“Reflecting on Our Own Journeys”
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This week we read two parashot, Matot and Masei, the last parashot of the book of B’midvar. At the beginning of the second parashah, the Torah provides the names of each and every camp the Israelites established during their journey in the desert.
It is written at the beginning of parashat Masei:
“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.
The Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. They set out from Etham and turned about toward Pi-hahiroth, which faces Baal-zephon, and they encamped before Migdol. They set out from Pene-hahiroth and passed through the sea into the wilderness; and they made a three-days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and encamped at Marah. They set out from Marah and came to Elim …”. (B’midbar 33:1-15)
And so on; the Parashah mentions the forty-two places where the people of Israel camped during their wandering in the desert for forty years.
Why is the Torah spending so much space mentioning the names of these places? It seems to be a mere list of places. What could be the meaning of this?
I would like to share with you some reasons our sages proposed for understanding these questions:
1) God’s Miracles: in the Midrash B’midbar, Rabbah says that the names of the camps are listed so that we can remember all the miracles that God did for the people of Israel during the journey in the desert for forty years.
In the wilderness, with no source of food, water, shelter or fortress for protection, the only shelter was God and their faith. Each name of a camp reminds us of another miracle God did for our people.
According to this information, the travels are enumerated to emphasize and highlight God’s power, and to ensure that the Israelites recognize God’s strength.
2) People of Israel’s mistakes: The Midrash also offers a second explanation. It says that God commanded Moses to “recount to the Israelites all the places where they provoked Me.” In other words, this view suggests that the detailed review will act as a rebuke to the Israelites, for according to the Midrash, every place that is listed was a locus of sins committed by the Israelites. Remembering each campsite is a way to have in mind their mistakes and to learn from them.
3) People of Israel’s faith: Sforno, a medieval commentator, offers a third explanation. In contrast to the second interpretation of the Midrash, Sforno explains that the Torah’s listing acts to praise the Jewish nation.
Despite the difficult path through which God led them, despite all of the stops they made along the way, the Israelites remained faithful to God. Thus, the list of their stopping points highlights the challenges they faced. This by extension, praises their faith and courage.
Thus, we may affirm that this list of places is not superfluous, but an opportunity to remember the miracles and blessings the people of Israel experienced and to be thankful for them; to remember their mistakes in order to regret and learn from them; and to value the strength, faith, and courage of our people during their journey in the desert.
I believe the message of this week’s parashah can inspire us to reflect on our own journeys in our lives. To stop and think about all the places we have travelled and all the experiences we have lived until today. This meditation can lead us to thank all the beautiful things we lived, learn from our mistakes, and value our strength and courage.