Parashah Ponderings

Israel’s Travels: A Lesson in Appreciation and Gratitude

Parashat Masei / פרשת מסעי

Torah Portion: Numbers 33:1 – 36:13

(I will be on vacation with my family for the next two weeks and will return with a lesson on Parashat Eikev around August 14th. Until then, you may read each week’s parashah and a selection of commentaries at join me in praying for peace and security for the State of Israel, its citizens and the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, as well as for an end to suffering among the people of Gaza.)

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Masei, begins with a decidedly dry listing of Israel’s “marches” during their 40-year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Moses records in writing each of Israel’s 42 resting places without much comment, save a few geographical reference points: “They set out from X and encamped at Y.” There isn’t a single account of what happened to Israel in any of these places! Many commentators, therefore, wonder what the Torah is trying to teach us by the inclusion of this sparse travelogue.

Two responses to this puzzle lead us toward an appreciation of both the simple and miraculous in life: the everyday gifts, such as food, water, and rest, that are critical for survival as well as the extraordinary moments, such as birth, the discovery of great insights, the escape from places of despair. The daily prayers of the Jewish people condition an awareness of and gratitude for all such gifts. The majority of us who don’t pray on a daily basis, however, must find our own ways of being mindful and grateful. In either case, appreciation and gratitude are Jewish attitudes whose import is conveyed in our earliest sacred literature.

The preeminent 11th century French commentator, Rashi, cites an early 11th century scholar known as Moses haDarshan, in suggesting that the point of the recording the marches here at the end of the Book of Numbers is “to demonstrate how kindly God acted toward the Israelites. Even though God had decreed that God would drag the Israelites endlessly through the wilderness, you cannot say that they were simply dragged from place to place for 40 years with no respite.”[1] In 40 years, Israel stopped 42 times, meaning they enjoyed extended periods, even years, when they weren’t marching at all. Our sages recognized that God allowed our ancestors to rest along the way from Egypt to Israel.

The journey entailed much more than year after year of moving large numbers of people and their belongings, punctuated by warfare, hunger and thirst. In their drive to reach Israel, our ancestors also were able to establish something like a normal way of life, build community ties, and grow their families. God granted them rest, too, not just on Shabbat but in between marches. Thus, while the 40 year period of wandering was first presented by God as a punishment against the generation of Egypt, who doubted God would be with them when it came time to take possession of the land,[2] in reality, the years of wandering offered experiences that made the journey more bearable and better prepared Israel for its future as a nation in its own land. Thank God for all theses little things that largely go unstated in the Torah.

What of all the miracles that God performed for Israel in their years of wandering: the manna, the quail, the water from rocks, the victories in battle against all odds? Maimonides, in his 12th century work Guide for the Perplexed, argues that the list of marches is really intended to remind future generations of all these wonders that God performed for Israel. Overtime, without a record of Israel’s route, descendants of Israel and the other nations might come to think that God led Israel through “settled areas or in places where agriculture was possible” and diminish the role of the Divine in supporting Israel on its difficult journey.[3] Moses, however, ensures that future generations will know that without the grace of God Israel would not have been able to survive the 40-year sojourn. Maimonides indicates the Torah itself shows that the places recorded by Moses were unsuitable for human habitation.[4] They were isolated, arid, inhospitable places. The logical observer could only conclude that God provided for Israel all those years.

Both sets of commentary – one emphasizing the gift of respite, the other Divine grace – teach that this odd recital of place names reminds us to appreciate and give thanks for all that God did for our ancestors. Rashi and Moses haDarshan draw our attention to a detail that we might otherwise overlook, that Israel wasn’t constantly on the move. Rather, Israel enjoyed periods of rest and recuperation on their way to the Holy Land. On the other hand, Maimonides, as cited by Nachmanides in his commentary, wants us to remember that God did great things for Israel to enable them to survive those 40 years. Maimonides wants to preempt any naysayers who would one day deny God’s intervention on behalf of Israel.

The lesson for us is clear. Just as God was present for our ancestors in both the mundane and the miraculous, God is present for us. After all, our ancestors’ God is our God and is as present for us in our day as in theirs. In the years between the Exodus and entering the Land of Israel, God saw that Israel’s need to rest and to grow as a people was tended to and that, when times got tough, Israel would have the wherewithal to make it through.

Don’t we have similar needs? Everyday we benefit from God’s goodness through the presence of things we tend to take for granted: clean air, fresh water, sleep. From time to time we also face tremendous challenges and experience life-altering events: recovery from illness, witnessing the birth of a great-grandchild, discovering new truths about our universe. Let us truly appreciate each and every one of these gifts and find our own ways to give thanks. If you need help, don’t hesitate to engage in Judaism’s ancient practice of prayer.

[1] Michael Carasik. The Commentators’ Bible: Numbers. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2011), p. 238.

[2] Numbers 14:20-35.

[3] Carasik, p. 238. Nachmanides here cites Maimonides.

[4] accessed 7/23/2014.

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