Our Just Deserts
Our parasha begins with an expanded revision of Am Yisrael’s travels during their 40 years in the wilderness. Chapter 33, verses 1 to 49 list the names of the 42 stops we made, from the initial Exodus through to the plains of Moav all those years later.
Why does the Torah need to spend so many verses on these technical details? What can we learn from this 42-place trek?
The Abarbanel offers four possible answers:
- Rashiinforms us that of the 42 places, 14 were between Rameses and Ritma before the sending of the spies, i.e. within two years after the Exodus, and eight were betweenMount Hor and the plains of Moav after the death of Aharon in the 40th year. Therefore, there were only actually 20 moves over the 38 years of their desert wanderings. This – adds the Abarbanel – clearly indicates God’s love for His people. Despite having decreed a 40-year exile, He did not drive them crazy by incessantly moving them around. The average period for every stop was nearly two years.
- Every location was mentioned so we can identify these places geographically. This helps us understand exactly where they were. It wasn’t on the outskirts of human settlements; they were deep in the middle of nowhere with all the incumbent dangers of the desert.
If the Abarbanel’s first answer relates to the Almighty’s benevolence, the second alludes to the unfailing faith of His people. As the famous verse in Yirmiyahu (2:2) tells us:
“Thus says the Lord; I remember in your favor, the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, when you followed me in the wilderness, in an unsown land.”
Even though we could argue that this only refers to the people’s initial willingness to follow Moshe and Aharon into the midbar, the theme can also be extended to their incredible faith throughout the 40 years. They did not rebel en masse but accepted the Heavenly decree. They entered the vast unknown with complete faith, knowing the Almighty would ultimately protect them and bring their children to the Promised Land.
- The third answer reinforces the first and adds to the second. Once we establish the fact thatAm Yisraelspent 40 years in the midbar, we are forced to conclude they could only have survived by supernatural means.
The intense heat and dryness in the desert make it close to impossible to survive for even the shortest period of time. However, we see a people numbering close to three million surviving in the midbar for 40 years, never once entering a city or nearby town to refresh their supplies. We must therefore conclude it was only Hashem’s mercies that enabled Am Yisrael to survive.
So not only did the people rarely travel during these years (as suggested in our first answer), but the mere fact they survived these years could only be a reflection of God’s love of Am Yisrael and consequently His supernatural supervision.
- The Abarbanel’s fourth and final answer refers to these journeys as an allusion to the future. Micha tell us the eventual redemption will be similar to the Exodus fromEgypt:
“As in the days of your coming out of the land of Egypt, I will show him marvelous things.”
Just as the people journeyed through the wilderness when they left Egypt, so will it be when we leave exile in the future redemption. Indeed, Yechezkel tells us the Almighty will take us through the desert and we will camp there:
“As I live, says the Lord God, will I be King over you: and I will bring you out from the peoples and will gather you out of the countries in which you are scattered, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with poured-out anger. And I will bring you into the wilderness of peoples, and will remonstrate with you face to face as I remonstrated with your fathers in the wilderness of the Land of Mitzrayim, so will I remonstrate with you, says the Lord God.”
Therefore, since Am Yisrael are destined to follow a similar path to the one they took in the initial redemption, the Torah devotes almost 50 verses to the minutiae of that journey.
Although the Abarbanel’s four ideas can be addressed as four separate suggestions, perhaps we can actually combine them all to explain our original difficulty.
Following on from our fourth answer, let us propose this entire parasha was written to strengthen our resolve during all future exilic periods. The parallels are shockingly similar:
Just as the Almighty ensured His people would not travel too much during the 40 years, so He has kept us relatively static during our 2000-year exile. Although we have moved numerous times, it really is not very much in a 2000-year context. And we have always been given enough time to re-establish ourselves before being forced to move on. The most famed and prestigious Jewish communities such as Bavel, Spain, and Poland to name but a few, were both settled and strongly established before the pangs of exile overcame us, and we were forced to search for greener pastures.
