Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar: An In-depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha
Parshat Masei, the final parsha in the book of Bamidbar, opens with a retrospective listing of the forty-two stations that marked the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings.
What is the purpose of this after-the-fact travelogue? Why is this dry, technical information included in the eternal Torah text?
What possible lessons can be derived from this forty-nine-sentence itinerary?
The severity of these questions is, apparently, so deeply felt by the Ibn Ezra that he feels compelled to offer a revolutionary suggestion. The inclusion of the itinerary in the Torah was not “God’s idea.” Commenting on the passage’s introductory statement, “And Moshe wrote their goings forth, stage by stage, by the commandment of the Lord,”the Ibn Ezra explains that the phrase “by the commandment of the Lord” refers to the travels themselves (and not to their recording in the text by Moshe).
Towards the end of the Israelites’ forty-year period of wilderness wandering, this scholar maintains, the Israelites encamp for a number of months in the plains of Moab, departing only upon Aharon’s death. During that time, apparently of his own volition and for his own unstated purposes, Moshe records in retrospect the details of the Israelites’ wilderness journeys, which had all taken place “by the commandment of the Lord.”
The vast majority of scholars, including the Rambanand the Abravanel,however, take serious issue with the Ibn Ezra’s approach. Moshe, these authorities maintain, would never have recorded this detailed travelogue in the Torah of his own initiative. The very idea that Moshe could independently amend the text undermines our understanding of the Torah as “God’s word.” Additionally, the Torah does not need to tell us that the Israelites’ wilderness journeys took place by God’s commandment. This fact has already been clearly established in the text (see Beha’alotcha 2).
These scholars insist, therefore, in direct opposition to the Ibn Ezra, that the Torah specifically informs us that Moshe recorded the itinerary at God’s behest. Representing this viewpoint, the Rambam asserts that the phrase “by the commandment of the Lord” is designed to emphasize the divine origin of a passage that we might have otherwise found “useless.”
Like every other section of the Torah, these scholars maintain, the retrospective travelogue at the beginning of Parshat Masei is part of God’s message to His people. Confronted with this puzzling textual passage, we are tasked to uncover its divinely determined purpose.
Rising to this challenge, the authorities suggest a number of approaches to this section of text.
To cite a few…
In an opinion quoted in Rashi, Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan notes that the recorded route attests to God’s benevolence even in the realm of punishment. Although God, in response to the sin of the spies, had condemned the nation to forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites’ “wandering” was actually severely curtailed. Only forty-two stations are listed in the itinerary. Of these stations, fourteen served as stopping points during the first year after the Exodus, before the divine decree, while another eight stations were visited during the final year, before entry into the land. Over the span of thirty-eight years, therefore, a total of only twenty journeys took place. The Israelites’ wilderness experience was remarkably stable in spite of its tragic origins.
Like Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan, the Ba’al Akeida discerns indications of God’s compassion within the retrospective itinerary. This scholar maintains, however, that the considerations described are specific, rather than general. Each station listed in the text references a particular divine act of kindness bestowed on the people, from the elaborate details of the Exodus to the many miracles that sustained the nation during its wanderings.
Going one step further, the Tosafists detect a halachic purpose to this section of text. Jewish law obligates an individual, upon encountering a location where divine miracles occurred, to recite the blessing “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who performed a miracle for my forebears at this place.”In order to facilitate the fulfillment of this obligation, the Torah now records the locations in the wilderness where such miracles transpired.
Moving in a totally different direction, the Sforno argues that the wilderness itinerary does not extol God’s allegiance to the Israelites but, instead, the Israelites’ allegiance to God. For four decades, the people traveled at God’s behest, through stark, barren terrain, moving from station to station without prior knowledge of their immediate destination. This loyalty to God’s wishes now earns the nation the right to enter the Promised Land.
The most direct explanation for the inclusion of the Israelites’ wilderness itinerary in the text, however, is suggested by the Rambam in his Guide to the Perplexed. The Rambam maintains that this passage plays a critical role in establishing the veracity of the Torah’s narrative. With the passage of time, the Rambam suggests, doubts could easily develop concerning the authenticity of the miracles that marked the nation’s travels:
Miracles are only convincing to those who witnessed them, while coming generations, who know of them only from the account given by others, may consider them as untrue….
The greatest of the miracles described in the Law is the stay of the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years, sustained by the daily supply of [the heaven-sent] manna….
God, however, knew that, in the future, people might doubt the veracity of these miracles…they might think that the Israelites remained in the wilderness in a place not far from inhabited land, where it was possible to live [in the ordinary way]…or that they could plow, sow and reap, or live on vegetation [naturally growing along the route]; or that the manna came down regularly in those locations as an ordinary natural product; or that there were wells of water [along the route]….
In order to remove all these doubts, and to firmly establish the accuracy of the account of these miracles, Scripture enumerates all the stations [that marked the journey of the Israelites], so that the coming generations may see them and learn the greatness of the miracle[s] that enabled human beings to live in these places for forty years.
By carefully describing the route followed by the nation during their extended wilderness travels, a passage through barren wasteland that could only be survived through miraculous intervention, the Torah buttresses its own narrative concerning God’s miraculous care for the nation during their wilderness wanderings.
A striking observation offered by the Malbim grants a final perspective on the wilderness itinerary recorded at the beginning of Parshat Masei. This scholar notes that the parsha opens with the statement “These are the journeys of the children of Israel who went out of the land of Egypt according to their legions….”
As a rule, the Malbim maintains, a journey is defined by its destination, not by its point of departure. Why, then, does the Torah describe the Israelites’ journey by the fact that they “went out of the land of Egypt” and not as a journey “towards the land of Canaan.”
Incisively, the Malbim argues that the wilderness journey of the Israelites could not be defined as a journey towards Canaan. Arrival at the border of Canaan could have been, and initially had been, accomplished without passage along this tortuous route. Instead, the lengthy wilderness sojourn was specifically designed to “take the Israelites out of Egypt,” to purify the people from the defiling effects of centuries of servitude and immersion in Egyptian culture.
For this reason, He caused them [the Israelites] to wander in the wilderness; and they underwent numerous tribulations and were tested with numerous trials and experienced refinement after refinement, until they were purified and exchanged their “soiled garments” for “sanctified vestments” of pure and holy character….
Each step of the Israelites’ carefully recorded journey is designed to move the nation one step further from Egypt, to further complete their transformation from servile slaves into a nation worthy of its destiny. It is this journey of the spirit, described in a detailed itinerary as the book of Bamidbar begins to close, that defines the entire book in retrospect.