Boundary of the Wilderness
The Torah is replete with lists of every kind: the generations before and after Noah, the enumeration of the tribes and their chieftains in the desert, the catalogs of forbidden foods, the inventories of priestly garments. The book of Numbers, which begins with a census, is especially true to its name. The beginning of chapter 33, which opens Parashat Mas’ei (the second of the double portions read in the synagogue this week), presents one of the grandest lists of all: the forty-two stations of Israel’s wandering from Ramses in Egypt to the steppes of Moab on the eve of the entry into the Promised Land. Although we may feel that we have heard all of these place names in earlier weekly readings, the fact is that a significant number of these stations (verses 19–30) are mentioned here for the first time. The uniqueness of this list is indicated by the fact that Moses is specifically instructed to record the names in writing. In many synagogues, a special singsong melody used by the Torah reader also makes this passage unique.
Like many lists, the great wilderness itinerary of Numbers 33 marks a significant boundary. Until this point, the book of Numbers, true to its Hebrew name, Bemidbar, has rendered an exhaustive account of the events that befell Israel in its trek through the wilderness, right up to the present moment when the people stands poised to undertake the conquest of the Land. The remaining three chapters of Numbers look forward in time; they deal exclusively with matters that will become relevant after the conquest. The epic desert narrative has been concluded, and the comprehensive recapitulation of the stations of the journey marks an ending on the eve of a new beginning.
For the Rabbis of the midrash, the itinerary of Numbers 33 functions not only to draw a boundary but also to summarize the moral and spiritual meaning of the entire forty-year sojourn in the desert. Yet even though the Rabbis are joined in extracting a deeper meaning from the list of places, they are deeply divided in their essential attitudes to direction of that meaning.
On the one hand, the Rabbis explain that the “Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: ‘Write down the stages by which Israel journeyed in the wilderness, in order that they shall know what miracles I wrought for them.'” Barren of water and sustenance and rife with snakes, scorpions, and hostile marauding tribes, the desert is a place where life is possible only by virtue of God’s protection and intervention. The chronicle of the forty-two stations then becomes a catalog of miracles and a record of an abundance of kindnesses. Even the number forty-two, which at first seems so large, emphasizes God’s mercy. The first fourteen encampments, as Rashi points out, took place very early on, before the mission of the spies and the punishment of the forty years of wandering; and the last eight took place during the fortieth year. Thus there were only some twenty journeys during the great bulk of the sojourn; Israel was therefore not vexed by frequent forced marches. In fact, for the prophet Jeremiah, as quoted prominently in the Zikhronot liturgy in the Musaf service for Rosh Hashanah, the desert years are invoked nostalgically as a kind of prolonged honeymoon in the covenantal relations between God and Israel.
The opposite stance toward the desert years is presented by the Rabbis in a parable that likens the enumeration of the itinerary to the case of a king who has taken his son on a journey to cure him of his ills. “On their return journey his father began to recount all the stages, saying: ‘Here we slept; here we cooled ourselves, here you had a headache.’ So the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: ‘Recount to them all the places where they provoked me.'” Indeed, this severe assessment needs little special pleading or elaboration because it is the principal experience that we have as readers of the Torah’s stories of the desert: complaint, murmuring, disobedience, and rebellion over and over again.
An interesting attempt to make a homiletical connection between these conflicting interpretations of the list and the desert years it describes is undertaken by Samson Raphael Hirsch, the nineteenth-century German rabbi. Hirsch notes a reversed duplication in the second verse of the chapter: “Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Lord; their marches, by starting point, were as follows.” In the beginning of the verse, the Hebrew reads motsa’eihem lemas’eihem (the starting point of their journeys), whereas the end of the verse has the same pair of terms in the opposite order, mas’eihem lemotsa’eihem. Although a critical reader might take this simply as an instance of chiasm, the abba pattern that the Torah text often delights in, Hirsch sees the reversal as fraught with meaning. The ordering in the first phrase describes how God regarded their travels. In the divine perspective, each starting point moved Israel forward in a journey that culminated in their accession to the Land and the fulfillment of God’s promise. When the order is reversed, however, the travels are rendered from the point of view of the people, who also wanted to set forth on the next stage, but for different reasons. Rather than keeping their eyes on the high purpose of their journey, they were motivated to move on by boredom and dissatisfaction with their current encampment and by the desire merely to change their circumstances.
The wanderings of Israel in the desert, then, have many meanings, and the great itinerary of Numbers 33 looks in many directions.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.