More Than an Itinerary
by Rabbi Zvi Grumet
Sefer Bemidbar Sinai is known by Chazal as Chumash Hapekudim, the Book of Countings. It is framed by countings in both its opening and closing, and many (including Netziv and Ramban) have commented on this particular structure, noting that it informs us of the very essence of the Sefer. If the counting at the beginning serves as somewhat of a "snapshot" of the people and the same can be said for the counting at the end, then the thrust of the book describes how and why that picture changed throughout forty years in the desert.
Assuming the above to be correct, we are presented with an interesting epilogue that follows the second counting. Indeed, the opening of this week's Parsha, which is part of that epilogue, has raised more than a few questions. The Parsha begins with a detailed description of the travels of the Jewish People through the desert. Aside from the technical questions that most of the commentaries address, for example, that the account of the travels presented here occasionally conflicts with other accounts in the Chumash, there is the fundamental question of why there is a need for such a description in the first place. Why are the specific places of encampment important enough for the Torah to recount in such careful detail?
To be sure, many of the names used (which appear here uniquely and are never referred to elsewhere) are evocative of events or places that are described earlier. For example, Metuka is reminiscent of the tree Moshe tossed into the bitter waters to sweeten them, and Har Shapar (literally, "good mountain") evokes images of Mount Sinai (which, interestingly enough, is not mentioned explicitly in the list). In fact, there is an entire series of encampments that seem to be more descriptive of an emotional or spiritual journey than a desert trek! From their emergence as a Congregation (Kehilata) they moved to the Good Mountain (Har Shapar); from the Good Mountain they went to Trembling (Charada); from Trembling to a new Gathering (Makhalut), and so on. Reading the list of their encampments sounds much like a retelling of Bnai Yisrael's experiences through the lens of geography.
Perhaps, then, that is the very purpose of the description. As the Jews are preparing to enter the Land after a forty-year period of transformation, the Torah tries to capture the essence of that transformation and its various stages, and through the poetic transmutation of events into places using appropriately evocative names puts the desert trek into a new perspective for the people. This is not a dry description of an itinerary or of motel stops, but a glorious retelling of the emergence of the Jewish People as a nation receiving the Torah and preparing to take their place in history in the fulfillment of Hashem's promise to our forefathers. Each stop along the way represents another rung on the ladder of preparation for the ultimate mission.
There is an interesting custom to read these verses from the Torah using a special tune. Were these verses merely a travel plan it would be difficult to understand this custom; why highlight a dry description with a special tune? If, however, these verses are a poetic portrayal of the inner journey of a people, we fully understand the triumphant tone taken in proclaiming them aloud. The transformation of the people as framed by the two countings in the book is celebrated in song as we prepare for the final stages of that journey in the Promised Land.
by Avi Levine
At the end of Parshat Masei, the Torah discusses accidental killings and Ir Miklat, cities of refuge. One interesting aspect of this process is that a murderer may leave the Ir Miklat once the Kohen Gadol dies: Ki Ba'ir Miklato Yeshev Ad Mot Hakohen Hagadol, Ve'acharei Mot Hakohen Hagadol Yashuv Harotzeach El Eretz Achuzato (35:28). What does the Kohen Gadol's death have to do with the murderer going back home? The Rambam offers the following explanation: It is the nature of a person that when he suffers a great misfortune, if others share his misfortune his own personal suffering is alleviated. Therefore, although the family of the deceased suffers greatly, the death of the Kohen Gadol, the one death felt strongly throughout the Jewish People, offers partial consolation to the family. Therefore, the accidental murderer is allowed to leave at that point.
This idea can help all those suffering to cope with their misery. When someone is in pain, his suffering is increased because he feels, "I am the only one who suffers so much." However, if he simply opens his emotions to the world around him, he will see how much others are suffering. Suddenly his personal pain is placed in a more positive perspective. He may still feel the sting of his pain, but he realizes how much those around him feel the same way.
However, a word of caution is needed. If you choose to use this method to alleviate someone else's pain, you must be careful. A person usually does not want to hear that someone else is suffering more than he is. Rather, your plea to him should have a personal connection to him. You must show that you really care, and you must not only take into account what you want to say but also how the person on the receiving end will take it.
by Ashrei Bayewitz
In the beginning of Parshat Masei, the Torah spends a number of Pesukim listing the Jews' journeys during their 40 years in the desert. This list appears to have no bearing on the flow of the story, nor is their any apparent Mitzva being transmitted in this section. What possible benefit can we get from knowing each and every place Bnai Yisrael camped?
Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch offers the explanation that perhaps the Torah was being pragmatic in this listing. He reasons that over the course of 38 years, numerous personal experiences occurred to each member of Bnai Yisrael - not significant enough to be mentioned in the Torah, but worthy to be recalled by those affected, their families, and their descendants. Since these experiences were not recorded, their memories must be kept alive through oral tradition. This listing in our Parsha was meant to serve as an aid to help remember the personal experiences at each rest stop.
Rambam takes a different approach and notes in his philosophical work Moreh Nevuchim that this listing is vital - it substantiates all the miracles performed in the desert. How so? The desert was described by the Torah as a place of "fiery serpents, snakes, and scorpions" (Devarim 8:15). It cannot support life as it is "a land where no man passed through and where no man dwelt" (Yirmiyahu 2:6). Although these miracles were witnessed by multitudes of people, they had only a temporary impact. Hashem knew that future generations would doubt the validity of the Torah and its miracles. They would think that the descriptions of "desert" and "wilderness" were only an exaggeration. In reality, Bnai Yisrael lived on habitable terrain and had ample water. To refute these claims, Hashem listed every rest stop - so that future generations could visit these places and appreciate the miracles that happened there and acknowledge Hashem's greatness.
Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan, quoted by Rashi, agrees that this list serves as a means to praise Hashem, albeit a different attribute of His. Although Hashem had decreed that Bnai Yisrael must wander for 40 years, they moved less than 30 times in 38 years. In fact, most of those years were spent at one campsite. Is this considered wandering? According to Rashi, this list illustrates Hashem's characteristic of Chesed and has a vital place in the Torah.
Rav Hirsch cites these three reasons in his commentary to Chumash. There are, however, countless more explanations of this list. Some reasons are pragmatic, others symbolic. Whatever the reason, the effort expended in providing an explanation highlight the important principle of there being no extra word in the Torah.
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