Wandering Jews: Thoughts on Parashat Masa’ey

Wandering Jews: Thoughts on Parashat Masa’ey July 29, 2019

Rabbi Arthur GreenBy Rabbi Arthur Green 

Parashat Masa’ey (Numbers 33:1-36:13)

If there is a new Kabbalah to be revealed for our age, I have long suspected that its biblical basis will be these seemingly obscure concluding chapters of the Book of Numbers, which open this way:

These are the journeys of the children of Israel who went forth from Egypt in their multitudes, by the hand of Moses and Aaron. Moses wrote their goings forth to journey by the mouth of God; these are their journeys as they went forth. (Numbers 33:1-2)

The chapter then goes on to list the various stopping places in the course of Israel’s forty-year journey through the wilderness. The Torah reading tradition, as practiced in the Ashkenazic synagogue, recognizes a mysterious quality in these place names, chanting them in a special lilting tune that is used only here and at the Song of the Sea.

Imagine Moses writing them down as he completes the Torah, just before giving his great final speeches. He knows that he is not to enter the Promised Land, that he will have no part in the “glory of battle” that lies ahead. Instead, he chooses to leave his people with a list of all those places in which they had camped along the way, back when they were still just wanderers. But this record of travels, seemingly meaningless and perhaps confused meanderings around the desert wasteland, is not written down just as a memento for future generations. There is something sacred in the list of place names — a secret yet to be revealed.

They journeyed from Elim and camped at Yam-Suf. They journeyed from Yam-Suf and camped at Midbar Sin. They journeyed from Midbar Sin and camped at Dofkah. They journeyed from Dofkah and camped at Alush. They journeyed from Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink. They journeyed from Rephidim and camped at Midbar Sinai. They journeyed from Midbar Sinai and camped at Kivrot ha-Ta’avah…. (Numbers 33:10-16).

Journeys, wanderings. We Jews have been wanderers for a long time. How did Moses know that this was to be the fate of his people, thousands of years into the future? He gave us a zigzagged, back-circling map of forty-two places where we had camped. This is a holy number, say the mystics, corresponding to the hidden forty-two letter name of God. Each camping site — some lasting for days and others for years — represented its own holy letter.

They journeyed from Kivrot ha-Ta’avah (“the Graves of Desire!”) and camped in Hatzerot. They journeyed from Hatzerot and camped in Rithmah. They journeyed from Rithmah and camped in Rimon Paretz. (Numbers 33:17-19)

The reason we will write our own Kabbalah around them is because we continue to be wanderers. In the private religion of our own inner lives, we all have such sacred lists, all the important stopping places in our journeys. Our generation wanders as none before it, perhaps not since the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Yes, we always were wanderings Jews. But the truth is that many of our ancestors lived for quite a while — perhaps five or ten generations — in the same city or shtetl somewhere in the old-world diaspora. It was the twentieth century, with its great upheavals of population, that broke that bond and set us loose. Some went first from small town to city, then from eastern to central Europe, then (those who were lucky) on to America. Others had unfortunate stops in Siberia and the D.P. camps — or much worse — along the way. We new-world Jews, born in places where our families had only the shallowest roots, felt free, sometimes almost called, to wander, to cover territory across the country and around the world, before settling down. The decision to stop wandering is a hard one; many of us never quite come to peace with it. When we do settle, it is often in yet newer places. Each generation of wandering Jews, so it begins to seem, seeks out a new place to call home and make its nest.

Some of the old desert place names seem to have meaning, and might be translated that way:

They journeyed from Community and camped at Mount Beauty. They journeyed from Mount Beauty and camped at Trembling. They journeyed from Trembling and camped at Choirs. They journeyed from Choirs and camped at the Bottom (and that’s a euphemism!). Anyway, it was a terrible place.

But we’re not quite sure of those meanings. Perhaps we need another set of tools, not yet discovered, to really decipher them. That will be the new Kabbalah.

Meanwhile, lay out your own family’s journey this way, in as much detail as you know of it. Go ahead; try it.

They journeyed from Berditchev and camped in Hamburg. They sailed from Hamburg and landed in Ellis Island. They ferried from Ellis Island and camped on Rivington Street. They journeyed from Rivington Street and camped in the Bronx, on the Grand Concourse. They journeyed from the Grand Concourse and settled in Teaneck.

Or maybe: “From the Bronx to Detroit, then on to the suburbs. And from there to Los Angeles.”  Whatever it was, write it down. Now add your own travels, key stations along your road of life. “I journeyed from Teaneck and camped in West Philadelphia. I journeyed from West Philadelphia and backpacked in Europe. I journeyed from Europe and camped in Ann Arbor.” Go ahead, do your own. Write it down, just like Moses did. Once you have your list, try chanting it aloud.

There is something gendered about this, though present within all of us. The nesting instinct belongs somehow to our “feminine” side, the desire to settle down and build a stable home. The “male” within all of us often struggles with the desire to keep wandering, to see life as an endless journey rather than as the history of a growing home. Even when settled and loving our families, there is something in us that still hankers for the open road. That’s how Jack Kerouac became the hero of an entire male generation, his readers mostly guys who had long given up such travels but still wanted to hear and dream about them.

We even have a word for it, an English term derived from the old German — wanderlust. What is it within us that still desires, against all reason, to cut loose from ties and hit the road? How many good relationships have we ended, how many hearts lie broken, because we just couldn’t “stay put”?

These are universal human questions, of course. But we Jews, so long a wandering people, have our own way of experiencing them. Anti-Semites of the twentieth century, both Nazi and Stalinist, looked upon Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans,” people always ready to wander on to the next attractive location, and therefore enemies of stable community. Like most such accusations, they found something real and exaggerated it to the point of distortion.

Zionism was created to bring an end to this wandering.  We were finally to “cross the Jordan” in the biblical story, and settle down to cultivating our land, “each one under his/her olive or fig tree.” But, as the Israeli cousins we meet in Dharamsala or Machu Picchu tell us, it’s not so simple.


Based on an essay to appear in the author’s forthcoming book Judaism and the Inner Life: New-Hasidic Reflections, to be published by Yale University Press in 2020.) Rabbi Arthur Green is Rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.

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