I write these words toward the end of a journey to Osnabrück, a small town in north-western Germany where this year’s Jewish-Christian Bible week will take place. From London to Dover, across the Channel to Lille – then another coach carrying me through France, Belgium, the Netherlands before crossing the border into Germany. It’s only now that arriving feels like a real prospect – just a few more miles to Osnabrück and a cab to the final destination – and I mentally recap the journey so far to make myself feel ready for whatever awaits me there.
This is more or less where we find ourselves in the first aliyah (33.1-10) of Massei. Not in a lime green coach bowling along European motorways, to be sure, but similarly poised for the final stages of a (religiously motivated) journey, taking stock of the route taken to reach that point. At the beginning of the final parashah of Numbers, the Israelites have already arrived at the steppes of Mō°āv, and there they will remain for the rest of Torah. Geographically speaking, B’nēi Yisrā°ēl have almost reached their destination. It feels natural, in some ways, for a backwards glance at the road travelled thus far.
And we get one – 33.5-33.10 takes us from Ra•mṡēṡ to Ṡǔkkôth to °Ēthām towards Pī Hachīrôth and Mighdôl, then across the sea for three days in the wilderness of °Ēthām, to Mārāh, then to °Ēilim and then on to camp further down the eastern coast of the Yam-Ṡūf.
But even with a map to help visualize what might otherwise be simply a list of meaningless names, the question of what we might make of this litany of locations is intensified by the fact that this is not the first time we’ve heard them. This record of the journey starts with the departure from Egypt – and we’ve already covered the Exodus in the book that bears its name.
The two books are in near perfect agreement as to the itinerary, but there is a conspicuous disparity in the level of detail and narrative richness between the texts. These 10 verses of Numbers take us from the 12:37 all the way to the end of chapter 15 – a total of 93 verses. Numbers is devoid of almost all the evocative details of the saga recounted in Exodus – missing any allusion to the matzah snatched up, unleavened, in haste; the bones of Joseph nonetheless collected in honour of an ancient oath; the awesome protection of the pillars of cloud and fire; the terror of the Egyptian chase; the ecstatic jubilation of Shīrath Hayyām; and the immediately juxtaposed discontent of the thirsty Israelites encountering the realities of independence at Mārāh.
Numbers has its share of theatrics (spy missions, insurrections, talking donkeys), but here we seem to be in the realm of official record-keeping. But this is a paradigm that may be more helpful than we expect. Because although the sequence of places is not verbally delivered by Môsheh, we are told “Môsheh wrote down the starting points of their marches according to the direction [lit. mouth] of God”.
The act of committing things to writing is more rare in the first four books of the Bible than one might think – the verb kāthav appears in Exodus as a note reminding Y’hōshǔa• to blot out •Ämālēq, six times in God’s production of the first set of tablets; twice for Môsheh’s second edition; and once for the inscription on the priestly headdress. It is completely absent from Leviticus, and appears in Numbers only four times before ours, in highly ritualised contexts – the ordeal for a woman suspected of adultery; a register of prophets; and twice regarding °Ahärôn’s (labelled) staff bursting into bloom in vindication of his priesthood.
Of course, writing is a far more prominent concern in Deuteronomy, where the root appears 22 times – notably establishing itself firmly in our Jewish consciousness and domestic décor by the Sh’ma•. The writing for m’zūzôth has a new flavour – less to do with a specific ritual purpose, and much more to do with memory and identity.
Finally, we begin to close in on the significance of our verses. This is not just any record-keeping – this is the first time in Tanakh we hear of the past experiences of a people being written down for posterity. Our verses serve not just as an intratextual signpost back to the emotional intensities and nuances of Exodus that are so fundamental to our sense of identity but, repeated here stripped of those colours and textures, they assert the importance of the journey itself and what it represents in terms of memory, continuity and relationship with the Divine.
The Children of Israel gathered on the plains of Mō°āv may be the same group of individuals that left Egypt, but reeling off the places where they encamped as a continuous progression undertaken by an unchanging “they” cements our understanding of ourselves as positioned in an uninterrupted line of community from those newly freed slaves staggering out into the dawn of freedom.
Nor is this simply a report of arbitrary meanderings – it was all “according to the direction [lit. mouth] of God (•al-pī YHṾH)”. It is not simply an accident of history, the Torah tells us, that the next generation of this band of ex-slaves should find themselves now just across the river Yardēn from the land of K’nā́•an – this eventuality, and all the steps it took to get there, were invested with Divine meaning and purpose. The journey was not just a physical one, but represented an important process of maturation in the relationship between God and B’nēi Yisrā°ēl.
And so it is important to memorialise this chain of significant formative communal experience in and of itself – not merely the exciting episodes it includes. This, perhaps, is what is conveyed by the fact that Môsheh writes out a record of their journey together when writing has always been invested with such religious potency.
This chain continues, and we are its links. Sometimes, in answering the question “How did we get here?” or even “Why are we here?” a deceptively simple enumeration of points along the path traversed can ground us in the fact and power of the journey so far, and give us the kôach and kaṿṿānāh, the inspiration and intention to keep going. Look how far we have come. And that act of looking back to move forward is forever vouchsafed to us by the writings of Môsheh, the Tōrāh that we, the People of the Book, carry with us wherever we go.
Shulamit Morris Evans LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.