memory of Fred Stone, Yaakov Ben Yitzchak A”H
beloved father and grandfather,
Ellen & Stanley, Jacob, Zack, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana and Gabi Stone, Teaneck NJ
Long and Winding Road
Rav Yair Kahn
Following Me into the Wilderness
parasha begins with a recap of Bnei Yisrael's journey through the
wilderness, with a comprehensive list of all the stops along the way. At first
glance, this record appears to introduce nothing new; our impression is that
this parasha should be viewed as a summary and conclusion of the entire
sefer. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that there is nothing to
be learnt from this detailed list. In general, we assume that all sections of
the Torah, even the seemingly repetitive or redundant, teach us something new.
Is there nothing at all that we derive from the first 49 verses of our
was posed by Maimonides, who writes in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:50):
every story that we find recorded in the Torah is there for a reason. It is
essential, whether it is intended to affirm a principle that is one of the
foundations of the Torah, or whether its purpose is to [help us] correct some or
other action, so that there will be no injustice and cruelty among people. And I
shall arrange this in order for you… Hence, the order of the record of the
"journeys" would appear – on the surface – to serve no purpose at all.
In order to decipher the message of the journey section, a closer look at
the list of stops is in order. Upon examination, we find a number of
discrepancies and inconsistencies, which undoubtedly contain a message. The list
of journeys in our parasha does not always correspond to the description
of the events as they previously appeared in the course of the narrative. For
instance, in Parashat Masei we read:
journeyed from Hor Ha-har and encamped at Tzalmona. They journeyed from Tzalmona
and encamped at Punon. They journeyed from Punon and encamped at Ovot.
narrative in Parashat Chukat, however, there is no mention of Tzalomona
journeyed from Hor ha-Har… and encamped at Ovot. (21:4-10)
these discrepancies are meant to shed new light on those specific points of the
journey (see Ramban, Bamidbar 33:41). However, I would prefer not to focus on
the discrepancies between the stops as detailed in our parasha and the
description found in other parashiot, but rather on an inner
inconsistency within our parasha itself, which is most instructive in
understanding this section as a whole.
inconsistency is noted by Ramban:
encamped at Refidim, and there was no water there for the nation to drink” – no
mention is made at Mara of the miracle of the water, nor in the wilderness of
the sin of the manna. But since the matter of Refidim is a great and important
matter – for they tried God [there] and the place was called "Masa u-Meriva,"
and God was sanctified in their eyes by bringing water forth from a rock, and
[also] the war against Amalek came upon them there – therefore, brief mention is
made of the fact that there was no water there for the nation to drink, for this
place was well-known and familiar because of this. (Bamidbar 33:14)
questions why certain events, such as the lack of water in Refidim, are
mentioned in the review of the journeys, while seemingly similar events – such
as the lack of water at Mara – are totally ignored. His explanation that more
significant events warrant mention, while relatively minor events do not is
difficult to accept. After all, we find no hint of such events as the Revelation
at Sinai, the sin of the Golden Calf, or the sin of the spies in Parashat
Masei! Does the lack of water at Refidim surpass the importance of these
momentous events? And is it reasonable that such an obvious objection eluded the
In order to attain a better appreciation for the Ramban’s argument, let
us examine the verses, paying special attention to what the Torah chooses to
mention, and in particular to any deviation from the standard form of "They
journeyed from… and encamped at …"
journeyed from Ra'amses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the month
of the first month, on the day after the Pesach; Bnei Yisrael left
with a high hand in the sight of all of Egypt. And the Egyptians were burying
those whom God had smitten – all the firstborn; and God had also executed
judgments upon their gods" (3-4).
journeyed from Sukkot and encamped at Eitam, which is on the edge of the
journeyed from Eitam and turned back to Pi Ha-hirot, which faces Ba'al
Tzefon, and they encamped in front of Midgal (7).
journeyed from before ha-Hirot and passed through in the midst of the sea
into the wilderness, and they walked a distance of three days in the wilderness
of Eitam, and encamped at Mara (8).
journeyed from Mara and came to Eilim, and in Eilim there were twelve
fountains of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there (9).
journeyed from Alush and encamped at Refidim, and there was no water there
for the nation to drink (14).
journeyed from Etzion Gever and encamped in the wilderness of Tzin, which is
journeyed from Kadesh and encamped at Hor Ha-har, on the border of the land
of Edom (37).
