by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
The last reading in Bamdibar [Numbers] is called "Masei", meaning travels or
journeys. This reading begins with an enumeration of the various stops that
Israel made between Egypt and the Land of Israel during 40 years in the desert.
Many commentators discuss why they are listed here, especially because the
trips are also recorded in the Torah at the appropriate places. Rashi
(Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) and the Ramban (Nachmanides) both offer an
interesting insight [in the name of Rabbi Moshe the speaker, in Medrash
Agada]: this list displays G-d's kindnesses towards Israel.
Because of the episode of the spies, G-d decreed upon Israel that they
should wander for 40 years in the desert - and all of the travels were
indicated by a pillar (a cloud during the day, a pillar of fire at night),
that led them when G-d commanded them to move. The image generated is a
group forced to wander across the hot desert, stumbling from place to place,
offered little rest until, at long last, the last of the first generation
passed away and the 40 years came to an end.
The image is quite mistaken, as Rashi demonstrates with a simple bit of
subtraction. The total count of the journeys is 42. Take off the first 14
from this number, which were all made during the first year before the spies
were sent into the Land of Israel. Also subtract the final 8, which occur
during the last year, following the death of Aharon, as Israel finally moves
forward to occupy its homeland. Thus the intervening 38 year period was
marked by only 20 moves, close to two years, on average between trips. This
is a clear demonstration how even an evil decree is tempered by G-d's kindness.
The Ramban also quotes the Rambam [Maimonides] in his Guide to the
Perplexed, where the Rambam indicates that there is a "great need" to
recount the journeys, related to the Manna that the Jews ate in the desert.
He says that these journeys delineate where the Jews travelled, in order
that doubters in future generations could go and see for themselves that the
locations are not fit for agriculture or even basic survival. These
doubters, he explains, might think that the Jews lived in "a place where
people go, like those deserts which the Arabs settle today," in order that
they might offer an alternative to belief in the miracle of Manna.
This struck me as a practical lesson in "the more things change, the more
they stay the same." In our era, people consider it a sign of modernity and
sophistication not to believe in miracles. [As I mentioned when we began
BaMidbar, I received mail a few months ago offering a theory that the Manna
was actually a certain hallucenogenic mushroom.] Without debating miracles
or their validity, it is worthwhile to note that Maimonides dealt with the
issue some 700 years ago - and asserts that the Torah predicted it several
millenia before. In the words of our wisest Sage [King Solomon in Koheles
Ecclesiastes], "there's nothing new under the sun!"
Text Copyright © 1995 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.