We conclude the reading of Bamdibar [Numbers] with the portion called “Masei”, meaning travels or journeys. This reading begins with an enumeration of the various stops that Israel made between Egypt and the Land of Israel during 40 years in the desert.
Many commentators discuss why the travels are all listed here, especially because the trips are also recorded in the Torah at the appropriate places. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) and the Ramban (Nachmanides) both offer an interesting insight from the Medrash: this list displays G-d’s kindnesses towards Israel.
Following of the episode of the spies, G-d Decreed that Israel should wander for 40 years in the desert. A pillar of cloud led them during the day, and a pillar of fire at night, whenever G-d Commanded them to move. We might have a mental image of a group forced to wander across the hot desert, stumbling from place to place, offered little rest until, at long last, the entire first generation had passed away after 40 years.
Rashi demonstrates with a simple bit of subtraction that this image is incorrect. The total count of the journeys is 42. Take off the first 14 from this number, which were all made during the first year before the spies were sent into the Land of Israel. Also subtract the final 8, which occurred during the last year, following the death of Aharon, as Israel once again moved forward to occupy its homeland. We then realize that the intervening 38-year period was marked by only 20 moves, with an average of nearly two years between trips. This, then, provides an example of how even an evil decree is tempered by G-d’s kindness.
The Ramban also quotes the Rambam [Maimonides] in his Guide to the Perplexed. The Rambam indicates that there is a “great need” to recount the journeys, because of the Manna that the Jews ate in the desert. He says that people could have thought the Jews wandered searching for food, and stopped in “a place where people go, like those deserts which the Arabs settle today.” The Torah describes the locations, he writes, in order that future generations could go and see for themselves that these places were not fit for agriculture or even basic survival.
This struck me as a practical lesson in “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In our era, people consider it a sign of modernity and sophistication not to believe in miracles. I still enjoy recalling the correspondence I received early in my Internet ventures, offering the theory that the Manna was actually a hallucinogenic mushroom, and the Israelites simply dreamed all their experiences. Maimonides dealt with the issue some 700 years ago — and asserts that the Torah predicted it several millennia before. In the words of our wisest Sage [King Solomon in Koheles, Ecclesiastes], “there’s nothing new under the sun!”
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Text Copyright © 2002 Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.