Mas’ei: Way stations on the journey

These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Lord…(B’midbar 33: 1-2)

The journey encompasses forty-two places
to encamp and align once again with the sacred.

Forty two places
of wonders and dailiness;
terror and love;

affliction and healing;
ingratitude and grace;

obstinacy and generosity;
misdeeds and regret;

grumbling and contentment;
discord and peace;

sanctity and baseness;
rejoicing and tears;

intimacy and alienation;
duty and neglect;

anger and compassion;
sin and reprieve;

ardor and disappointment;
rupture and goodwill;

outbursts and silence;
regression and growth;

birth and death;
darkness and light;

descent and ascent.

Wandering fitfully, yet
at last coming home.

In Mas’ei, the final parasha of the book of B’midbar, Moses enumerates the forty-two journeys and encampments of the children of Israel, from the Exodus to their final encampment on the plains of Moab across the river from the land of Canaan.
The commentators, both ancient and modern, wonder about the meaning behind this list.

Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem, the Ba’al Shem Tov (1698 – 1760 Ukraine) teaches that this list is none other than a reflection of each individual’s journey through life, from birth until death.

In a commentary on the dual parashot Massot-Masei from 2009, Dr Yossi Chajes describes the list as an “abridged travelogue of forty years of wanderings in the Sinai” and wonders what we today might find in these desert vistas. He notes that we read “And they removed from Mara [a place name, but meaning “bitter”], and came to Elim; and in Elim were twelve fountains of water, and seventy palm tress; and they pitched there.” (B’midbar 33:9) Dr Chajes says, “Just another transition, yes… but the juxtaposition of bitter and sweet waters has long captivated the imaginations of our holy teachers. If all the journeys adumbrated in our portion have been taken as symbolic stations of our present journeys through life, through Torah, here our masters have found a moment of special poignancy and, I might add, urgency.”
Dr Chajes brings a further teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov, that when one sees a Jew who is learned in Torah but who is nevertheless acting in an unworthy faashion, one can infer that this person has certainly drunk from the “bitter waters.” The Ba’al Shem Tov‘s grandson, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, expounds further that “our Torah has both sweet waters and bitter waters”, and notes that “from time immemorial, saints and sinners alike have managed to reach the highest highs of divine service as well as the lowest lows of human degradation” as evidenced by the proofs he brings from episodes in the Torah.

In a commentary from 2011,, Rabbi Marc Wolf recalls the epic novel by Jack Kerouac entitled On the Road, chronicling the journeys of its characters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, as they travel America. Rabbi Wolf notes “As the story goes, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in April of 1951 in one three-week sitting on a continuous roll of paper. Much like the road described in his epic novel, the roll of Teletype spills out before you and gives a sense of the significance of the journey. For Kerouac, his novel and the story of its creation function as a commentary on the voyage itself.
“As much as he may have wanted us to read On the Road as one journey, we cannot help but experience each and every sojourn with Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty 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 suggests that in its own way, Parashat Mase’ei negotiates that same tension. He says that when Moses stands at the edge of the Promised Land, he reviews the journey that he and the people have taken together “with the same sweeping overview that Sal Paradise narrates.” The description is formulaic: “The Israelites set out from this place and encamp at at that one…” through forty-four verses. There is little elaboration – just the bare bones. Rabbi Wolf says it seems to him that Moses understands that having overcome the challenges of the odyssey, the people already have their faces turned towards their ultimate destination. He adds that we could surmise, along with many commentators, that this generation of the people knows the stories of what occurred at each stop, so a re-telling here is superfluous. However, Rabbi Wolf says, “But I cannot help but contrast Moshe’s retelling with the countless times my parents would return from a vacation, invite all their friends, schlep the screen and projector out, and give slideshows of the many stops along their journeys. Each slide would be accompanied by a story or a description of a place or a person they met along the way.”
He continues “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 he asks what we should understand from the tension. What should the children of Israel be feeling as they stand at the edge of the land? He notes the massive changes that have occurred on the journey both demographically (very few members of the original people who left Egypt have survived) but more importantly, he says, “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?”
He cites the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovski, in his commentary on parashat Mas’ei, echoing the teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov, saying that Moses’s repetitive list had meaning less for its hearers then, and more for us, today.
Rabbi Wolf concludes, “Each of us makes journeys through our lives that mirror the growth and maturation that the children of Israel experienced during the trek from Egypt. But it is more than arriving in the Promised Land that matters. Parashat Maseei spills the ink it does in listing all the places in order to teach each of us the many paths we individually take to arrive at our destination.
“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. Like Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, 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.”

