The Long and Winding Road

  • Rav Yair Kahn







In loving memory of Fred Stone, Yaakov Ben Yitzchak A”H
beloved father and grandfather,
Ellen & Stanley, Jacob, Zack, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana and Gabi Stone, Teaneck NJ



The Long and Winding Road

By Rav Yair Kahn



I. Following Me into the Wilderness


Our parasha begins with a recap of Bnei Yisrael's journey through the wilderness, with a comprehensive list of all the stops along the way. At first glance, this record appears to introduce nothing new; our impression is that this parasha should be viewed as a summary and conclusion of the entire sefer. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that there is nothing to be learnt from this detailed list. In general, we assume that all sections of the Torah, even the seemingly repetitive or redundant, teach us something new. Is there nothing at all that we derive from the first 49 verses of our parasha?


This question was posed by Maimonides, who writes in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:50):


Know that every story that we find recorded in the Torah is there for a reason. It is essential, whether it is intended to affirm a principle that is one of the foundations of the Torah, or whether its purpose is to [help us] correct some or other action, so that there will be no injustice and cruelty among people. And I shall arrange this in order for you… Hence, the order of the record of the "journeys" would appear – on the surface – to serve no purpose at all.


            In order to decipher the message of the journey section, a closer look at the list of stops is in order. Upon examination, we find a number of discrepancies and inconsistencies, which undoubtedly contain a message. The list of journeys in our parasha does not always correspond to the description of the events as they previously appeared in the course of the narrative. For instance, in Parashat Masei we read:


They journeyed from Hor Ha-har and encamped at Tzalmona. They journeyed from Tzalmona and encamped at Punon. They journeyed from Punon and encamped at Ovot. (33:41-43)


In the narrative in Parashat Chukat, however, there is no mention of Tzalomona or Punon:


They journeyed from Hor ha-Har… and encamped at Ovot. (21:4-10)


Undoubtedly, these discrepancies are meant to shed new light on those specific points of the journey (see Ramban, Bamidbar 33:41). However, I would prefer not to focus on the discrepancies between the stops as detailed in our parasha and the description found in other parashiot, but rather on an inner inconsistency within our parasha itself, which is most instructive in understanding this section as a whole.


This inner inconsistency is noted by Ramban:


"They encamped at Refidim, and there was no water there for the nation to drink” – no mention is made at Mara of the miracle of the water, nor in the wilderness of the sin of the manna. But since the matter of Refidim is a great and important matter – for they tried God [there] and the place was called "Masa u-Meriva," and God was sanctified in their eyes by bringing water forth from a rock, and [also] the war against Amalek came upon them there – therefore, brief mention is made of the fact that there was no water there for the nation to drink, for this place was well-known and familiar because of this. (Bamidbar 33:14)


The Ramban questions why certain events, such as the lack of water in Refidim, are mentioned in the review of the journeys, while seemingly similar events – such as the lack of water at Mara – are totally ignored. His explanation that more significant events warrant mention, while relatively minor events do not is difficult to accept. After all, we find no hint of such events as the Revelation at Sinai, the sin of the Golden Calf, or the sin of the spies in Parashat Masei! Does the lack of water at Refidim surpass the importance of these momentous events? And is it reasonable that such an obvious objection eluded the Ramban?


            In order to attain a better appreciation for the Ramban’s argument, let us examine the verses, paying special attention to what the Torah chooses to mention, and in particular to any deviation from the standard form of "They journeyed from… and encamped at …"


They journeyed from Ra'amses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the month of the first month, on the day after the Pesach; Bnei Yisrael left with a high hand in the sight of all of Egypt. And the Egyptians were burying those whom God had smitten – all the firstborn; and God had also executed judgments upon their gods" (3-4).


They journeyed from Sukkot and encamped at Eitam, which is on the edge of the wilderness (6).


They journeyed from Eitam and turned back to Pi Ha-hirot, which faces Ba'al Tzefon, and they encamped in front of Midgal (7).


They journeyed from before ha-Hirot and passed through in the midst of the sea into the wilderness, and they walked a distance of three days in the wilderness of Eitam, and encamped at Mara (8).


They journeyed from Mara and came to Eilim, and in Eilim there were twelve fountains of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there (9).


They journeyed from Alush and encamped at Refidim, and there was no water there for the nation to drink (14).

They journeyed from Etzion Gever and encamped in the wilderness of Tzin, which is Kadesh (36).