Kohen ascended to Hor Ha-har, according to God's word, and he died there in the
fortieth year after Bnei Yisrael came out of the land of Egypt, in
the fifth month, on the first of the month (38).
was a hundred and twenty-three years old when he died at Hor ha-Har (39).
Canaanite king of Arad, who dwelled in the Negev, in the land of Canaan, heard
that Bnei Yisrael were coming (40).
journeyed from Ovot and encamped at Iyei Ha-avarim, on the border of Moav
journeyed from Almon-Divlataima and encamped in the mountains of Avarim,
before Nevo (47).
journeyed from the mountains of Avarim and encamped on the plains of Moav on
the Yarden, near Yeriho (48).
encamped on the Yarden, from Beit Ha-Yeshimot to Avel-Ha-Shittim, on the plains
of Moav (49).
A cursory glance at the above reveals that the entire middle section,
verses 15-35, follows the standard format. All the deviations are concentrated
in the first 14 verses and in the 14 verses at the end. The deviations –
additions, elaborations – emphasize the departure from Egypt and entering the
uninhabited desert, and then finally, after a lengthy stay in the desert, once
again returning to civilization, specifically Eretz Yisrael. Within this
context, we find a specific focus on water, hinted at in the mention of the
three-day journey to Mara (verse 8; see Shemot 15:22) and Kadesh
(verse 36), and mentioned explicitly at Eilim (verse 9) and Refidim (verse 14).
words, the beginning of Parashat Masei is not merely a list of all the
places where Bnei Yisrael set up camp. It is a narrative, relating a
story of courage and faith as Am Yisrael leave a civilized and irrigated
land and follow the clouds of glory into the wilderness, armed only with a
promise that they will eventually be taken to the
of Israel. Seforno writes:
the journeys” – The blessed God wanted the journeys of Israel to be recorded as
to make known their merit in following Him "In the desert, in a land that was
not sown," such that they were worthy of entering the Land. (Seforno,
In addition, it is a testament to Divine providence, as God sends Bnei
Yisrael into the desert, miraculously tends to all their needs for forty
years, and then leads them out of the wilderness and to the border of Eretz
Yisrael. In his Moreh Nevukhim, Rambam explains the message of the
list of stops as follows:
The need for
the [list of names of the] places is very great, since all of the wonders are
true [i.e., credible] only to one who saw them, but in the future they would be
told as stories, and perhaps someone who hears them would deny. Clearly, it
cannot be – nor could we depict – any wonder that would exist over the course of
the generations, for all people [to see and appreciate]. One of the wonders of
the Torah – and one of the greatest of them – is Israel's existence
in the desert for forty years with the manna that appeared every day. This
desert is, as the text mentions, a place of "snakes and serpents and scorpions,
and thirst, where there is no water"; these places are very far from habitation;
they are unnatural for man: "Not a place of sowing, of figs and grapes and
pomegranates etc." The text also says, "A land in which no man passed through…"
And the Torah writes, "You did not eat bread, nor did you drink wine or strong
drink…." All of these are great, open, visible wonders. But since God knew that
it would be possible for these wonders to come to be doubted in the future, as
people doubt other stories, and they would think that [Am Yisrael's] stay
in the desert was [surely] closer to places of habitation, such that people
could conceivably live there – like those wildernesses in which the Arabs dwell
today, or that these were places where it was possible to plough, to sow, and to
reap, or to be nourished by one of the plants that grew there, or that it was a
natural phenomenon for manna to descend there regularly, or that wells of water
existed in those places – for this reason, He removes any such idea, and
reinforces the miraculous nature of all of these wonders in describing those
journeys, so that future generations would see and appreciate the greatness of
the wonders – that human beings could exist in those places for forty years.
The Ramban quotes the Rambam in his commentary, and it is therefore
reasonable for us to interpret the Ramban’s comment from this perspective as
well. Accordingly, the Ramban never asks why the Revelation at Sinai or the sin
of the spies are omitted from the list; his question focuses on the contrast
between Refidim and Mara. In both places, Bnei Yisrael suffer due to lack
of water, yet regarding Mara there is only a hint, while explicit mention is
made of the problem in Refidim; the Ramban therefore probes for the distinction
between the two. The giving of the Torah, however important, is not part of the
narrative describing the miraculous nature of the journey in the wilderness, and
is therefore not mentioned in this particular context.
Road From Mitzrayim to Yisrael
There is an
additional idea that we can derive from the way the Torah describes the journey.
