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Journeys – notable for departures or arrivals?

Today’s double parshah includes the full enumeration of the 42 separate legs of the Israelite’s journey through the wilderness. Parshat Masei begins; “These are the journeys of the children of Israel who departed from the land of Egypt according to their legions under the leadership of Moses and Aaron” (Numbers 33;1).

Rashi (1040-1105) and others stress that these journeys were not aimless wanderings resulting from confusion on the part of the people. Rather, as we already know from parshat Beha’alotecha, they were guided by G-d’s command as manifested through the movements of the cloud of glory.

In verse two G-d instructs Moshe to record the stages in writing. Sforno (c.1470-1550) comments that Hashem wanted all the journeys to be recorded as a written testament to the unswerving faith of the Jewish people who had followed Him blindly into a barren desert, and thereby earned their reward of entering and inheriting the land of Israel. In what I always find to be a beautiful and moving verse, which we read at the end of last week’s Haftorah and which has been incorporated into the Remembrances (Zichronot) section of the Musaf Amidah on Rosh Hashanah, the prophet Jeremiah is instructed by G-d to proclaim to the people “So said Hashem; I recall for you the kindness of your youth, the love of your bridal days, how you followed Me in the wilderness, in an unsown land” (Jer 2;2).

Malbim (1809-1879) asks why the opening verse speaks in terms of journeys from Egypt, rather than to Israel. He writes that this is to emphasise that the stages represent a gradual distancing from the negative influences of the people’s experiences in Egypt. Being enslaved by a corrupt culture had greatly affected the spirituality of the entire Jewish People, plunging them to the 49th level of spiritual impurity. Every hardship along the way was a means to bring them closer to Hashem and ultimately to become the holy nation that was ready to enter Eretz Yisrael.

In his Torah commentary Haketav Vehakabbalah, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that the names of the stopping places mentioned here are not the actual names that they had before. They are in fact the names that were given to them as a result of the events that took place when the Bnei Yisrael camped there and by which those events could be readily recalled by future generations.

The significance of these travels therefore lay not only in the final destination to which they were headed but perhaps more in the opportunities for spiritual growth that they provided along the way. Every advance has two phases: a departure from the previous state and an approach to the future state. Masei points primarily to the departure. What is the motivation for this emphasis? When a person can see his destination, his degree of progress is defined. Masei, by contrast, underscores setting out towards uncharted horizons, as the Jews in the desert followed the pillar of cloud.

David Lawson

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