Shabbat Parshat Masei
At the end of the Israelites’ journey, Moshe reviews the various stages that brought them to this point:
These are the journeys (MAS’EI) of the Children of Israel, who left from the land of Egypt by their legions, by the hand of Moshe and Aharon. And Moshe wrote their goings-out by their journeys (MOTZAEIHEM L’MAS’EIHEM) by the Mouth of Hashem (AL PI HASHEM); and these are their journeys by their goings out (MAS’EIHEM L’MOTZAEIHEM). … (Bamidbar 33:1- 2).
Then the Torah records all the journeys, from Rameses in Egypt to the Plains of Moav along the western side of the Jordan.
The symmetrical, mirror-image phrases MOTZAEIHEM L’MAS’EIHEM … MAS’EIHEM L’MOTZAEIHEM are difficult to translate. What is the difference between MOTZA, which we have translated provisionally as “going-out,” and MASSA, “journey”? Why is the order reversed? And what do these introductory verses contribute to our understanding of our ancestors’ journeys?
Ibn Ezra says MOTZA, derived from the causative (hif’il) form of Y-TZ-A, means here “to bring out.” Hence MOTZAEIHEM means “how they left from one place to another,” and L’MAS’EIHEM AL PI HASHEM clarifies MOTZAEIHEM. Ibn Ezra’s translation is, “their departures, by their journeys at Hashem’s command”: This is an account of each departure, on which the Israelites embarked by Hashem’s directive, as part of their overall journeys. Along these lines, Chizkuni (R. Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th Century) reminds us that this account is the realization of the verse:
By the mouth of Hashem they would encamp, and by the mouth of Hashem they would travel (above 9:20).
Ramban disagrees with Ibn Ezra’s punctuation, saying AL PI HASHEM does not qualify the journeys, but rather Moshe’s writing of the journeys: He recorded them because Hashem commanded him to do so.
Although Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni do not address the reversal of the terms, it is possible that they regard it as part of the general poetic structure of the passage. (In many communities, it is customary to read the journeys using the familiar melody of the Song at the Sea, Shemot 15:1-19.)
Accordingly, this is an example of chiasmus, a very common rhetorical structure in the poetic sections of the Tanach, in which two parts of a line have their elements reversed; however, there is no substantial difference in meaning between the two parts.
Ha’ketav V’ha’kabbalah (R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, 1785-1865) and R. Baruch ben Yechiel Michel HaLevi Epstein (1860-1942), in his commentary Tosefet Beracha suggest a different analysis of MOTZA, based on the following precedents:
And the two men returned and they descended from the mountain, and they crossed over and came to Yehoshua bin-Nun, and they told him all that befell (HA’MOTZOT) them (Yehoshua 2:23).
And Moshe told his father-in-law all that Hashem had done to Pharaoh and to Israel regarding Israel: all the travail that befell them (M’TZAATAM) on the way, and Hashem rescued them (Shemot 18:8).
Hence, MOTZA derives from M-TZ-A, which generally means “to find,” and here connotes “to occur, befall.” Thus, MOTZAEIHEM L’MAS’EIHEM translates as “their events during their journeys.” In a number of instances the sites are given special names according to what occurred there (see, for example, Rashi on verse 18). Moreover, this translation points to the purpose of recording the journeys, namely, in order to recall what transpired during the forty years in the wilderness:
Hashem’s care for Israel, and Israel’s trust in Hashem, when they ventured into the unknown realm of Snakes, vipers, scorpions and thirst, where there is no water (Devarim 8:15).
This is similar to Rashi’s (v.1) rationale for recording the journeys (based on Midrash Tanchuma 3): A parable. To what may it be compared? To a king whose son was ill and whom he took to a distant land to be cured. When they returned home the father began to enumerate all the stages, saying to him, “Here we slept. Here we caught cold. Here you had a headache.” So the Holy One, Blessed be He, said, “Moshe! Enumerate all the places of Israel’s fortyyear sojourn”
Ha’ketav V’ha’kabbalah explains the reversal: Now that it has been established that Moshe recorded the events throughout their journeys (MOTZAEIHEM L’MAS’EIHEM), the text can now be satisfied with simply listing the names of the stages, which are based on the incidents that occurred (MAS’EIHEM L’MOTZAEIHEM).
Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550) defines MOTZA as “point of departure,” and MASSA as “destination.” Moshe wrote both, “because at times the destination was absolutely terrible, and the place from which they traveled was good, … and at times the opposite happened.”
This accounts for the reversal: under all circumstances, they accepted without fail the hardships of traveling from the unfamiliar to the unfamiliar.
The Dubno Maggid, R. Yaakov ben Wolf Kranz (1741-1804) approaches this idea from a different perspective, with the help of a parable: After the death of his wife a man remarried, but his second wife was very cruel to his son. Eventually, the man arranged a shidduch for his son with the daughter of a prominent scholar and philanthropist in a distant town. The father and son began their journey to meet with the bride and her family. After a while, the son asked the wagon driver, “How far have we traveled?” -- “Five miles.” And later, “How far?” -- “Ten miles.”
Some time later, the father asked the driver, “How far are we from the town?” -- “Only three miles to go.”
When the son wondered why his father asked differently, the father said, “You do not yet know your bride or her father; you have only relied on my judgment. But you do know your stepmother’s cruelty, and you want to get as far from it as you can. I, on the other hand, have met your bride and her father, and I know what a wonderful life awaits you.”
Similarly, Moshe takes both his perspective and the people’s into account.
In life’s journeys, we benefit from understanding both what we have left behind and what lies ahead.