Mattot-Masei

Bamidbar Comments Off 56

the wandering Jews

The Book of Numbers, which started with the counting of the people, now draws to a close with the counting of places. In many synagogues a special tune is used to chant the 42 separate locations at which the Israelites encamped during their wanderings in the wilderness. But why is this long travel itinerary necessary?  

Two traditional commentators suggest contrasting reasons for God’s command to Moses to record an exact list of all the places the Israelites camped during their years in the wilderness.

Rashi (France, C11-12th) suggests that the travelogue is actually a tribute to God’s kindness, emphasizing that that the people had to move camp less than once every year. It also marks the care that they were shown at every stage of their long journey from slavery to freedom.  To highlight the point, Rashi cites a touching Midrash:

This is compared to a king whose son fell ill, and he brought him to a distant place for treatment. When they returned, the father began enumerating all the journeys. He said to him ‘Here, we slept; here, we rested in the shade; here, your head ached…’

Sforno (Italy, C15-16th) takes a converse approach: the list of places is intended to praise not God, but the Israelites, and to demonstrate their dedication throughout years of hardship. At the end of the book of Bamidbar, which chronicles the complaints and failings of the Jewish people, the Bible takes pains to balance the negative picture with a reminder of the trust they showed facing the challenges of the wilderness for forty long years.

The history of the Jewish people is in many ways a history of journeys, and almost every family can record its own list of places that been have passed through by former and current generations. For some of these journeys, the approach taken by Rashi rings true, and we can point to the moments of respite and kindness that have marked different stages on the way. But for many of these journeys the approach suggested by Sforno seems more fitting, as we look back with awe at the courage shown by those before us, in the face of unimaginable challenges and hardships.

Different as the two approaches are, both suggest that it is our responsibility to record and remember the journeys of previous generations that have led us to where we find ourselves today. The special nature of these journeys is hinted at in the curious verse that introduces the list of places in our reading:

And Moses wrote their points of origin for their journeys (motzehem l’masehem) at God’s command, and these are their journeys to their points of origin (masehem l’motzehem).” (Numbers 33: 2).

A number of commentators note the curious wording of this sentence, and particularly the way in which, at the end of the verse, the wording of the first part is reversed to refer to their people’s “journeys to their point of origin”. The unusual wording seems to suggest, that even as we move forwards we are bringing our past with us, and even returning to it. As contemporary scholar Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has put it:

As we move down the road of time we must always keep in front of our eyes the places of our origin. We chart our future by rediscovering our past… The points of our origin must be the goal of our future.

In others’ words

“As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.”

Shai Agnon, Address on being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1966

On a lighter note

Heard from a Jewish stand-up comedian:
And now I’d like to perform my impression of Moses’ wife: “Moses, we’ve been wandering for forty years in the wilderness. Ask directions already!”

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