In another commentary on the parasha,, Rabbi Adam Greenwald brings another modern literary comparison, in which he cites the writer E.L. Doctorow who once said “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Rabbi Greenwald sees that as an apposite 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.”
So Rabbi Greenwald says we read of our ancestors’ sojourns, through the forty-two stops in the desert, on the way to an unseen, undreamed-of future. He too, sees us through the prism of the Ba’al Shem Tov‘s lens, as the wanderers in our own lives, stopping and starting on the way.
He cites Rabbi Noa Kushner, in a sermon she delivered in which she taught that there is “a profound difference between being lost and zigzagging.” “To be lost,” she says, “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 further commentary, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz changes the focus slightly on the list of stations at which the people stopped en route to the land. She cites the Malbim Rabbi Meir Loeb ben Yechi’el Michael (1809-1879, Eastern Europe), who asks why the Torah enumerates all the different stops and further, why was it necessary to make so many stops? He suggests that during their enslavement in Egypt, the people they were surrounded by evidence of the degradation and hardships there. At each stop they made in the desert during the long journey, through many experiences both positive and negative, they gradually threw off some of the detrimental influences which might have endangered their ability to flourish in the Promised Land.
Rabbi Peretz also cites the Sefat Emet who notes that in the second verse of the parasha (B’midbar 33: 2) the order of the words is reversed from the beginning to the end of the verse “Moses wrote down the starting points of their journeys forth as directed by the Lord; these are their journeys forth and their starting points…” The Sefat Emet says “Scripture is telling us that all this “going forward” depends upon “coming forth” from Egypt. Only after all those journeys is the Exodus from Egypt complete; with each “going forward” they got further from Egypt until they reached the Land of Israel.”*
Rabbi Peretz concludes “Only after going out of Egypt and leaving pieces of it behind in each subsequent stop can the Exodus ultimately be complete and the Israelites move forward into the land of Israel. Likewise, in our individual journeys, each of us has those places (physical, emotional, and spiritual) that we have been. And, like our ancestors in the desert, some of those places have left us with our own anger, fears, resentment, disappointment and challenges. But, also like our ancestors of so many years ago, unless and until we look to where we have been and face ourselves honestly and humbly, we cannot possibly let go that which blocks us from growing and experiencing our own journey’s promise.”

