The Torah portion of Maasei describes the itinerary of the 40-year journey that brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt to Eretz Yisrael, the land that God promised them. We are provided an accounting of the steps required to settle the land, once the Children of Israel physically reached it, as well as the borders and boundaries of that land. The portion ends with a description of the Levitical cities and the cities of refuge.
The Torah portion raises many questions. Why was this level of detail included? Did God want us to have the exact itinerary of the 40-year journey in perpetuity? What deeper meanings can we extract from the text?
In our own journey through the parasha, the notion of boundaries should serve as a guidepost. Physical boundaries are described by way of mapping out the route that the Jewish people meandered; they followed a path from place to place and each place was carefully named by an event that occurred there. The boundaries of Israel are laid out in each direction in elaborate detail and the prescribed steps that had to be undertaken in order to conquer the land were also painstakingly chronicled.
The Children of Israel were no different from people today. We crave boundaries and directions – whether it be through Mapquest or codes of law. To the Children of Israel, slaves throughout their lifetimes made to wander the desert, order, security and control were paramount. The parasha underscores, through its intricate listings of boundaries, that freedom from Pharoah was in no way suggestive of anarchy.
Rashi believes that the journey was documented in such great detail not so that we would have a historical account of the journey, but so that we would be able to recount the multitude of acts of kindness (hesed) that God bestowed on the Children of Israel during the journey. Tanchumah compares it to a king whose son is ill. The king took his child to a distant place to be cured. Once they started back, the king began to count the stops in the journey. “Here we slept, here we felt cold, here we had a headache.” He was indeed grateful that his child was cured and wanted to savor the moments to remind himself of his gratitude that his son’s life was spared.
In the Midrash, we read that God commanded Moses to write down the names of each place where the Bnei Yisrael camped during the 40-year journey from Egypt to Canaan. The first name was Ramses, the second Sukot, and so on-42 places in all. Why did God ask Moses to record the names? Why would future generations need to know this, the Midrash asks?
We know that the Israelites who left Egypt had a slave mentality. More than once, they lost faith in God and Moses and demanded that they return to Egypt. Despite their status as slaves, at least Egypt was familiar. The unknown was much too frightening. God realized that for the Israelites to establish themselves as a free nation in Israel, they needed to have a different mentality-the mentality of free people, asserting their independence as an inalienable right. So this “punishment” of wandering for 40 years was so that the slave generation could die out and a new generation of Jews would be born as independent and free thinking human beings. In listing the 42 places and in doing the calculations, we learn that the Bnei Yisrael didn’t “wander” continuously; they did rest. According to some Biblical scholars, they rested two years in each place; their needs were met for food, water, and protection. Therefore, we learn that God’s punishment was carried out with mercy. In addition, each place was named for an event that occurred in that place. God is the consummate educator, for in all future generations as we read and study the Torah, the historical connections will be made between the events and their place names.
Parashat Maasei is a roadmap for life; it is a conversation for all generations. It is not only about solving problems and improving performance. It is not only about attaining goals and achieving results. Most importantly, it is about discovery and awareness. God provides the framework and empowers the Jewish people to find their own answers, encouraging and supporting them on the path as they continue their journey. The Torah provides the ground rules for qualities that must be present: respect, compassion, and accountability through law. Jews assume a deep desire to give the best and achieve our God-given potential. The lens through which Jews operate is that every situation has possibilities and every person has within him/her the spark of the divine.