Masei: Journeys

These are the journeys of the Children of Israel by which they left the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their various journeys as directed by the word of God. The following were their journeys and their starting points…
The Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. They set out from Etham… and they encamped before Migdol… They set out…they encamped…They set out from the hills of Abarim and encamped in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho; they encamped by the Jordan from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim, in the steppes of Moab. (B’midbar 33:1-42)

Leaving Egypt, trembling,
chased by raging foes,
we plunge onto an undetermined path.

Though guided by the cloud by day
and by the fire at night,
our vision is obscured.

We gaze up at the looming rocks,
eyes narrowed in the sun
and find no answers there

and in the dark nocturnal skies
although we search for signs
the sparkling stars are silent.

The journeys through the desert
and the lulls at green oases
are interspersed with terror and with love

and only looking back, we know
that we were never lost:
each sight, each sound;

each encampment;
every winding route we wandered
brought us closer home.

Parashat Masei (meaning journeys) derives its name from the detailed itinerary of the Children of Israel during the forty years of their travel through the wilderness. The name of each of the 42 separate places in which they encamped is mentioned, sometimes also how long the people remained there before moving on.

In a commentary on parashot Matot-Masei,, Dr Rachel Anisfeld looks at how we live our lives: in the middle of one activity, we are often already waiting to finish it and our mind wanders to the next. She asks “Are we ever present in the activity of the moment, not thinking about where it’s leading us, what will happen next, but simply engrossed in the moment?” Dr Anisfeld suggests that this might be the message of the Torah’s detailed description of the encampments in the desert, the long list of way stations from Egypt to the land of Israel. She says, “Why list every single place name (42 in all)? Because the Torah values every step along the way; each point is precious, a tiny moment of redemption.” She adds that the Torah does not actually tell us about the destination, or the entry into the land. She says, “That is the goal they have been moving toward the whole time, but that is not the point; the point, it turns out, is all those little stops along the way; the point is the journey itself, the life that was led on the way to the land.” Dr Anisfeld notes that humans seem to be constantly on the move, trying to get places, do things, as the text repeats many times in this section, “vayisu – they travelled” and, she continues, this reflects how it should be, that we have work to do in the world. “But at the same time, we should not forget the value of the process itself, the fact that every single moment – every single place along the way — is a moment of redemption. The value of this moment does not come from the fact that it leads to a certain destination; we might very well not get to that destination; each place along the way has its own value.” That, she submits, is why the Torah does not just emphasize the word, “vayisu” repeatedly, but also adds “vayachanu – they encamped”. She concludes, “We are travelers, but we also need to learn to stop and be present at each place along the way; today, right now, is the moment of redemption.”

The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that whatever happens to the Children of Israel as a single entity, is reflected also in the life of each individual, so he sees these 42 journeys and encampments as the spiritual journeys of life that each person encounters en route from birth to death. Indeed, in Chasidic thought, these are deemed to be the 42 journeys of the soul.
In a commentary from 2014,, Rabbi Adam Greenwald addresses this individual journey on which each person embarks. He quotes the writer, E.L. Doctorow who once commented, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you…”
Rabbi Greenwald sees this as an apt metaphor “not only for writing, but for love, and for life. We cannot imagine where life will take us, with what accompanying twists and turns and unexpected bumps. We can only continue forward, taking each curve and dip gently as it leads us to a future that is always just beyond the horizon line.”
He continues, “Certainly it is this way when we embark on a marriage. Couples stand under their huppah not knowing what the life they begin together will actually entail. They cannot know who will get sick and who will live to see great-grandchildren. They cannot know who will fall out of love and who will experience a love that only intensifies over a lifetime. And so it is with having a child, and beginning a career, and moving to a new place, and so on. Our life’s journey takes us in directions we never expect, and poses challenges we will never know until we face them.”
He relates this to the wanderings of the Children of Israel, through 42 way-stations in the wilderness, en route to a land none of them had ever seen.
He cites Rabbi Noa Kushner, who notes that there is “a profound difference between being lost and zigzagging. To be lost is to wander without purpose and without goal; but, to zigzag is to take a long and winding path with purpose and conviction. Our ancestors were not lost as they made their circuitous route through the wilderness – they were proceeding together with a firm belief in the possibility of a better world, even if the details of that dreamt of place were beyond their sight.”

In a commentary on the parasha from 2011,, Rabbi Marc Wolf describes and quotes from the book On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He notes that the work is about a single epic journey. Rabbi Wolf says, “As much as he [Keruoac] may have wanted us to read On the Road as one journey, we cannot help but experience each and every sojourn…individually. The truth that we know from scholars is that the original story took form in small notebooks that Kerouac carried with him over the course of a few years spent traveling North America, chronicling thousands of miles and countless stops along the way. That inconsistency points to a tension that comes from Jack Kerouac’s account of his journey. It leaves us with the question: what should we highlight, where we are at the end of the journey or the many stops along the way?”
Rabbi Wolf believes that Parashat Masei addresses that same tension. He notes that on the brink of the Promised Land, Moses looks back with the people and presents a sweeping overview of the odyssey which brought them to where they are. He points out that the dry listing of the place-names on the way leads him to believe that Moses understands that the people, having withstood the journey, are now totally focused on reaching their destination.
He says, “We are wired to strive for resolution, for denouement. But the anticipation of completing a trip can eclipse the road and experiences that got us there. As much as we may have our sights set on the destination, it is the journey that makes us who we are when we arrive. Every aspect of the road—the bumps and the turns, the detours and the stops along the way — make up the whole route. Viewed this way, the journey becomes more than the sum of its parts — not merely the means to arrive at a destination.

“So what do we make of the tension? What should the frame of mind of the children of Israel be as they stand at the edge of the Promised Land? They have changed so much in their journey — and not only demographically. We know that save a few souls, the generation that left Egypt did not enter Israel. But beyond that, the spiritual, religious, and emotional shift that occurred on their wanderings through the wilderness itself begs attention. They have nearly reached the end of their mission and were about to begin another era of Jewish life, so how can Moshe simply recap the places they passed through along the way? How can he not go deeper and explain what the journey meant to their development?”

Rabbi Wolf says that the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovski, offers us one possible answer in his book Netivot Shalom. On this parasha, the Slonimer wonders what the meaning of this itinerary might be, not to the Children of Israel, but to us today. He too quotes the Baal Shem Tov, and suggests that not only do we relive this journey through our holiday celebrations each year, but more personally, individually, throughout the course of our lives.

Rabbi Wolf maintains that each person’s own journey might be a paradigm of the growth and progress attained by the Children of Israel as they traversed the wilderness. He suggests that the lengthy description hints that it is not only arriving that matters, but that each person might take many paths, stopping and starting, until finally arriving. He concludes, “The Torah’s lesson is eternally relevant. Addressing the children of Israel standing on the banks of the Jordan, Moshe knew that the journey had changed each of them differently. Who was he to tell them what each station along the way meant to them? As a people they wandered, but as individuals they were going to cross into the Land…they had walked the same road, but the experiences affected them individually. Each year, as we read the parashiyot of their wanderings, we glean relevance for ourselves. The Torah knows we turn each page to get closer to the Land, but it is the journey that makes us the people who can enter.”


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