The double parsha of this week pretty much concludes the narrative portion
of the Torah. The stops and encampments of the Jewish nation during their
forty year stay in the desert of Sinai are dutifully recorded. What is the
purpose of this holy travelogue? After all, at first glance it appears to
be nothing more than a list of places and oases, most of whose locations
are completely unknown to later generations. Even the true location of
Mount Sinai, the lowly peak where the Torah was given to Israel and the
world, is a subject of archeological and historical disputes.
So of what value are all of the names and places listed in the parsha?
This question is certainly not original with me. Over the ages, the
scholars of Israel have attempted to unfathom the matter of the names of
the places in the Sinai desert that appear in our parsha. Many
commentators and the Midrash itself found deeper meanings and moral
lessons lurking behind the recitation and spelling of the name of the
place itself. Such names as kivrot hataavah - the burial place of desire
and lust – certainly bear out such understandings.
However, not all of the names and places mentioned in the parsha lend
themselves as easily to such explanations and interpretations. The masters
of kabala and Chasidut imparted mystical and even prophetic overtones to
these names. They gave them an other-worldly dimension. As appealing as
such ideas are to our spiritual bent, the rule of Torah interpretation –
ein hamikra yotzei midei pshuto - the verse in the Torah always
means its simple straightforward sense – causes us to remain with the
question of why this list of names of places in the Sinai desert is
included in such length and detail in the parsha.
Rashi gives us an inkling of the moral lesson that drives the inclusion of
this list of names of places in the Torah. It served and serves as a
memory book. Much as on occasions of joy and sadness the family gathers
round to look at old photographs and to reminisce together about the past,
so too does the Torah indulge us in such an experience here in the parsha.
Reminiscences and nostalgia are part of the glue that binds families and
generations together. Past experiences recalled become shared family
experiences. Without the list of where we were in the Sinai desert and
what occurred to us there, all of the great moral challenges, failings and
lessons that represent that period of time and formative generations of
Israel would be muted if not even lost to us.
I am certain that all of us are aware that the naming of streets in cities
all over the world is meant to give life, memory and continuity to the
past in order to inspire strength in the present and faith in the future.
Throughout our long exile, the Jewish people have always remembered where
we were and what occurrences befell us there. To a great extent, this has
been part of our arsenal of survival. So pay heed too these names of
ancient places. They are our family photographs and grant us guidance for
Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com