And finally, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch brings a different angle to the list of journeys and encampments, in a commentary from 1999,
He recalls the Jewish historian Simon Dubnov (1860 – 1941), of whom he says,”No Jewish historian ever had a greater impact on his time than Simon Dubnov. He died at the hands of the Nazis in Riga in December 1941 at the age of 81. Because he was too frail and infirm to deport, they shot him in the ghetto. Those who witnessed the murder reported that Dubnov’s last words were, “Jews, write it down.” And they did, in Kovno, Warsaw, Lodz and elsewhere. In his spirit, Jews organized collective and clandestine efforts to record the many terrifying faces of the Final Solution. Unarmed and unaided, they found solace in assembling the evidence that would one day convict their mass murderers in the court of human history.”
Rabbi Schorsch notes that Dubnov devoted his life to addressing “the power of historical consciousness.” He says that Dubnov, an autodidact living in Odessa had, fifty years earlier, attempted to galvanise Russian Jews, to start to collect “rapidly vanishing documentary fragments of their thousand-year history.” Rabbi Schorsch continues that Dubnov said that “to their lasting shame and detriment, Russian Jews shared with the primitive, illiterate peoples of the world a pervasive indifference to their own history.” It was the death in 1891 in Germany of Heinrich Graetz (1817 – 1891) who was amongst the first historians to write a comprehensive history of the Jewish people from a Jewish perspective (his magnum opus History of the Jews was quickly translated into other languages and ignited worldwide interest in Jewish history) which had influenced Dubnov to “mobilize a national archival effort which one day would culminate in an expanded national history far fairer to the vital role of Eastern European Jewry than Graetz’s German bias and ignorance allowed.”
Dubnov inspired others to begin to archive untold treasures of Jewish history, including S. Ansky, who initiated the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition in 1912 into Ukraine which over two years gathered photos, folktales, music, writings and artefacts. Later Ansky infiltrated into Galicia at the outbreak of the First World War to “alleviate and record the untold suffering of the nearly one million Jews trapped between the Russian and Austrian armies.” Afterwards he turned his diaries into a harrowing four-volume record, written in Yiddish. Simon Dubnov’s student, Elias Tcherikover was inspired by him in 1919 to record eyewitness accounts of the ongoing pogroms that were decimating Ukrainian Jewry in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Finally, in Vilna in 1923, a group of Yiddishist intellectuals founded the Yiddish Scientific Institute (better known by its English acronym, YIVO), realising a vision devised by Dubnov and other Russian Jewish emigrés in Berlin after the war. Rabbi Schorsch says “Like Dubnov back in the 1890s, YIVO drafted an army of collectors [zamlers] to track down multiple primary sources for its archives without which no serious academic history could ever be done. It is the culture and persona of this remarkable embodiment of Dubnov’s craft that the historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz, who did research there in 1938-39, depicted in her evocative memoir From That Place and Time [1989].”
Between the two world wars, Rabbi Schorsch relates that Dubnov lived in Berlin, where he completed his very accessible ten-volume comprehensive Jewish history which he entitled The World History of the Jewish People. Rabbi Schorsch says “The title meant to convey the global nature of the Jewish odyssey. What other nation had ever settled in the four corners of the world without losing its identity and unity? The key to Jewish survival, Dubnov would argue, was an uncanny ability to form self-governing communities in exile that perpetuated a distinctive religious culture. The task of the historian was to track that unfailing achievement of group discipline, political savvy and spiritual creativity. No way station was to slip into oblivion. Singlehandedly, Dubnov had transformed many Eastern European Jews into amateur historians.”
So Rabbi Schorsch continues “This record of historical recovery is brought to mind by way of comment on an historical archive embedded in the final parasha of the book of Numbers (33:1-49), which brings the trek through the wilderness to a close. Before Moses turns the reins of leadership over to Joshua, he swiftly recapitulates the itinerary taken since the exodus from Egypt by naming each one of 42 sites at which the nation encamped. The formulaic style is almost totally bare of narrative detail, yet each name is repeated twice as if to reinforce retention. On occasion, the descriptive nature of a particular name elicits a faint memory of what happened there. Still, all are precious, for all contributed to shaping the national character of Israel. The list is the product of a historical sensibility.”
Rabbi Schorsch notes that Rashi (as quoted by Nachmanides) emphasises that according to the text, God had not commanded Moses to compile this list. It was completely Moses’s idea, prompted by a “divine hint that the end was near.” God had told Moses a bit earlier: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (B’midbar 31:2). So Rabbi Schorsch suggests “Having accomplished that military victory with but 12,000 troops, Moses awaited his death by assembling the outline of a memoir….like many humans, Moses faced his own demise, by exerting himself one more time to leave a well ordered account of the journey taken.”
Rashi suggests that the list comes to teach us that, looking back, God never relinquished His care for His people. They had been guided through hostile, barren territory, although, en route, they had rested in oases of serenity. (It is incorrect to imagine the people wandering constantly – in fact there were only 20 stations in 38 years, and they were settled in some places for years at a time.)
Rabbi Schorsch comments that for him, the list is “a harbinger of lists yet to come. As wilderness fades into exile, the number of stops keeps growing and the journey goes on without end or interruption till it encircles the globe. As master of the lists, the historian peers into the mystery of Jewish survival.” He concludes that he sees the lists as pieces of an intricate whole as Jewish history continues to unfold.

* Translated by Rabbi Arthur Green in his book The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger.


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