Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 3 August 2019 / 2 Av 5779

Parshat Masei

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Journeys and Decampments

The final parsha of the book of Bamidbar recounts the travels of Israel in the wilderness. The list is introduced as follows: Moshe recorded their decampments for their journeys at the command of G-d, and these are their journeys for their decampments…

Notice how the order of “decampments” and “journeys” is inverted in the second half of the verse. G-d regards the nation’s travels as “decampments for their journeys,” whereas Israel regards them as “journeys for their decampments.”

The journey and the encampment were always at G-d’s command, signaled by the clouds that led the way. Whenever G-d ordered them to break camp, His intention was that they should attain a new goal, and His educative guidance would seek out for them a new resting place which was suitable for the attainment of that goal. Each journey entailed progress — the journey was the purpose of the decampment. Hence, “decampments for their journeys.”

To the people, it was just the opposite! Wherever they stayed, they were dissatisfied. When the time came to leave a place, for them the decampment was the purpose. It did not matter to

them where they were going next. The main thing was the leave the place in which they had been staying. They journeyed forth in order to leave their place of encampment. Hence, all of their journeys were “journeys for their decampments.”

Indeed, the initial description of the travel guidance system in the wilderness (9:16-22) makes clear that the most challenging aspect of the unpredictable guidance was the waiting at the lengthy stops. Nothing is said of the duration of the journeys, but the prolonged waiting is mentioned several times in these verses.

So it is with our individual journeys and Israel’s journey as a nation. We mistakenly think that progress only comes when we leave the place we are in — we journey so that we may decamp. But G-d teaches us here a radically different perspective: progress is in the journey. The purpose of the journey is not to decamp. The journey itself leads to the attainment of goals, if only we had the patience and endurance to allow it.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 32:2

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