Although there are various stops along the way, the journey is depicted as a
continuum, beginning in Egypt and culminating at the shores of the Yarden. In
fact, there are forty-two stops, which, according to the mystics, symbolically
reference to one of Hashem’s names, which is comprised of forty-two letters.
Based on this, there is a custom to read the entire section of the journey,
without any breaks (see Mishna Berura 428:21), since Hashem and His name form an
absolute unity. Although a mystical reference, it is reasonable that this
perspective of unity reflects the nature of the journey as well.
The view of
Yisrael’s travel through the wilderness as a unified continuous flow seems to
run counter to the way we have analyzed Sefer Bamidbar in the previous
shiurim. We have tried to show how the sefer describes the promising
beginning of the journey and how it all came to a screeching halt. The Torah
also contrasts the first generation, which was destroyed in the wilderness, with
the second generation, which entered Eretz Yisrael. This perspective
indicates discontinuity and interruption. The beginning of the campaign,
recorded before "Vayehi binsoa," is separated from that which follows;
the aimless wandering of the first generation following the meraglim is
detached from the purposeful march towards a concrete destination of the second
generation. How are we to resolve these contradictory perspectives? A brief look
at a sugya in Bava Batra will be helpful.
(Bava Batra 117a) records an argument regarding the division of Eretz
Yisrael. According to one opinion, the land was divided among those who
eventually entered Eretz Yisrael, while the other opinion maintains that
the land was divided according to those who left Mitzrayim. For instance, if two
brothers (neither a firstborn) left Mitzrayim, and one had one son while the
other had three sons, the two brothers would receive equal portions and bequeath
them to their children if we divide based on those who left Mitzrayim. Thus, the
son of the first brother would receive a full portion, while each of the
children of the second brother would receive a third of a portion. On the other
hand, if the division is based on those who entered Yisrael, each of the four
sons would receive a full portion. Of course, the opinion that the division is
based on those who entered the land seems to make much more sense. Why should we
go back a generation, which would result in an uneven distribution of the land
at the point of the division? Moreover, the Torah explicitly says in reference
to the second generation, “To these shall you divide the land” (Bamidbar
On the other
hand, the argument of the daughters of Tzelafchad (chapter 27), who requested
the portion of their father, seems to indicate that he had a portion even though
he wasn’t alive when Yisrael entered the land. In fact, the gemara
clarifies that even the opinion that claims that the portions were divided among
those that entered the land agrees that the division was also based on those
that left Mitzrayim. For instance, in the aforementioned case of the two
brothers, the four children would receive four portions, as we divide the land
according to those who enter it, but these portions would then be divided based
on the two brothers who left Mitzrayim. Each of the two brothers would
posthumously receive two portions, which would then be divided among their
respective heirs. Thus, the child of the first brother will receive two
portions, while the three children of the second will have to divide the two
portions of their father among themselves. Although this solves the problem of
Tzelafchad, it seems like a ridiculous way to apportion the land.
The Rama (R.
Meir Abulafya), in his commentary on the gemara in Bava Batra
(Yad Rama), introduces the following insight: "Even though they [those who left
Mitzrayim] already died before entry into the land, we view them as if they are
alive during the entry into the land." In other words, even though the
generation that left Mitzrayim perished in the wilderness, they entered the land
vicariously through their children. This changes our entire perspective on the
relationship between the two generations. The first generation did not fail
totally; they succeeded in entering Eretz Yisrael through their children.
There is a
continuum that began when Yisrael were redeemed from Mitzrayim, subsequently
moved forward when they received the Torah at Sinai, and culminated when they
reached their destination in Eretz Yisrael. In an ideal world, the whole
process would have been completed in less than a year. However, in the world of
historic reality, the journey extended for forty years and was completed by the
offspring of the original travelers. Nevertheless, the ideal connecting
Mitzrayim, Sinai, and Eretz Yisrael remains intact and is expressed in
the strange way that the portions of the land were allotted.
perspectives on the journey are complementary, not contradictory. From a
historical perspective, the first generation failed. After leaving Mitzrayim and
receiving the Torah, they sinned and ultimately perished in the wilderness, and
their descendants eventually succeed in reaching their destination.
we near the end of sefer Bamidbar, the Torah considers the journey
through the wilderness from a meta-historical perspective. When viewed with this
lens, the two generations merge as variant expressions of one unified entity – “Am
Yisrael.” Yisrael became a nation in Mitzrayim, forged a covenant with
Hashem at Sinai, and eventually arrive at the shores of the land promised to