On vacation, one of our time-tested ways to get the children to unwind before bed is to work on a trip journal. Nothing fancy, just a title and a drawing or two, and an opportunity to review the highlights of the day.
Now, the children have their own ideas of what to highlight, and a taste for drama. So a sample entry on a gorgeous day hiking in the Golan Heights is as likely to illustrate a dingy pizza shop closing before we got there as stunning wildflowers or Edenic natural springs.
Which brings us to this week’s parasha, Masai, which opens with nearly 50 verses of “And they [the Children of Israel] traveled to place-X and they encamped at place-Y.” The Torah tells us that “Moses wrote their goings out by their travels in accordance with God [al pi Hashem]” (Numbers 33:2).
What is God’s purpose in having Moses record the segments of the journey? Why aren’t the narratives in Exodus and Numbers enough?
Midrash Tanhuma answers these questions with a parable:
To what is this matter similar? To a king, whose son was sick, and he brought him to another place to heal him. Once they were heading back, his father began to count all the [stages of] travel, and said to him ‘Here we slept; here we were cold; here your head hurt.’
Let’s take a moment to consider this parable on its own terms. We have a short narrative in three stages: sickness at home, a journey to healing, and a return trip, on which the father recounts the first journey.
Our characters are a king and his son. The midrash says nothing of doctors, courtiers, or servants. The king takes a personal interest in his son’s recovery and accompanies him himself.
The role of place in the story is also significant. Home is not the source of the illness; if it were, the pair would not return to it. Healing, however, cannot take place at home. On the other hand, the “other place” to which they travel cannot be too significant, because the midrash says nothing about it or what happens there, and they depart from it as soon as the son recovers. If anything, we hear the most about the time spent in between. Perhaps “he brought him to another place to heal him” means that the bringing, the journey, is what heals the son.
Why does the father need to tell his son about their travels when the son experienced them himself? Perhaps, in retrospect, the retelling distills the significance of the journey, from a new perspective. “Here, we were cold” — but we are not cold anymore. “Here, your head hurt” — but now the pain is over. To appreciate healing, the son needs to remember his illness. Even though the son is the one afflicted, the king connects their experiences of the journey, speaking in first person plural: “we slept,” “we were cold.” The son needs to understand that his father has cared for him and shared his pain all along.
How do these elements correspond to the story of the Children of Israel in the wilderness?
As ever, God is the King, and God’s children are the Children of Israel. Although Moses plays an important role, the midrash emphasizes that it is God who truly cares for them in the wilderness and tends to their needs.
Home, the place to which God and the Children of Israel finally return, must be the Land of Israel. Indeed, right after recounting the travels, Moses launches into a discussion of the conquest of the land, as part of the preparations for re-entry. Surprisingly, the first point of departure to appear in Masai is in Egypt, not in Israel. Perhaps the Torah begins with Egypt because that is where the sickness really took root.
The journey of healing is the ongoing one through the wilderness, and recounting the story corresponds to the opening of Masai. While Moses commits the tale to writing, God ensures it is told.
In what way, though, were the Children of Israel sick? How did the journey through the wilderness heal them?
The continuation of the midrash gives us some insight into these questions:
Thus said the Holy One Blessed be He to Moses, “Count for them all the places where they angered me.” Thus it is said, “These are the travels of the Children of Israel.”
On this reading, the trip journal of Masai is an annal of anger, highlighting how much and how often the Children of Israel antagonized the Almighty.
The triggers for the Israelites’ numerous complaints were often physical: at times they needed refreshment or sleep, at times they were uncomfortable, at times they were at risk.
That their physical discomfort led them to challenge the spiritual significance of the Exodus itself or of God’s directly providing them with sustenance points to a lack of understanding of Providence and covenant, a spiritual sickness bred in slavery.
In an earlier passage, Midrash Tanhuma teaches that the purpose of recording the stops along the journey is “so that they know how many miracles I [God] performed for them at every single leg of the journey.” Over time, the Children of Israel come to know God and their responsibilities to God through experience. But full healing, or full knowledge of God, requires more than experience in order to last. It demands revisiting and reflection with a healthier perspective, in order to remember vulnerable moments of struggle and recast them as a journey to strength and understanding.
Like children poring over a trip journal, we need to recall the frustrations along with the joys. In retrospect, remembering the wounds and knowing they have healed reminds us of how far we have come. Looking back, we perceive the presence of those who accompanied and supported us. In retrospect, the greatest miracle is that we were never, are never, alone.