By Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell:
Massei, the last portion in the Book of Numbers, begins with a long review of the journeys of the Israelites from Egypt to the borders of the land of Canaan. “These are the stages in the journey of the Israelites when they came out of Egypt by divisions under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. At ADONAI’s command Moses recorded the stages in their journey. This is their journey by stages: The Israelites set out from Ramses on the fifteenth day of the first month, the day after the Passover. They marched out defiantly in full view of all the Egyptians, who were burying all their firstborn, whom ADONAI had struck down among them; for ADONAI had brought judgment on their gods. The Israelites left Rameses and camped at Sukkoth. They left Sukkoth and camped at Etam, on the edge of the desert. They left Etam, turned back to Pi Hahirot, to the east of Baal Zefon, and camped near Migdol. They left Pi Hahirot and passed through the sea into the desert, and when they had traveled for three days in the Desert of Etam, they camped at Marah. They left Marah and went to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there. They left Elim and camped by the Red Sea…” (Num. 33:1-10) In all, there were forty-two stages along the journey to the Steppes of Moab before they were to enter the Promised Land.
The commentators of our tradition propose various explanations for including Israel’s itinerary in the wilderness here, at the end of the Book of Numbers. According to Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, “The Blessed One intended to chronicle Israel’s journeys to make known their merit for having followed God through the wilderness, “in a land not sown” (Jer. 2:2), making them worthy to enter the land.” The journey is presented as a preparation prior to settling in the land and a learning period.
Nachmanides argues (citing Maimonides from his Guide for the Perplexed) that “another benefit that we derive from knowledge of these stages is this according to Maimonides, ‘There was an important reason to mention the stages of the journey, because although the miracles and wonders that were done were recognized as true by all who saw them, in later times these events would be matters of hearsay, and those who hear about them might deny them altogether…Therefore, in order to remove from people’s hearts all such thoughts, and to firmly establish the truth of all these miracles, God recorded as a permanent memorial the stages of their journeys in the wilderness, so that future generations would see them and acknowledge the great wonders entailed in keeping people alive in such places for forty years.’ All these are his [i.e. Maimonides’] words.” Here the emphasis is on memory and future generations.
Finally, the Admor of Skulen (Rabbi Eliezer Zusha Portugal, 1896-1982), notes that we read these verses during the period called “bein ha-meitzarim” (between the straights, or tight places), that fall between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av (a period of penitence and self-reflection between the two fasts marking the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem and its destruction) — to teach us that there is a benefit to all the bother and all the troubles that our ancestors endured during their journeys in the wilderness. That benefit is that they brought us into the Promised Land. Just so, there is a purpose to our journeys in exile (and in life in general) namely, to purify us and to prepare us for the great Redemption to come.
Which of these commentaries resonates with you?
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