Thursday, July 31, 2008

It's the middle that matters (Derashah - Masei 5768)

Some ten years ago I visited a good friend in the hospital; she was recovering from a life-threatening operation, and we talked about her two daughters, who were beginning their teenage years. I mentioned something about how people say kids grow up so fast; our son Amram was just an infant at the time, and already people were warning us about that.

She said something that has remained with me ever since; it went something like this: “I don’t wish I could keep them as they are. As long as I’m happy with the way they’re developing, the journey they’re on, I’m content.”

This, to me, is the message of the beginning of our parshah, with its exhaustive record of the Jews’ travels through the desert.

For a space of dozens of pesukim, the Torah painstakingly enumerates each and every step the Jews had taken, from one generic wilderness site to the next, on their way from Egypt to Israel.

And not only is every stop listed, but every stop is listed twice - “And they traveled from X and camped in Y, And they traveled from Y and camped in Z.” A simple X-Y-Z list would have been, apparently, insufficient.

Clearly, this is not an interesting travelogue for the reader - many of the sites along the way are mentioned nowhere else in the Torah, and have no familiar events associated with them. We know nothing about what happened in אלוש, or מתקה, or לבנה - their only mention in the entire Torah is in this list of highway rest stops. So why does the Torah dedicate all of this space to recording the nation’s trail?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein suggested that this enumeration teaches us the value of journeys.

I’ve been reading a book called “Making the Corps,” about the Boot Camp training of a squad of United States Marines, and the way their experiences on Parris Island shaped them. The book breaks down every step of the Marine Corps indoctrination, analyzing its methods and results. As the books shows, removing any single step from that military journey would significantly alter the results - each part of the journey matters.

All journeys are about more than their beginnings and endings. Imagine an abridged version of The Wizard of Oz that would begin with a tornado and end with Dorothy returning to Kansas, skipping all of the adventures and crises, all of those points about courage and brains, etc. Hey, her ultimate goal was to get back home anyway, right? What’s the big deal? But few people would anyone be interested in a Wizard of Oz stripped of its middle.

Applying that to our parshah, then: Had the Torah just recorded that the Jews left Sinai and arrived in Israel, we would have missed the importance of the journey in between.

Witness this moment, at the end of the trip, through the eyes of Moshe Rabbeinu.

Moshe stands at the helm of this nation, just as he had stood there as a much younger man at Yam Suf, and as he looks back over a very long and exhausting road he perceives the development of each שבט, each family, each individual.

Sure, Moshe sees the leaders, Yehoshua, Kalev, Pinchas, as well as, yes, Korach, but being Moshe, who believes in leading כאשר ישא האומן את היונק, carrying every Jew in his arms, he also sees everyone in between.

Yehoshua, Kalev, Pinchas, Korach, those standout figures mentioned in each parshah are archetypes, individuals whose strong personalities and bold strokes of action represent the best and worst of the Jewish people, but among this nation of millions each and every life reflected mixtures of the writ-large traits of those leaders - and each of those lives evolved at אלוש, at מתקה, at לבנה, in ways that the biblical text could never have recorded but which those people, and their relatives, and their friends, knew quite well. Deaths, births, marriages, milestones of maturity, taking care of the animals, gathering the Mun and distributing it, engaging in Torah study and Mishkan labor and community tasks, all of these altered people’s lives, and helped them grow and change and develop.

The listing of each place name in the Torah is shorthand for those changes, a reminder for the people who had experienced them. When Moshe said, “We traveled from בני יעקן and camped at חר הגדגד,” Shmuel from the tribe of Dan nodded his head, remembering the crisis he had weathered there, in his own family. When Moshe said, “We traveled from חר הגדגד and camped at יטבתה,” Sarah from the tribe of Yissachar thought about the passing of her mother at that spot, and the way she had taken over a matriarchal role in the clan. And so on, and so on, for millions of people.

It was important for the Jews, parked at the entrance to Israel - to a new identity, to a new form of living, to a new relationship with HaShem - to take stock and remember where they had been, whom they had been, and where they were now, and whom they had become.

Arriving at the destination may have been their moment’s satisfaction, but travelling the journey was their life’s education.

The same lesson holds true for us, in our own lives.

The gemara reminds us that אגרא דפרקא ריהטא, the reward for learning Torah is in the journey to the shiur, the trip we take to get there - even if we will not fully understand the shiur, even if we will fail in our attempt to remember what we learned. It’s the journey.

Rabbi Tarfon said, לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, the key is not in completing tasks. Rather, it’s in our engagement, the journey, itself.

To quote Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, “It is important for a person to plan his future, but not to the extent that he perceives the present as purely a means to that end.” The present possesses its own value - as Moshe demonstrated in enumerating the 42 “presents” the Jews had experienced.

R’ Avraham Gombiner, in his halachic work Magen Avraham, recorded a practice of reading all 42 stages of the Jews’ trip together, without any interruption. The usual explanation for this practice is that the 42 stages represent a special, mystical, indivisible 42-letter name of Gd. But there is another explanation:

R’ Yitzchak Zimmer wrote that these 42 stages are a שירה, a biblical poem, a song like the Az Yashir song of thanks with which the Jews serenaded Gd after crossing the Sea, and like Devorah’s song of thanks after HaShem saved us from Sisra and the Canaanites.

I understand R’ Zimmer to mean that these 42 stages, recording as they do the Divinely-guided growth of each Jewish life along the way, are a hymn of thanks to Gd for the 40 years’ journey - for all of the challenges and obstacles as well as assistance, for everything Gd had done to help us grow.

Like my friend in the hospital, Moshe and the Jews were now able to look back at the border of Israel, to contemplate each stage they had endured, to feel satisfied, and to turn to HaShem, and say, “Thank You.”

1. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's shiur is summarized here. He takes it in a direction from the one I did. He also sees this message in Rashi at the start of the parshah, but I'm not sure that's what Rashi meant in the midrash he cited.

2. Of course, much of this derashah reminds me of the famous "hyphen on the tombstone" idea, but it didn't really fit the derashah. Especially because we have a baby-naming this Shabbat, and I don't want to introduce unnecessary funeral themes; the dvar torah already lends itself to the Torah-Chuppah-Maasim Tovim journey.

3. The אגרא דפרקא ריהטא line is Berachot 7b or so, as I recall. R' Tarfon is in Pirkei Avot. The Magen Avraham is 428:8; see also Aruch haShulchan Orach Chaim 428:6.

4. R' Zimmer's line about the מסעות as a שירה, which he does not explain, is in an article from Sinai #68, found on-line here. This thought was really the inspiration for the entire derashah.

5. Of course, I am troubled by the fact that the whole 40-year trek was unnecessary, and really shouldn't be seen fondly at all... other than, perhaps, through the idea of making the best of what we have?

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  1. the whole 40-year trek was unnecessary, and really shouldn't be seen fondly at all

    Perhaps the idea is that the generation of the spies were not ready to enter the land, and it was the experiences in the wilderness that made the next generation ready to enter it.

  2. Daniel-
    Certainly a good thought... but that just pushes the question of what was the "original" Divine plan...