For many of us, traveling on a long journey is a vacation; especially here in the United States, where we have come to glorify long family road trips. We consider them recreational, fun, and a time for parents and children to be together.
Even before the advent of the automobile and the superhighway, a journey was thought to be a pleasant and even edifying experience. Thus, the early 19th century British essayist, William Hazlitt, included an essay entitled On Going a Journey in his delightful collection, Table Talk. Among the statements in this essay, Hazlitt avers, “One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I like to go by myself.”
Somehow, from the perspective of the Jewish history, journeys are not at all pleasant. “Wandering Jew” is an epithet that has been applied to us, sometimes out of sympathy and sometimes out of scorn, but never as a compliment. Never in our tradition is wandering viewed as pleasant. For us wandering is galut, exile.
Interestingly, the very act of travel is seen in our tradition as negative. Abram, when he set out to travel the long distance from his birthplace to the Holy Land, was given a special blessing to counteract the effects of the journey. “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great…” (Genesis 12:2) On this verse, Rashi comments that this tripartite blessing was necessary because “the road interferes with reproduction, diminishes financial success, and makes it difficult to achieve a name, a reputation.”
The very title of this week’s Torah portion, Masei, means journeys. The portion begins with a long and detailed description of the many way stations which punctuated the long and arduous journey that our ancestors traveled in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. There is something about the mere recitation of these verses that suggests a slow and arduous process. The travel through the wilderness was no pleasant interlude.
I have always found it somehow ironic that the custom is to chant the monotonous list of journeys and sojourns with a triumphant melody. Listen, and you will hear as the Torah reader, almost joyfully, sings aloud, “And they journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, and pitched in Dophkah… and they journeyed from Dophkah, and pitched in Alush.” (Numbers 33:12-13)
Why do the stages of a tortuous 40-year-long trip through the desert deserve musical accompaniment? After all, this ordeal was a punishment for the Jewish people, as we read several weeks ago in the Torah portion of Shelach. It was as a result of the sin of the spies that all of this traveling became necessary. Absent that sin and the journey would have been one of days, and not one of long and hot and aimless wandering during which an entire generation slowly died out.
I think that the reason for the singsong chanting of the masa’ot, of the stations along the journey, has to do with the rest of this week’s Torah portion. For immediately after the long list of brief stops on the painful journey, at the conclusion of all that travail, God says to Moses, “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: when ye pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan… ye shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein; for unto you have I given the land to possess it… and ye shall inherit the land by lots according to your families…” (Numbers 33:51-54)
Aimless wandering, with no end in sight, is torture. But a journey with a clear destination, on the other hand, is a wondrous experience, despite its many obstacles. Without the promise of the inheritance, without the assurance of an eventual place for our families to take root, the many way stations would be chanted to a very solemn melody, perhaps even to the melody of Lamentations, which we will soon read on the Ninth of Av.
But with the vision promised to us, with the delineation of the exact borders and boundaries of our lands, all of the suffering along the way somehow becomes worthwhile. The lengthy list of way stations becomes transformed into the lyrics of a triumphant marching song.
It is not by coincidence that we read the portion of Masei during the three weeks prior to Tisha B’Av. These are three weeks reserved for reflection upon the experience of exile, upon the trials and tribulations of the centuries-long journey through “the desert of the nations”. This week’s Torah portion begins with the long passage which foreshadows that experience.
But during these three weeks, the shlosha d’purinita, while we deprive ourselves of all manner of special celebrations, we are at least aware of the seven weeks which are to follow. These are the seven weeks of consolation, the shiva d’nechemta, during which we rejoice for the conclusion of exile and celebrate our ultimate return to the Promised Land.
The words of the opening chapter of Masei drive home the painstaking station-by-station journey through history. But the accompanying marching melody assures us that celebration and triumph lie ahead.