“And Moses wrote their departures toward their destinations by the word of God; and this is the list of their destinations according to their departures.” ““ Numbers 33:2
Why does the Torah provide the Jewish people’s desert itinerary? Perhaps each place served as a reminder of the miracles that happened there. This is the approach of Rabbeinu Bechaye. He notes that the Hebrew word for nature and the Hebrew word for drowning have the same root (t-v-a). Sometimes the natural course of events can be overwhelming. We need to look back and see the daily miraculous and divine of nature in order to be able to joyfully navigate lives which are elaborate chains of departures and destinations.
Parashat Masei starts by saying that the Jewish people’s leaving the places they camped was for the purpose of getting to their new destinations. This seems simple enough. Then the Torah reverses the order and says the destination list was structured according to their leaving other places. Why the change in order?
From God’s perspective the point was that they had to get to their next station, which by necessity meant they had to leave the place where they were. The people were always restless. From their point of view, they just needed to get out of where they were regardless of where they would end up.
There is much to discuss here that is relevant to our lives. Sometimes we need to move toward a destination, and we mistakenly feel that this destination is all that matters. We can pay sorely for focusing solely on our desire to move on, even if moving forward is the right – the Divine – thing to do. We can fail to enjoy the process of moving forward or the moment we’re in, a time that has its own integrity and upon which we’ll one day look back with fondness. It is a shame not to appreciate the here and now, which will too soon be later.
On the other hand we can’t remain static. We need to always move forward. Sometimes we get so caught up in the moment that we don’t recognize the need to move ahead. And yet even when we do move ahead we need to keep in mind that where we go matters a great deal. Neither God nor the people were wrong about the moves in the desert or in life in general. At the same time that we need to leave one place we need to be elsewhere.
This relates to what we are told about Jacob, that he both left Beer Sheva and went to Haran (Genesis 28:10). The unique reality was that he fulfilled his mother’s wishes by leaving one place for his own safety. At the same time he fulfilled his father’s wishes by going to a place in order to marry. This is, perhaps, what the sages mean when they tell us to exile ourselves to a place of Torah. We need both to leave a place that is not working for us and go to a positive place. Neither on its own is enough. In life, ideally, we want our departures and our destinations to be of equal import.
The Torah provides the desert itinerary to teach us a life lesson. We are ever departing and embarking on a journey toward a destination. Both matter. People pray for a child. Their prayers are answered. Then they immediately shift focus to their child’s future. The Talmud (Yevamot 64a) says that the matriarchs were barren because God wanted their prayers. The departure, then, is a destination as well. In life, we need to embrace both the leaving from and the moving toward, even as they ever ebb and flow one into the other. May we be so blessed. Shabbat Shalom.