The Torah portion of Masei (“Journeys”) which we read this Shabbat in Israel, is one of my favorites. (In the Diaspora this Shabbat, it’s read together with the previous parsha of Matot, thus reuniting the two communities after three months of reading different Torah portions.)
My love for Masei derives mainly from its long list of campsites at which the Israelites rested in the desert. “These are the journeyings of the children of Israel who came out of the land of Egypt,” the Torah portion begins. From Rameses in Egypt, the Israelites traveled to Sukkot, and camped at Etham. From there they meander past, among other places, Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, Kibrot Ha’Taavah (the “Graves of Desire”), Haradah (“terror”), Hor HaGidgad (“the cave of Gidgad”), Mitkah (“sweetness”), Bnei Yaakan (“the wells of the children of Yaakan”), Yotvata (“a land of brooks and water”) and many other poetically named spots.
My go-to Biblical commentator, Robert Alter, writes in his fine translation of The Five Books of Moses that, “most of the place-names occur in the narrative in Exodus and Numbers, and the rehearsal of these names here constitutes a summary and recollection of incidents that occurred at the sundry places […] But there are some important episodes with their place-names that do not appear in this itinerary: even, surprisingly, the central stop at Mount Sinai is not actually mentioned, only a stay in the Wilderness of Sinai.”
“At the same time,” he adds, “a number of places are recorded in the itinerary that do not appear in the preceding narrative.” Some, like Haradah, may refer to an event, not a place; the sequence of familiar and unfamiliar names, Alter explains, indicate that an archival document has been spliced into the text, “reflecting some traditions about the Wilderness wanderings that were not incorporated in the canonical narrative of Exodus and Numbers.”
I have chanted these verses from the Torah many times, using the melody of the Shirat HaYam (“Song of the Sea”) as I was taught by my teacher, Solomon Mowshowitz. I have wondered what it is about this list of wanderings that speaks to me. Then, this week, I sat down with my father Gershon Glausiusz and transcribed the tale of the travels of my own great-great-great-grandfather, HaRav Pinchas Ben HaRav Menachem Mendel HaCohen, who migrated from Pressburg (now Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, once part of the Kingdom of Hungary) to Jerusalem some time in the second half of the 19th century.
HaRav Pinchas HaCohen’s journey to Jerusalem, with a group from his community and his 24-year-old son Shlomo, was the fulfillment of a lifetime ambition, my father said. When he died, he was buried on the Mount of Olives, and his name was inscribed on the Kotel (the Western Wall). Remarkably, we have a record of that inscription, in the form of a drawing by the artist Ephraim Moses Lilien, a member of the Zionist movement who traveled to Ottoman Palestine several times between 1906 and 1918. In Lilien’s drawing of the Western Wall, the Hebrew name “Pinchas Cohen Rabbine” appears on the third stone from the ground on the far right of the drawing.
Pinchas’s son Shlomo, my father said, was murdered. But another son, Avraham Yisrael, remained in Pressburg and supported his father from afar. His daughter, Nechama Chana (for whom I am named, in Hebrew) was my great-grandmother. In the winter of the year 2000, together with my brother Yehudah, I visited her grave in Budapest. She died in 1926, aged 40; the Hebrew inscription on her gravestone describes her as a “righteous, modest woman, generous and full of loving-kindness, Nechama Chana, the daughter of our Rabbi and teacher Avraham Yisrael HaCohen.” Her husband, Moshe Schlesinger, died in Bergen-Belsen, but her descendants are numerous, many of them now living in Israel.
In their wanderings in the wilderness, the children of Israel indulged in sweetness and suffered from terror. Some made it into the Land of Israel and others, like Aaron, whose death is recorded at “Hor the Mountain” in the midst of these wanderings, were buried in the wilderness. Some Israelites died in plagues or were swallowed by the earth. Some, like the tribes of Reuven and Gad, gazed at the grazing pastures in Yazer and the land of Gilead and decided not to cross over the Jordan into Israel. As with my own family, some fulfilled their dream of living in the land of Israel, like my great-great-great-grandfather, and others did not.
This meticulous list of names reminds us of an important lesson: to savor the journey, even as the destination remains distant. As we travel through the Etzion Gever (“the city of the Rooster”) or ramble around Ritmah, the valley of broombrushes, or as we loiter in Libnah, a Libyan emporia on the coast of Palestine north of Gaza, or dawdle in Iye Abarim (“the Ruins of Abarim”) we should inscribe these places in our memory. Take careful notes. Maybe we will remember them, or maybe we will invent places that we have never visited but imagined we had, or dreamed about. Maybe we will arrive at our destination, or maybe our descendants will. Maybe we will be happy staying where we are, but one day we will want to move on. We will make friends we love, and others whom we will lose. We may look back with regret, or with relief, but we may also realize that the mistakes we made on the way are just as important as our achievements, as both missteps and successes lead us to where we are today.
Because sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination, if not more so.