Elchanan Poupko

Masei: Way to Happiness or Happiness on the Way?

“Always the journey, never the destination”, said British conductor Simon Rattle. Or, “don’t look for the way to happiness, just for happiness on the way”, goes the proverb. No parasha reminds us of that saying like Parshat Mas’ei. The Torah lists no less than forty-two stations, on the Jewish people’s journey to the land of Israel.

“Moses recorded their starting points for their journeys according to the word of the Lord, and these were their journeys with their starting points… They journeyed from the Sinai desert and camped in Kivroth hataavah… They journeyed from Kivroth hataavah and camped in Hazeroth They journeyed from Hazeroth and camped in Rithmah. They journeyed from Rithmah and camped in Rimmon perez…”

The list goes on and on. Places that don’t mean much to us today, many of whom no longer identifiable, listed with no detail or recollection. Why? Why all these details and lists of so many places? The Torah is often so sparing with its words, yet hear we get a wealth of information we don’t know what to do with.

Rashi, troubled by this, cites two different explanations:

“ Why were these journeys recorded? To inform us of the kind deeds of the Omnipresent, for although He issued a decree to move them around [from place to place] and make them wander in the desert, you should not say that they were moving about and wandering from station to station for all forty years, and they had no rest, because there are only forty-two stages. Deduct fourteen of them, for they all took place in the first year, before the decree, from when they journeyed from Rameses until they arrived in Rithmah, from where the spies were sent… Subtract a further eight stages which took place after Aaron’s death-from Mount Hor to the plains of Moab-during the fortieth year, and you will find that throughout the thirty-eight years they made only twenty journeys. I found this in the commentary of R. Moshe (Hadarshan) [the preacher] “

According to Rashi’s first explanation, the places are listed to show us that despite traveling in the desert for so many years, the Israelites were rested; they stayed in most places for more than a year.

Rashi then cites another explanation:

“R. Tanchuma expounds it in another way. It is analogous to a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a faraway place to have him healed. On the way back, the father began citing all the stages of their journey, saying to him, “This is where we sat, here we were cold, here you had a headache etc.”

Once the Jews come to the gates of the holy land, Moses wants to show them what a long way they have come, how many difficulties they have overcome, and how much of a better situation they are in now.

Interestingly, Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed, says that describing the sites of the Israelite camps is to highlight the miracles Hashem did with us when we were traveling in the desert. After all, if not listed, someone can come later and say we visited places that had food and were well populated.

Not everyone accepts these explanations. Nachmanides and other Kabbalists attribute deep meaning to every one of these places. Nachmanides confesses he knows there are deep secrets related to the names of the camps, though he does not know them.

And yet, as we draw nearer to Tish Be’Av and reflect on two thousand years of exile. When early Zionists came to Israel, many of them sought to erase any elements of what they called “Galut”, exile. In as far back as 1898, in the second Zionist Congress, Max Nordau coined the German term  Muskeljudentum, or muscle-Judaism. No longer should Jews be bookkeepers, academics, and thinkers, the new Jews must be fighters, strong, brave, and unrelenting. The last time Jews did this, Nordau argued, was the Bar Kochva rebellion. Many of his contemporaries agreed with him. Jews began more and more sports associations, engagement in agriculture, and seeing chutzpah as a virtue. This is when movements like Torah Ve’Avodah, Hapo’el Hamizrachi, and other physically inclined movements formed.

This was the positive side of things. Then came the negation of the Galutiyut, the contempt for diasporism. In 1942 the writer and philosopher Jacob Klatzkin wrote:” Galut—exile—destroys the human being. Life of the diaspora is not a life; not on the national level and not on the human level.”

This was very present in the forming of modern-day Israel. Anyone who wanted to get a government job had to change their name to an Israeli name.  A 1949 law banned any Yiddish performances, and some radical Israelis referred to themselves as the Canaanites, proud and strong.

Anti-diasporism also created a painful, and unhealed wound, for those who arrived in Israel after the Holocaust. Survivors were seen as weak, could not speak about their experience, and were almost blamed for the horrors they have been through.

The effort to create a new Jews has modern manifestations too, right here in America. Many young American Jews wanted to be more Israeli, stronger, prouder, which would somehow make them freer. Shabbos was replaced with Shabbat, Yiddish was frowned on, two days of Yom Tov turned into one, and foods were updated. Foods like Gefilta fish would soon be dirty words, just to be replaced by Hummus and other foods we identify as Israeli. Clothing was affected too. Sandals, tee shirts, and more simple clothing became a sign of pride and simplicity. This was true both for Mizrachi-Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi, yet was more common among Ashkenazis.

And then, just in the past few years, came a recognition of what was lost. Yiddish theaters began springing around all over Tel Aviv, and New York, study of the world that was lost became more popular. Grandchildren seek to explore the lives and culture in which their grandparents lived in. Children who grew up with no religion at all began to embrace much of what their grandparents stood for, and youth reengaged in so much that was lost.

The lesson of Parashat Masei is that journeys matter. As we near Tisha Be’Av we must remember that throughout the centuries, the hopes, prayers, dreams, and aspirations were all summed up in once sentence:” leshana Haba’a Biyerushalayim”, next year in Jerusalem. Yet at the same time, we ought to reflect back on everything we have been through in the past two thousand years, to try and understand what lessons we might have learned, and make sure that nothing is lost in the process. Whether we are looking at diasporism, or the renewal of Jewish life in the land of Israel, let us make sure that the conversation is about substance, not about culture. What are the sacrifices our parents and great grandparents have made? What values helped us survive? What tests have we passed? What unity did we achieve? Let us take those, and hope we can bring the final redemption just a bit closer.

What is true for us nationally is also true individually. The Baal Shem Tov explains that just like the Jews traveled forty-two stops in the desert, every individual goes through different stops in our lives. Some are better than others. When reflecting on those stops, try and see what it is that you learned, in what ways did you grow, and most importantly, are you focused on your final destination: Eretz Yisrael.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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