Parashat Maseei

Numbers 33:1–36:13
July 30, 2011 / 28 Tammuz 5771

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, vice chancellor and chief development officer, JTS.

The end of our journey impended. Great fields stretched on both sides of us; a noble wind blew across the occasional immense tree groves and over old missions turning salmon pink in the late sun. The clouds were close and huge and rose . . . We’d made it, a total of nineteen hundred miles from the afternoon yards of Denver to these vast and Biblical areas of the world, and now we were about to reach the end of the road. (Jack Kerouac, On the Road, chapter 4, part 6)

As the story goes, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in April of 1951 in one three-week sitting on a continuous roll of paper. Much like the road described in his epic novel, the roll of Teletype spills out before you and gives a sense of the significance of the journey. For Kerouac, his novel and the story of its creation function as a commentary on the voyage itself.

As much as he may have wanted us to read On the Road as one journey, we cannot help but experience each and every sojourn with Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty individually. The truth that we know from scholars is that the original story took form in small notebooks that Kerouac carried with him over the course of a few years spent traveling North America, chronicling thousands of miles and countless stops along the way. That inconsistency points to a tension that comes from Jack Kerouac’s account of his journey. It leaves us with the question: what should we highlight, where we are at the end of the journey or the many stops along the way?

In its own way, Parashat Maseei negotiates that same tension. Standing at the precipice of the Promised Land, Moshe looks back with the people and relates their journey with the same sweeping overview that Sal Paradise narrates. “These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron” (33:1). What follows through the first half of the parashah is a virtual Trip Tik of the journeys of the children of Israel. It comes in the form of a formula that repeats verse after verse—the Israelites set out from one place and encamp at another. Forty-four verses list all the places they passed through on their journey, but with almost no detail of anything that happened along the way. “They set out from Rephidim and encamped in the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from the wilderness of Sinai and encamped at Kibroth-hattaavah.” (33:15–16). The wilderness of Sinai and Rephidim—can we think of anything important that happened there? The war with Amalek at Rephidim and the revelation at Sinai don’t even rank as worthy of mention. There is almost no deviation from the formulaic recapitulation of the journey from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan. It leads me to believe that, like Sal Paradise, Moshe understood that the children of Israel had weathered the journey and at this point were most interested in arriving in the Promised Land—reaching their destination.

Of course, we could argue, as many commentators do, that the stories were so well known to this generation that there was no need to reiterate them at this point in the Torah. But I cannot help but contrast Moshe’s retelling with the countless times my parents would return from a vacation, invite all their friends, schlep the screen and projector out, and give slideshows of the many stops along their journeys. Each slide would be accompanied by a story or a description of a place or a person they met along the way.

We are wired to strive for resolution, for denouement. But the anticipation of completing a trip can eclipse the road and experiences that got us there. As much as we may have our sights set on the destination, it is the journey that makes us who we are when we arrive. Every aspect of the road—the bumps and the turns, the detours and the stops along the way—make up the whole route. Viewed this way, the journey becomes more than the sum of its parts—not merely the means to arrive at a destination.

So what do we make of the tension? What should the frame of mind of the children of Israel be as they stand at the edge of the Promised Land? They have changed so much in their journey—and not only demographically. We know that save a few souls, the generation that left Egypt did not enter Israel. But beyond that, the spiritual, religious, and emotional shift that occurred on their wanderings through the wilderness itself begs attention. They have nearly reached the end of their mission and were about to begin another era of Jewish life, so how can Moshe simply recap the places they passed through along the way? How can he not go deeper and explain what the journey meant to their development?

The Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noah Berezovski, presents one possible answer. In his comment on the parashah in Netivot Shalom, the Slonimer questions the significance of Moshe’s repetitive version of the journey. Berezovski questions the relevance not for the Israelites, but for us as modern readers. To the generation who had weathered the wilderness, he could see reason behind the simple recap, but for us reading the Torah portion this week: why do we need 44 verses of the names of places? Quoting the Baal Shem Tov, the Slonimer suggests that the journey of the children of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land is one that we relive not only nationally through our holiday celebrations each year, but more personally, individually, throughout the course of our lives.

Each of us makes journeys through our lives that mirror the growth and maturation that the children of Israel experienced during the trek from Egypt. But it is more than arriving in the Promised Land that matters. Parashat Maseei spills the ink it does in listing all the places in order to teach each of us the many paths we individually take to arrive at our destination.

The Torah’s lesson is eternally relevant. Addressing the children of Israel standing on the banks of the Jordan, Moshe knew that the journey had changed each of them differently. Who was he to tell them what each station along the way meant to them? As a people they wandered, but as individuals they were going to cross into the Land. Like Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, they had walked the same road, but the experiences affected them individually. Each year, as we read the parashiyot of their wanderings, we glean relevance for ourselves. The Torah knows we turn each page to get closer to the Land, but it is the journey that makes us the people who can enter.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.