Journeys – Rav Shames
This week’s parsha opens with the list of the GPS locations of Am Yisrael in their forty year sojourn in the desert. The obvious question that many of the commentaries deal with is “who cares” – what exactly are we being taught by this list? Rashi the Ramban and the Rambam all offer various lessons that we can learn.
The Klei Yakar focuses upon another aspect of the list. In the very first passuk we find the phrase “motzahem lemasehem” as well as the phrase “masehem lemotzahem”. The same two words “their journeys” and “their goings out”, however the order is swapped (“from their goings out to their travels” and “their travels to their goings out”). The meaning seems to be identical, yet our always meticulous reading of the Torah impels us to explain the switch in order.
In addition the phrase “by God’s word” is mentioned only in the first phrase and not with the second formula.
The Klei Yakar offers three different interpretations of the changes:
1. The two phrases reflect two different “directions of travel” and not all of the travels were “by God’s word”. After all, God had a much shorter route in mind, one that would take mere days or maybe weeks. The additional stations and campings were a result of the sin of the spies, lengthening the journey to 40 years. The legs of the trip that were part of the original plan are the ones we find in the first part of the passuk and are forward driven, “to their travels”, while those that were the result of the sin are referred to as going backwards in orientation and purpose, “to their goings out”. Obviously only the first group can be referred to as “by God’s word”.
2. The two phrases relate to different people in the group – the majority of the people described in the first half of the passuk, and the the Erev Rav in the latter half. The Erev Rav, the tag-along group, were constantly focused on Egypt (“their goings out”). No matter how far they traveled they always looked back nostalgically, wishing they could be back “home”. Of course, their journey was not the one that was to be described as “by God’s word”. The standard members of the nation were focused on the final destination – Eretz Yisrael. This group was “traveling” as its primary goal and they indeed could be described as traveling “by God’s word”.
3. The third explanation is similar to the first, the distinction remaining if the travels were ordained by God or the result of the sin of the spies. The distinction between the orders focuses on the length of the journey. According to God’s plan the first departure would have led to the final leg of the trip while the post-sin plan was now dotted with sub-stations and via points.
I think that all three of these ideas have important messages for many of us in our “journeys” throughout life. We often feel like our goals should be so simple to achieve; we have a clear vision of where we want to go and how we want to get there, yet it is rare for things to be quite so simple. When this happens we need to ask ourselves “why”.
Sometimes it is the result of our own iniquities, had we done the right thing we would have found ourselves where we need to be at a much earlier stage, however our own “spies” have set us on detours, artificially lengthening the journey (reason 3 above).
Further complicating the situation is that, despite our greatest intentions, not only do we find ourselves detoured but in fact we are truly moving backwards at times. We may find ourselves looking back at a previous time of life and noticing that we had been able to accomplish more and our present state is a regression. It is the discerning eye that can pick up the fact that despite the regression, we are actually moving forward. Our faults and even failures are part of our development and without the mistakes from which to learn we would be lacking in our maturity (reason 1 above).
Perhaps the most difficult part about navigating our path in the world happens when we have trouble deciding what direction we are heading. At times we may actually be heading in the right direction, however we are so hesitant and anchored to our point of departure that we find ourselves reluctant to actually arrive at the destination. The Erev Rav traveled the same path as the rest of the nation, yet they were unable to let go and be affected by the miraculous life that they witnessed (reason 2 above).
Moshe was not simply recording the stations on the long track from Egypt to the Plains of Moab but was summing up the Bamidbar experience. The people had spent forty years together and been to all the same places but somehow the events had a profoundly different meaning to each subsection of the group. In a very subtle and poetic manner, Moshe Rabeinu was able to send a message to us all.