Furthermore, when analyzing the last two millennia, we are astonished by Am Yisrael’s stubborn insistence to remain the People of God. We entered this seemingly never-ending exile in complete faith that we would ultimately be brought back to our homeland. We ourselves have even merited seeing the partial fruition of our dreams.
No matter how low we have fallen – be it the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms of Eastern Europe or the Holocaust, Am Yisrael continues to relentlessly follow the Almighty in the wilderness of exile. Of course there have been times when our daily Avodat Hashem has been stronger, but still, after all these years, we are still around to tell the tale. Having traveled and suffered so much, some would even say we are stronger now than at any time in our history!
Yet we must be wary of patting ourselves on the back too much. Even with our unfaltering resilience, we cannot but acknowledge the Almighty’s great mercy. We could never have survived the last 2,000 years without it.
So many empires have risen and fallen during that time: The seemingly invincible Persian, Babylonian, and Roman Empires; the British Empire, and – for a relatively short but devastating period – the Third Reich, as well as the Soviet Union. Peoples have come and gone; borders have changed and new religions created, but only one people have continued to exist throughout this period against all the odds – the People of Israel. This phenomenon is impossible to comprehend from a natural perspective. Without the help of the Almighty, Am Yisrael could never have walked through this desert of attrition and tragedy and survive as it does today.
Hence these 49 verses; although they appear superfluous and uninspiring they actually offer us a crucial and encouraging message.
“What happens to the fathers is a sign for the sons.” Even though our exile is so much longer than the 40 years in the wilderness; even though we seem to have suffered much more than the generation of the midbar, the overall parallel remains true. Our 40-year exile was self-induced, and so too is our current exile. We survived then and we survive now, and just as we eventually arrived at our destination then, so we too have finally begun to cross the border into the Land of Redemption!
Let us conclude with the Rambam’s comments in Moreh Nevuchim:
“But I will show you the reason why all these details are added. For they serve to confirm the account, and to contradict the opinion of the nations, both of ancient and modern times, that the Israelites lost their way, and did not know where to go; that they were ‘entangled in the land.’ (Shemot, 14:3); wherefore the Arabs until this day call that desert Al-tih – ‘the desert of going astray,’ imagining that Am Yisrael erred and did not know the way. Therefore the Torah clearly states and emphatically declares it was by God’s command that the journeying was irregular; that Bnei Yisrael returned to the same places several times, and the duration of the stay was different in each station. The stay in one place continued for 18 years, while in another place it lasted just one day and another one night. There was no going astray. On the contrary, the journey was regulated by the rising pillar of cloud!”
To many observers, it appears Am Yisrael have lost their way over the last 2,000 years. We are headed nowhere, and what once was will never be again. Nothing could be further from the truth! Though we may appear to be wandering aimlessly, the devoted believer knows that each event in our history is just another step to our final destination.
Just over 60 years ago, when we seemed destined to perish in the dark desert of exile, who would have believed we would be where we are today? But Am Yisrael knows – now more than ever before – that the desert is our springboard to greatness. We are still following the rising pillar of cloud; we are following our truest destiny – Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, and Torat Yisrael!
 Whose comments are based on the explanation of Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan. See Rashi, Bamidbar, 33:1.
 We know that 600,000 men over the age of 20 left Egypt – see Shemot, 12:37 and Bamidbar, 1:45-46. It is fair to assume there were at least the same number of women. If we add the same number of children under the age of 20, and elders who could not be counted as soldiers, it seems reasonable to conclude that Bnei Yisrael numbered at least three million souls.
 Micha, 7:15.
 Yechezkel, 20:33-36.
 See Mark Twain’s classic quote in my sefer on Bereishit, p. ??
 See Ramban to Bereishit 12:6
 Part 3, Chapter 50.
 These comments were actually made in reference to Bamidbar, 9:18-23.
 See Rashi to Bamidbar, 21:4.
 See Rashi to Devarim, 1:46.