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The List of the Journeys

Rav Michael Hattin




The lengthy double parasha of Matot-Masei concludes the Book of Bemidbar.  In the first section of Matot, the Torah begins with a detailed description of laws relating to vows, and then continues with an account of the battle against Midian and its aftermath, as the booty is apportioned and then purified.  Parashat Matot concludes with the unexpected request of the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe to remain east of the Jordan in order to settle the recently conquered territory of the Amorite kings. 


The parasha of Masei opens with a listing of the people's journeys through the wilderness, and goes on to delineate the territory of the Land of Israel and then spell out its ideal borders.  It then describes the institution of Levitical cities, introduces the legislation concerning the cities of refuge, and concludes with an account of the daughters of Tzelofchad who married within their own tribe and secured an inheritance of land in Canaan.  As in the last few parashiyot and in a fitting conclusion to Sefer Bemidbar as a whole, much of this extended double section's attention pivots around the particular matter of the people's imminent entry into the Land.




This week, we will consider the significance of the listing of the wilderness journeys that introduces Parashat Masei, as we discover that two of the commentaries in fact offer a remarkable contrast of explanations for the matter:


These are the journeys of the people of Israel, who left the land of Egypt by the hand of Moshe and Aharon according to their hosts.  Moshe recorded their goings forth and their journeys by God's word, and these are their journeys and goings forth.  They journeyed from Ra'amses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of that first month, on the morrow of the Pesach the people of Israel went forth proudly in the plain view of all of Egypt.  The Egyptians were burying all of their firstborn that God had slain, and against their gods He executed judgements.  The people of Israel journeyed from Ra'amses and encamped at Sukkot.  They journeyed from Sukkot, and encamped at Eitam that is at the edge of the wilderness…(Bemidbar 33:1-6).


The passage goes on to succinctly detail a total of forty-two stops at which the people of Israel encamped, from the time that they left Egypt until they stood some forty years later at the gates of the land of Canaan.  While many of the exact place names cannot be located with absolute certainty, the general thrust of the journey is clear enough: slowly, Israel made its way eastwards from the Nile Delta, they then turned southwards to traverse the barren expanse of the Sinai peninsula, and eventually they continued in a northeasterly direction towards the territory of Edom that is itself located on the southeastern shores of the Dead Sea.  After skirting the Edomite lands as their odyssey reached its end, they entered the Transjordan and encamped for the final time on the eastern banks of the Jordan River.  It is important to note that while the Torah in our passage provides the list of encampments in summary form, the place names are for the most part already familiar to us from the earlier passages of Sefer Shemot and Sefer Bemidbar in which the various episodes were initially recorded.




In his opening comments on the parasha, Rashi ponders the meaning of the list:


Why were these encampments recorded?  It was to indicate God's great compassion.  Even though He had decreed that the people of Israel would wander in the wilderness and move from place to place, do not think that they were in constant motion from one encampment to the next for the entire forty-year period and had no respite whatsoever.  In fact, there are only forty-two encampments listed here.  Fourteen of them must be excluded from the total since those journeys took place during the first year after the Exodus and before the decree had been pronounced, as the people traveled from Ra'amses until Ritma.  It was from that location that the Spies were sent…A further eight must be excluded, for they took place after the death of Aharon as the people journeyed from Mount Hor until the Plains of Moav in the fortieth year.  Thus, over the course of thirty-eight years, there were only a total of twenty encampments (42 – 14 – 8 = 20).  This explanation is from the work of Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan (cited by Rashi, 11th century France, on 33:1).


As Rashi indicates, the Torah provides what seems to be an exhausting account of relentless movement.  In fact, the text itself, with its recurring short refrain of "they journeyed from X, and encamped at Y; they journeyed from Y, and encamped at Z" reinforces this impression by creating a cadence of motion.  But, explains Rashi, in reality more than half of these journeys took place during the relatively short time period of either the first or final year of that forty-year wilderness stay.  Thus, during the intervening period of thirty-eight years, the people only relocated twenty times, a number of moves probably not that incompatible with our modern-day migrations in search of livelihood, schools, or even recreation!  Therefore, concludes Rashi, the purpose of the Torah in presenting this data is to highlight God's compassion.  In the aftermath of the Spies, God had decreed that the people's children would be condemned "to wander in the wilderness for forty years and bear your (the parents') treachery, until your corpses perish in it" (Bemidbar 14:33).  But in truth, the children of Israel were forced to actively wander from place to place in the wilderness relatively little.   




We may reinforce Rashi's interpretation by considering it in light of his comments on Parashat Devarim.  There, as Moshe prepares to die, he remembers the history of the people's journeys in retrospect, recalling the main episodes in order to offer Israel alternating measures of censure and encouragement.  Concerning the aftermath of the Spies, Moshe remarks:


Though you returned and cried out before God, God would not listen to your voice and would not pay heed to you.  You dwelt in Kadesh for many days, as many as the days that you dwelt.  We then turned and traversed the wilderness by the way of Yam Suf as God spoke to me, and we circled Mount Se'ir for many days (Devarim 1:45 – 2:10).


