On the Road Again

Mas'ei, Numbers 33:1-36:13

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Judith R. Beiner

Focal Point

  • These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 33:1)
  • They set out from Rameses. . . . (Numbers 33:3)
  • They encamped by the Jordan from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim, in the steppes of Moab. (Numbers 33:49)

D'var Torah

One of the most entertaining TV shows of all time was I Love Lucy. Many of us grew up watching the antics of Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel, and we grew to love them as if they were members of our own families. In more than a few episodes, this fabulous four found themselves on the road and, irrespective of the journey, always encountered the unexpected: they met unsavory characters, ran out of gas, lost their way, and often ended up sharing a hotel room. Of course, each episode was written and performed for laughs, and viewers always knew that by the end of the episode the two couples would reach their destination safely, with their friendship intact.

Would that it had been so simple for the Israelites! In Parashat Mas’ei, we read a review of the Israelite journeys through their forty years in the desert. The names of the forty-two locations where the Israelites sojourned are enumerated. Like the Ricardos and the Mertzes, the Israelites encountered the unexpected—unsavory characters, hunger, and uncertainty. Yet B’nei Yisrael’s journey was not orchestrated by the human mind, but was designed by God. The point of our journey was not fun or entertainment, but to find our way home. Our sojourns in the desert were meant to lead us out of our wanderings to redemption.

Throughout our history, Jews have constantly been on the move. Yet our traveling has always been purposeful, with starting points and final destinations clearly defined. Abraham began the journey from Haran to the Promised Land, with the mission of spreading monotheism. In the next stage of our journey, Moses led our people from slavery to freedom, traveling the road of redemption. Throughout our days in exile, our sights were set on Eretz Yisrael, and our hearts were focused on Jerusalem.

In enumerating the forty-two encampments of the Israelite wanderings, Moses exclusively uses the same expression: vayisu, “and they set out,” which can also be read as “and they journeyed.” This refrain, heard again and again, emphasizes their moving toward their goal. The forty years in the desert were by no means purposeless meanderings. They were years of fear and uncertainty, but also of struggling to find faith, as evidenced by God’s presence throughout. The time spent en route to the Promised Land was filled with experiences of learning and growth, enabling our people to become a community. As memories of Egypt faded into the background, the people continually moved forward, both physically and spiritually, to reach their objective.

In our lifetime, most of us have embarked on a road trip with our families, youth groups, or friends. While our destination may have been the beach, the mountains, or a big city, often the time spent getting there is when the memories are made and when the greatest transformations occur. Spending hours on a bus with thirty-five other people—sharing sights, new experiences, meals, and even getting stuck in traffic—can often turn assorted individuals into a community. Or the spontaneous, off-the-Trip-Tik stop can give rise to a story that becomes part of family lore, in addition to an unforgettable vacation moment. Given the gifts of time and shared transportation, individuals have the opportunity to learn from one another, find mutual interests, and grow from communal experiences.

Journeys are not limited to physical movements and sightseeing. Countless individuals have been transformed by spiritual travel as well. Some are motivated by the loss of a loved one, a change in family situation, or a deep-seated soul searching. Journeys like these can be fraught with challenges, such as living alone for the first time, missing the warm presence and reassuring voice of a deceased relative or friend, or feeling lost in a worship service where the words and melodies are foreign. During a personal journey, most people have moments when failure seems imminent and desperation sets in. Yet, like muscles that get stronger the more they are worked, so it is with the human spirit in confronting trials. The more we allow ourselves to live fully and embrace the full range of human emotion, the greater will be our ability to find happiness. Adversity gives rise to great strength, and pain and loss can be replaced by passion and purpose. Our souls can be transformed.

The forty-two stops recounted by Moses in Mas’ei represent forty years of wandering. Yet Rashi calculates that “if we omit the first and last years, when the Israelites were constantly on the move, there were only 20 stations visited during 38 years” (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, ed. David L. Lieber [New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 2001], p. 954). Thus, it is incorrect to think of Israel as constantly on the march. Rather during most of the forty years in the desert, the Israelites were living normally at one oasis or another for years at a time. It took forty years of living, learning, and growing for B’nei Yisrael to be transformed by their desert wanderings—dwelling longer in some places than in others. Each stop along the way had a purpose and ultimately equipped them for the next stage of their sojourn.

Our life’s journey is challenging and unpredictable. May we always be able to see ourselves en route, wherever our final destination may be.

By the way. . .

  • The Zohar understands the recounting of these 42 stations on a mystical level. According to the Kabbalah, God brought the world into being by virtue of the first 42 letters of the Torah, the 42 building blocks or stages of creation. The 42 stations of travel in Masei echo the genesis of the world and reflect a second process of creation, one that lasted 42 years. In recounting the 42 journeys, Moses now tells B’nai Israel that in fact, a new creation has occurred. The creation of the nation has paralleled the world. (Aryeh Ben David, Around the Shabbat Table: A Guide to Fulfilling and Meaningful Shabbat Table Conversations [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 2000], p. 294)
  • Wandering Jew [Ahasuerus]. Figure from a medieval Christian legend. The story concerns a Jerusalem cobbler called Ahasuerus, condemned to wander eternally for taunting Jesus on his way to the crucifixion. (Daniel Cohn-Sherbok, The Blackwell Dictionary of Judaica [Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1992], p. 567)

Your Guide

  1. How has your life been transformed by a journey?
  2. Looking back at your family history, have you or your ancestors wandered from one city or country to another? What were the reasons for your wanderings?
  3. Compare and contrast the process of the creation of the world in Genesis and the creation of the nation of Israel in the rest of the Torah. How do they complement one another?
  4. Discuss your most memorable road trip. What parts had the greatest impact, and what were the results?
Reference Materials

<em>Mas'-ei</em>, Numbers 33:1-36:13 <br />
  <em>The Torah: A Modern Commentary</em>, pp. 1,222-1,250; Revised Edition, pp. 1,117-1,133; <br />
  <em>The Torah: A Women's Commentary</em>, pp. 1,013-1,036<br />

Originally published: