Parshat Massei: The arid list that speaks volumes

Parshat Massei opens with a laundry list of the forty places where the Israelites made camp during their forty year trek through the desert en route to the Promised Land. This would mean an average of one campsite per year, although it is clear that some sojourns were much longer and other much briefer. For example stations 33 to 40 were all within the 40th year which kicks off with the death of Aaron the High Priest on Hor HaHar.

The list of locations is as arid as the desert itself, offering no descriptions of any kind, with two minor exceptions. The first is Eilim (#6 – Numbers 33:9) which we can infer was an oasis, as the Torah tells us “there were twelve springs and seventy date palms”. The second is Rephidim (#11 – Numbers 33:13) where we are told “there was no water for the people to drink”. Remarkably, there is not so much as a hint of what transpired in Sinai (#12) which immediately followed Rephidim.

In fact the only one of the forty places regarding which there is any anecdotal information is Hor HaHar (33:38); “And Aaron ascended Hor HaHar according to the word of God, and he died there in the fortieth year of the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt on the first day of the fifth month”. Beyond that we know nothing about the venue itself other than that it was some sort of mountain.

It is difficult to find any meaning or derive any inspiration from chapter 33 of Deuteronomy, yet perhaps in its very sparing information it offers some hint of a message, a very important message at that.

The truth is the very opening of the chapter, the first verse of our Parsha is a bit mystifying:

אלה מסעי בני ישראל אשר יצאו מארץ מצרים לצבאתם ביד משה ואהרן

These are the journeys of the children of Israel who went out of the land of Egypt by their armies (brigades/divisions) under the hand of Moses and Aaron.(Deuteronomy 33:1)

The Torah does something interesting here. Instead of telling us that Israelites left Egypt according to their tribes, it tells us they left according to their military organization. And, furthermore, said military organization was under the single “hand” of two people, Moses and Aaron.

According to the military primacy over the tribal is very telling. As we have pointed out elsewhere, military service is not merely an aspect of, or a necessary evil, when it comes to Jewish national identity. Military service is essential. The Torah refuses to count any Jew in its census unless he is over the age of twenty and has served in the military. The only exceptions are the Kohanim and Leviim (the Priests ad Levites) who have unique obligations and do not receive any land in Israel.

No army can march without water. Indeed life without water is impossible. Hence the two stops which make mention of water represent the two extremes – Eilim, a virtual paradise in midst of the desert, and Rephidim a virtual death valley where no life can survive.

The lushness of Eilim could easily have lulled the Israelite armies into a state of blissful indifference. What possible motivation could they have to leave this tropical idyll and move on? Yet, had they done so that would have spelled the Israelites’ doom. They would rapidly become indolent and become easy prey to the first invaders. Hence they had to pack up and leave despite the enormous temptation to stay.

By contrast, Rephidim was the place which could truly test one’s ability to survive. The conditions were supremely inhospitable. It is no accident that Rephidim was chosen after Eilim. Having enjoyed the intoxicating respite of the oasis, the troops needed to renew their survival skills and make themselves, once again, battle ready. What better place to train than a Rephidim which would challenge every fiber of a soldier’s endurance.

Over the course of thousands of years little has changed in the way armies create and maintain their fighting spirit. Tough physical challenges are a constant. Yet these are interspersed with occasional breaks during which the troops can refresh themselves and enjoy some rest and relaxation.

No doubt the other 38 stops were neither as harsh as Rephidim nor as lush as Eilim. They were challenging but not overly brutal, sufficient to maintain fighting skills but less harsh than the boot camp of Rephidim.

The passing of Aaron then becomes a critical factor as he was one half of the hand that commanded the Israelite military. Hence his death is a significant turning point, only to be followed by that of Moses, as a new generation of military leadership rises, ready now for the challenge of genuine conquest.

Here, once again, we see the critical importance the Torah places on the military and on military service. While the Torah nowhere even hints at the value of a lifetime of sitting and learning, it is replete with references to the military aspect of Judaism, the need to maintain an active army, and the sine qua non of serving in that army. Those who choose not to simply do not count.

28 Tammuz 5776|
August 3, 2015

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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