Rashi, drawing upon the early Rabbinic chronology of the Seder Olam, comments:


The dwelling in Kadesh was for a period of nineteen years.  Thus the verse states: "You dwelt in Kadesh for many days, AS MANY AS THE DAYS THAT YOU DWELT," to indicate that the thirty-eight years were divided up between Kadesh and the other journeys.  In other words, the dwellings of Kadesh were equivalent to the days that they dwelt elsewhere.  Thus, for nineteen years they remained at Kadesh, and for nineteen years they journeyed and wandered…(commentary to Devarim 1:46).


The oasis of Kadesh Barne'a, identified by some with E'in al-Koodiraat about seventy-five kilometers south of Be'er Sheva, is not a barren wasteland.  In fact, it is a fertile expanse that provides welcome relief from the otherwise brown monotony of the dry Negev.  Dwelling at Kadesh is thus not an altogether unpleasant experience.  Though Rashi's tradition increases the average number of journeys to one per year (nineteen encampments in nineteen years versus twenty encampments in thirty-eight years), it has the more striking effect of recasting the entire wilderness experience. 


From the totality of Rashi's interpretation, it emerges that there are in fact four discrete periods that elapsed from the time that the people left Egypt until they encamped at the gates of Canaan.  The first period, from the Exodus until the sending of the Spies, was one of intense movement.  The last period, from the conclusion of the forty years heralded by Aharon's death until the people came to the banks of the Yarden was also a period of wearying dynamism.  The preceding nineteen years were a time of measured movement as the people plodded from place to place after they had left Kadesh Barne'a behind but before the generation of the wilderness had died out.  But the most remarkable interval of all was the time that the people spent at Kadesh, for after the Spies returned with their negative report and God condemned the people to oblivion, they MOVED NOT AT ALL FOR A PERIOD OF NINETEEN YEARS! 


Such a lengthy stay in one place certainly succeeded in warding off the fatiguing burden of breaking up camp and setting it up again at another location, and as far as Rashi is concerned that may be definitive.  God's compassion was certainly manifest.  However, the people's extended stay at Kadesh, mired in its grasp like a proverbial stick in the mud, might also suggest a more ominous reality.  They were a generation sentenced to the dulling effects of total and complete stasis, for that is the destiny that they had chosen for themselves by rejecting the dynamic promise of the new land.  The immense and energetic progress associated with the initial Exodus from Egypt was therefore suddenly and utterly arrested at Kadesh Barne'a.  Thus, God was not only compassionate, but just and stern as well.




In his pithy comments, the Seforno (15th century, Italy) offers a completely different reading.  Though he does not necessarily disagree with Rashi's chronology of events, he certainly takes issue with Rashi's conclusion.  Rather than highlighting the relative ease that the people experienced in serving their sentence, for Seforno the lengthy listing of encampments points to something else entirely:


God blessed be He wanted Israel's journeys to be recorded in order to make their merit known, for they followed Him into the wilderness in a land not sown.  In this way, they became worthy to enter the land. 


The Seforno then goes on to amplify the idea:


Moshe recorded the places that they journeyed towards as well as those that they left behind, for sometimes their destination was utterly bad while the location that they had left was good…sometimes, the opposite happened.  Furthermore, the journeys were recorded because they were called upon to leave their encampment with no prior warning, which was exceedingly difficult, but nevertheless they did not refuse.  Thus, it recorded concerning each one of the stops that "they journeyed from such-and-such a place and encamped at such-and-such a place," for both the journey as well as the encampment were difficult.




In other words, the Torah provides us with a list of the people's journeys and encampments in order to emphasize the great trial of the wilderness.  Though they did not know were God would lead them, though they were called upon to break up camp at short notice, though they often had to leave behind a suitable location only to arrive at a miserable one instead, still they followed Him.  And while Rashi highlights the fact that at Kadesh they remained for nineteen years while during the course of another nineteen years they relocated only twenty times, Seforno sees no reason to take comfort.  After all, it is not only what transpired in retrospect that is significant, but also WHAT THE PEOPLE ACTUALLY EXPERIENCED IN REAL TIME.  And in real time, they simply did not know if their stay at Kadesh would last for a day, a month or a year. 


For Seforno, then, the hallmark of the wilderness experience as well as its great promise was the inherent instability and unpredictability that characterized it.  Besides the certainty of mortality, only one other constant colored its drab landscapes, and that was the assurance of God's ongoing guidance.  Though that guidance could seem at times capricious or cruel, it was never absent, and so the people of Israel grudgingly followed, unaware that as the seasons marched on and the decades slipped past, they were gradually transformed by His word into a nation with unshakable faith.  And finally in possession of that most precious of attributes, they were at last ready to enter and to settle the land.




It is therefore no wonder that immediately after this concise account of the journeys and encampments, the Torah turns its attention to a discussion of the command to possess the land (33:50-56), a passage that is in turn immediately followed by a delineation of Israel's borders in the land of Canaan (34:1-15).  In fact, our section is also preceded by similar matters, for immediately prior to Parashat Masei is the involved account of the so-called "two and one-half tribes" securing their territory in the Transjordan.  It is as if the Torah wanted to intentionally contrast these accounts of possession and settlement with the narratives of the journeys, in order to indicate the great change that Israel underwent during the course of those forty years that made such possession possible.  Tempered by the deprivation of the wilderness and nurtured on its instability, the people of Israel acquired steadfast trust.  And for nations, as well as for individuals, that is life's most precious possession of all.


Shabbat Shalom

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