They journeyed from Kadesh and encamped at Hor Ha-har, on the border of the land of Edom (37).


Aharon the Kohen ascended to Hor Ha-har, according to God's word, and he died there in the fortieth year after Bnei Yisrael came out of the land of Egypt, in the fifth month, on the first of the month (38).


And Aharon was a hundred and twenty-three years old when he died at Hor ha-Har (39).


The Canaanite king of Arad, who dwelled in the Negev, in the land of Canaan, heard that Bnei Yisrael were coming (40).


They journeyed from Ovot and encamped at Iyei Ha-avarim, on the border of Moav (44).


They journeyed from Almon-Divlataima and encamped in the mountains of Avarim, before Nevo (47).


They journeyed from the mountains of Avarim and encamped on the plains of Moav on the Yarden, near Yeriho (48).


They encamped on the Yarden, from Beit Ha-Yeshimot to Avel-Ha-Shittim, on the plains of Moav (49).


            A cursory glance at the above reveals that the entire middle section, verses 15-35, follows the standard format. All the deviations are concentrated in the first 14 verses and in the 14 verses at the end. The deviations – additions, elaborations – emphasize the departure from Egypt and entering the uninhabited desert, and then finally, after a lengthy stay in the desert, once again returning to civilization, specifically Eretz Yisrael. Within this context, we find a specific focus on water, hinted at in the mention of the three-day journey to Mara (verse 8; see Shemot 15:22) and Kadesh (verse 36), and mentioned explicitly at Eilim (verse 9) and Refidim (verse 14).


In other words, the beginning of Parashat Masei is not merely a list of all the places where Bnei Yisrael set up camp. It is a narrative, relating a story of courage and faith as Am Yisrael leave a civilized and irrigated land and follow the clouds of glory into the wilderness, armed only with a promise that they will eventually be taken to the Land of Israel. Seforno writes:


"These are the journeys” – The blessed God wanted the journeys of Israel to be recorded as to make known their merit in following Him "In the desert, in a land that was not sown," such that they were worthy of entering the Land. (Seforno, Bamidbar 33:1)


            In addition, it is a testament to Divine providence, as God sends Bnei Yisrael into the desert, miraculously tends to all their needs for forty years, and then leads them out of the wilderness and to the border of Eretz Yisrael. In his Moreh Nevukhim, Rambam explains the message of the list of stops as follows:


The need for the [list of names of the] places is very great, since all of the wonders are true [i.e., credible] only to one who saw them, but in the future they would be told as stories, and perhaps someone who hears them would deny. Clearly, it cannot be – nor could we depict – any wonder that would exist over the course of the generations, for all people [to see and appreciate]. One of the wonders of the Torah – and one of the greatest of them – is Israel's existence in the desert for forty years with the manna that appeared every day. This desert is, as the text mentions, a place of "snakes and serpents and scorpions, and thirst, where there is no water"; these places are very far from habitation; they are unnatural for man: "Not a place of sowing, of figs and grapes and pomegranates etc." The text also says, "A land in which no man passed through…" And the Torah writes, "You did not eat bread, nor did you drink wine or strong drink…." All of these are great, open, visible wonders. But since God knew that it would be possible for these wonders to come to be doubted in the future, as people doubt other stories, and they would think that [Am Yisrael's] stay in the desert was [surely] closer to places of habitation, such that people could conceivably live there – like those wildernesses in which the Arabs dwell today, or that these were places where it was possible to plough, to sow, and to reap, or to be nourished by one of the plants that grew there, or that it was a natural phenomenon for manna to descend there regularly, or that wells of water existed in those places – for this reason, He removes any such idea, and reinforces the miraculous nature of all of these wonders in describing those journeys, so that future generations would see and appreciate the greatness of the wonders – that human beings could exist in those places for forty years.


            The Ramban quotes the Rambam in his commentary, and it is therefore reasonable for us to interpret the Ramban’s comment from this perspective as well. Accordingly, the Ramban never asks why the Revelation at Sinai or the sin of the spies are omitted from the list; his question focuses on the contrast between Refidim and Mara. In both places, Bnei Yisrael suffer due to lack of water, yet regarding Mara there is only a hint, while explicit mention is made of the problem in Refidim; the Ramban therefore probes for the distinction between the two. The giving of the Torah, however important, is not part of the narrative describing the miraculous nature of the journey in the wilderness, and is therefore not mentioned in this particular context.


