You wouldn’t think so, but in most Ashkenazi synagogues around the world, Bnei Yisrael’s forty two desert journeys that open our parsha are a reason [for the ba’al koreh] to break out in song, a special uplifting four part cadence that echoes the shirat hayam (song at the sea). Not to be outdone, a fascinating Yekkish (German Jewish) custom finds the forty two journeys written in special Ha’azinu [double column] shira style. Finally, Magen Avraham [428:8], a classic commentary on Shulchan Aruch records the custom based on Kabbalistic notions that we don’t break up the forty two journeys, making the first aliyah a rather lengthy one while making Monday/Thursday reading a whopping fifty three pesukim. All this for mostly anonymous journeys already taken and never to be repeated – so what’s going on here?
An enigmatic verse commences our journey tour: [Bamidbar, 33:2]
Moshe recorded their departures for their journeys according to Hashem’s command; these were the journeys for their departures
It is hard to miss the inversion of the journeys/departures – we will yet return to this point.
A simple question: why record all the pit-stops in the first place? Certain famous and/or notorious locations deserve special mention; names like Refidim (Amalek attack), Yam Suf [split-sea], Marah (bitter waters) certainly bear recap; but between you and I, would we have blinked had the Torah omitted almon divlasayma or reesa?
For Rashi, the main purpose of the Torah’s expansive delineation is to demonstrate Hashem’s kindness. Consider that the first fourteen journeys took place in the pre-spy era march to Israel [the 1st sixteen months] and eight happened on the back end [after thirty nine years] re-march to Israel, and one realizes that even though the Jews were punished to be desert wanderers, they enjoyed more than a modicum of stability. In fact, Bnei Yisrael stayed in one specific location [Kadesh] for 20 years. Thus their punishment is somewhat mitigated – for Hashem’s munificence extends to all.
Probing Rashi a bit deeper only frustrates – for we must understand why some places receive a mere 12 hour jaunt while others were the Jews’ pitched home for close to twenty years.
Rambam, [Moreh Nevuchim, 3:50] feels the Torah’s focus on extensive details is to verify the miraculous nature of the desert existence [an effective antidote to historical revisionism]. By listing the specific locales, the barrenness of the desert is borne out, effectively highlighting the incredible Divine miraculous sustenance of a nation, two million + strong. A flip side to Rambam’s coin, of course is demonstrating Bnei Yisrael’s incredible chessed neurayich – youthful faith/kindness that the nascent nation displays, as it willingly enters the desert without having it all “worked out”. It is this latter theme that Seforno finds in the expansive desert listings.
It is Rashi’s 2nd insight, spiced with a mystical Ohr HaChaim notion that moves me greatly.
First we must cite Seforno, who tackles our textual question (journeys for their departures/departures for the journey) by distinguishing between two types of travel; in life, we sometimes leave [in order] to go while other moments require one to go because we must leave. In the former it is the destination that is important while for the latter it is the departure that is key. Holocaust Jews seeking refuge were not picky about their destination; they were the prime example of the latter notion, while the North American aliyah movement, who wrest themselves from the comfortable ‘burbs of New York or bid adieu to their California palm trees, are a perfect example of the former. So too, the Jew in the desert had places he wanted to desperately depart from and destinations he so much pined for. The text’s dual terminology now becomes clear, for certain places inspired the Jew to leave while other destinations inspired him to look ahead and pine for that very destination.
We now turn to Rashi – who presents another notion for the Torah’s focus on detail:
R’ Tanchuma expounds: This is compared to a king whose son was 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 were chilled; here, your head ached, etc.’
To Rabbi Tanchuma, our parsha’s journey recap represents a nostalgic peek back at places that represent significant experiences that were and no longer are. The backwards glance presents the beneficiary [the son] with a deeper retrospective appreciation of what was accomplished at each stage. Why then does the Torah list every last journey? Because each and every place was an engine of growth, a necessary stop in the development and strengthening of Bnei Yisrael so that they were finally ready to dwell in God’s palace – the Holy Land of Israel.
In his depth, Rashi provides us with a total redefinition of a journey. For most, travel is a means, a way to close the gap between two points. For the Jew however, the journey is the essential thing. Amalek, our theological opposite, catch us on the road (1). In this world, a Jew is always on the road and his life is constantly under construction – a dynamic work in progress. [Woe to the one who thinks there’s nothing more to do]. As we move through life, we must consider where we are, where to grow and what we need to pick up in order to get there.
In a mystical and wondrous restatement of the very same notion, Ohr Hachaim, [Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar] the great Kabbalist teaches that Bnei Yisrael, the nation, was to draw out and internalize the resident sanctity, the sparks of holiness, found in every desert locale. Once accomplished, it was then time to move on. The more resident kedusha, the lengthier the stay [the less sanctity, the quicker the stop]. Thus Kadesh was the stop for 19 years. These kedusha infusions are able to fuel the journey that ultimately allows them entrée into Eretz Yisrael.
Three millennia after our forefathers walked the desert on their way to the Promised Land, the collective and the individual Jew remain wanderers. Many a Jew finds himself in places he had never dreamed of and perhaps in locations he cannot even spell. [Consider the Chabad kid who grew up in 770 and is now an emissary in Kathmandu, Nepal.] And like Seforno’s duality, many are aching to leave, while others are quite happy where they are – perhaps even forgetting where they need to be.
For those that want more, to move ahead, [get married, have children, more time, deeper avodat Hashem, better job, retire, improve health, fiscal security…], the challenge that Rashi/Ohr HaChaim and Seforno pose to us is that of drawing out the sanctity inherent in every life circumstance. We must consider:
Maybe I did not plan to be here and perhaps I won’t be here for that long, but while [and now that] I am here, it behooves me to probe the how/why I am, how can I grow from it and whither my aspirations.
To turn our journeys into destinations and our thoroughfares into points of departure becomes the lifelong task of the Jew. Specifically this time of year, the saddest part of our calendar requires that we consider how we got here – for it may just be our only way out. To the extent, that we can cultivate an awareness and vigilance of this task we will merit to reach our final destination.
Good Shabbos, Asher Brander
1. My friend Rabbi Pinchas Lebovic taught that Mishna Bava Kamma [1:1] calls man a mav’eh on the basis of the word ba’ee, the Aramaic term for desire/prayer. It is our desires, dreams and aspirations that form the essential definition of man.
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.