Law) and texture (customs) of the sacred kaleidoscope which is the Jewish historical experience. Are not the Holocaust memorial books, these heroic examples of survivors trying to preserve what little can be kept of lost worlds, examples of our sense that God commanded us to write things down - to remember? Perhaps the Jews didn't invent history, but they understood that the places of Jewish wanderings, the content of the Jewish lifestyle, and the miracle of Jewish survival are more important than those hieroglyphics which exalt and praise rulers and their battles. The "secret" Nahmanides refers to may not only be a prophetic vision of our history, but a crucial lesson as to what gave us the strength, the courage and the faith to keep on going, to keep on moving, to withstand the long haul of exile. If we look at the verse where Moses writes down the journey according to the command of God, we read that Moses recorded "their starting points toward their destinations at God's command (Numbers 33:2) and immediately continues, "and those were their destinations toward their starting points." What does this mean? After all, the Hebrew word, motza means a starting place, a place of origin; masa is a journey, a destination. When the verse opens with the declaration "Moses recorded their places of origin toward their destination," it makes sense; I myself left New York (thank God) to make my journey toward Efrat. So why does the same verse conclude "destinations toward starting points." Hopefully, I will never go back (at least not permanently) from Efrat to New York! Fundamental to our history as a nation is that we are constantly traveling - on the road to the Promised Land, on the journey towards redemption. That direction was given us at the dawn of our history: in Hebron, with the Cave of the Couples, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, and their gracious hospitality to everyone, their righteous compassion and just morality; and in Jerusalem, the city of peace. Even as we move down the road of time, we must always recall the place of our origin. When S.Y. Agnon received the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was asked about his birthplace. To the interviewer's surprise he answered that he was born in Jerusalem. The interviewer pointed out that everyone knew he had been born in Buczacz, a town in Galicia. Agnon corrected him: "I was born in Jerusalem more than 3,000 years ago. That was my beginning, my origin. Buczacz in Galicia is only one of the stopping-off points." Only two princes of tribes who served as scouts reach the Promised Land: Caleb and Joshua, Caleb because he visited the graves of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron, and Joshua because God the author of the revelation was added to his name. Only these two set out for the Promised Land with their place of origin at the forefront of their consciousness; only those with a proud past can look forward to a glorious future. As long as we wander with our place of origin firmly in mind, we will assuredly reach our goal. We may leave our place of origin for our place of destination, but our places of origin in Israel will remain our ultimate destiny. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.