II. The Road From Mitzrayim to Yisrael


There is an additional idea that we can derive from the way the Torah describes the journey. Although there are various stops along the way, the journey is depicted as a continuum, beginning in Egypt and culminating at the shores of the Yarden. In fact, there are forty-two stops, which, according to the mystics, symbolically reference to one of Hashem’s names, which is comprised of forty-two letters. Based on this, there is a custom to read the entire section of the journey, without any breaks (see Mishna Berura 428:21), since Hashem and His name form an absolute unity. Although a mystical reference, it is reasonable that this perspective of unity reflects the nature of the journey as well.


The view of Yisrael’s travel through the wilderness as a unified continuous flow seems to run counter to the way we have analyzed Sefer Bamidbar in the previous shiurim. We have tried to show how the sefer describes the promising beginning of the journey and how it all came to a screeching halt. The Torah also contrasts the first generation, which was destroyed in the wilderness, with the second generation, which entered Eretz Yisrael. This perspective indicates discontinuity and interruption. The beginning of the campaign, recorded before "Vayehi binsoa," is separated from that which follows; the aimless wandering of the first generation following the meraglim is detached from the purposeful march towards a concrete destination of the second generation. How are we to resolve these contradictory perspectives? A brief look at a sugya in Bava Batra will be helpful. 


The gemara (Bava Batra 117a) records an argument regarding the division of Eretz Yisrael. According to one opinion, the land was divided among those who eventually entered Eretz Yisrael, while the other opinion maintains that the land was divided according to those who left Mitzrayim. For instance, if two brothers (neither a firstborn) left Mitzrayim, and one had one son while the other had three sons, the two brothers would receive equal portions and bequeath them to their children if we divide based on those who left Mitzrayim. Thus, the son of the first brother would receive a full portion, while each of the children of the second brother would receive a third of a portion. On the other hand, if the division is based on those who entered Yisrael, each of the four sons would receive a full portion. Of course, the opinion that the division is based on those who entered the land seems to make much more sense. Why should we go back a generation, which would result in an uneven distribution of the land at the point of the division? Moreover, the Torah explicitly says in reference to the second generation, “To these shall you divide the land” (Bamidbar 26:53).


On the other hand, the argument of the daughters of Tzelafchad (chapter 27), who requested the portion of their father, seems to indicate that he had a portion even though he wasn’t alive when Yisrael entered the land. In fact, the gemara clarifies that even the opinion that claims that the portions were divided among those that entered the land agrees that the division was also based on those that left Mitzrayim. For instance, in the aforementioned case of the two brothers, the four children would receive four portions, as we divide the land according to those who enter it, but these portions would then be divided based on the two brothers who left Mitzrayim. Each of the two brothers would posthumously receive two portions, which would then be divided among their respective heirs. Thus, the child of the first brother will receive two portions, while the three children of the second will have to divide the two portions of their father among themselves. Although this solves the problem of Tzelafchad, it seems like a ridiculous way to apportion the land.


The Rama (R. Meir Abulafya), in his commentary on the gemara in Bava Batra (Yad Rama), introduces the following insight: "Even though they [those who left Mitzrayim] already died before entry into the land, we view them as if they are alive during the entry into the land." In other words, even though the generation that left Mitzrayim perished in the wilderness, they entered the land vicariously through their children. This changes our entire perspective on the relationship between the two generations. The first generation did not fail totally; they succeeded in entering Eretz Yisrael through their children.


There is a continuum that began when Yisrael were redeemed from Mitzrayim, subsequently moved forward when they received the Torah at Sinai, and culminated when they reached their destination in Eretz Yisrael. In an ideal world, the whole process would have been completed in less than a year. However, in the world of historic reality, the journey extended for forty years and was completed by the offspring of the original travelers. Nevertheless, the ideal connecting Mitzrayim, Sinai, and Eretz Yisrael remains intact and is expressed in the strange way that the portions of the land were allotted.


These two perspectives on the journey are complementary, not contradictory. From a historical perspective, the first generation failed. After leaving Mitzrayim and receiving the Torah, they sinned and ultimately perished in the wilderness, and their descendants eventually succeed in reaching their destination.    


However, as we near the end of sefer Bamidbar, the Torah considers the journey through the wilderness from a meta-historical perspective. When viewed with this lens, the two generations merge as variant expressions of one unified entity – “Am Yisrael.” Yisrael became a nation in Mitzrayim, forged a covenant with Hashem at Sinai, and eventually arrive at the shores of the land promised to their fathers.