Matot / Massei – A Journey to Remember
In its concluding passages, the book of Numbers (chapter 33) lists the travels of the Israelites in the wilderness, noting all the encampments throughout the 40 year sojourn – all 42 stops. Commentaries wonder about the purpose of this long passage, and various insights are offered as explanations.
Rashi cites two important ideas, the second of which is found in the Midrash Tanchuma, a parable. A king travelled with his son to a distant region, to find healing for the child’s illness. After the child’s health was restored they returned home. As retraced their steps the king reminded the child of their earlier journey: here we slept, here we spent a freezing night when we couldn’t get warm, here your migraine got worse… The journey was therapeutic as well as bonding, and it illustrated the king’s devotion to the child through all the earlier travails.
It is not too different from parents looking at an old photo album with their children, reminding them of different memories from their childhood, laughing together and telling the stories relating to each event. Someday the Thai diving team will sit with the boys they retrieved from the cave and explain in detail the lengths they went to prepare for the rescue. Every rise and dip in the cave will be memorable for them. But this alone does not explain the Torah’s deviation from its terse style to include such a long, and seemingly extraneous, passage.
Several insights put more flesh on the bones of this explanation. The ultimate destination of the people was to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. This was their goal from the very beginning, but it ended up taking them a long time to arrive, 40 years. An entire generation was buried in the wilderness as they made their way toward this elusive destination. What became of all those hundreds of thousands who never made it, who didn’t survive the 40 year