After forty years of wandering through the wilderness, the Children of Israel arrive at the Plains of Moab. The Promised Land is so close they can almost taste it, and most of Parashat Masei is devoted to what awaits them on the other side of the Jordan. Yet with all this looking forward, Masei opens with a significant look backward: “These are the journeys of the Children of Israel who went forth out of the land of Egypt,” followed by forty-eight verses listing the places they travelled to in the wilderness (Bamidbar, 33:1-49). What is the point? Why look back now?
To begin answering these questions, let’s consider for a moment what it would mean if the list of stops was not included. The message would have been clear: All those years wandering in the desert were a black hole; they had no value. It was a period of wandering without direction or destination, of marking time until the older generation died out. All those years could have been covered by a single verse that read: “Thirty-eight years later…”
To some degree this is the case; had there been events of any broad significance during those intervening years they would certainly have been recorded for posterity. But that does not mean that these years were meaningless. There were certainly moments of profound significance for the individuals involved: growing up, falling in love, getting married, the birth of a son or daughter, watching one’s children grow up, dealing with hardship and struggle, growing intellectually and spirituality, and celebrating successes and grappling with failures. The people would have no doubt invested these events with due weight at the time of their occurrence, but now that they are ready to enter the land of Canaan, how will they think of the past decades? Will they be a big blur? Will the people feel that the time was wasted and best forgotten? Or will they pause to remember and reflect on those years, to identify the important moments, seeing them as milestones, markers of important stages in their personal journeys?
This is what Moshe is reminding them to do. He reminds them to step back, remember what occurred, and recall where they have been, for naming those places turns events into milestones and wandering into a journey. This is true in our lives as well. Many of us have vivid memories of the early years of our lives: stories from when we were growing up, getting married, getting our first job, having our first child. And then, somewhere around our early thirties, things start to blur; the decades fly by. If we were to tell our story, it would sound much like the story of the Exodus: profound, transformative moments at the beginning and then “thirty-eight years later…”
The Torah is telling us that there is a way to change this narrative. If we take the time to mark our milestones, the blur will come into focus. We can shape the narrative of our lives. We can determine if we will see our life as a wandering or as a journey. We may not always be able to articulate exactly what value there was in arriving at certain stops along the way, but this was true for the Israelites as well. The Torah simply names most of the places, giving no indication of their significance. This is partly because their import was personal rather than national, and as such, it differed from person to person. But it is also because their significance may not have been fully understood or easily articulated, yet they were significant.
In reflecting, we may feel that sometimes we were moving backward, not forward. So it was with the Israelites. Some of their stops took them backward, towards Egypt, yet they were stops in the journey nonetheless. By naming these stops we make a statement. We assert that they do have meaning, even if we do not understand what that meaning is. By naming them, we assert that our going back was part of our path of eventually going forward. By naming them, we make them part of our story, part of our journey. When does this naming take place? When these events are occurring, or only after, when we step back and look at the trajectory of our lives?
In Parashat Masei, the latter seems to be the case. The verse tells us that “Moshe wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of God,” indicating that this writing down occurred only at the end of the forty years in the wilderness (33:2). Orah Hayyim, however, disagrees and sees this verse as saying that the journeys were written down as they occurred. There is no question that we are better off if we are able to take note of the special moments in our lives when they happen. Writing in a diary or putting pictures in an album and supplying a caption – for the younger generation, read: blogging or uploading a photo from your iPhone to your Facebook timeline – are ways to save those moments for the future, but these activities also assign weight and significance to them in the present. These are ways to tell our story as we are living it.
But we are not always able to do this. When life seems purposeless, we might ask ourselves: Why bother noting these moments at all? If our personal or professional life is in shambles, if we are in physical or mental pain, or if we are just wandering purposelessly or aimlessly, we will not see ourselves on a journey; we will see ourselves as lost. This, perhaps, was also the experience of the Children of Israel. For thirty-eight years they wandered from place to place with no clear destination and with no ability to direct their own movements. God told them when to move, and God told them when to stay. They were powerless, at the mercy of forces beyond their control.
At such times in our lives, it may still be possible to gain some control, if not by changing our circumstances then at least by changing how we frame, relate to, and react to these circumstances. If we can “write down our journeys” at these moments we will have accomplished a great deal. But sometimes this is an unrealistic expectation. Sometimes we might have to suffer through this period of wandering. At these times what we can do is persevere, persevere so that when we come out on the other side, when our thirty-eight years in the wilderness finally comes to an end, we can at least reflect and assess. At this juncture it will be critical to name those way stations, asserting that there was value and meaning to the places we have been, that they are part of how we got to where we are even if a full understanding of their purpose and necessity still eludes us.
This connects to another ambiguity in the text. The verse states that Moshe wrote down their journeys according to the word of God. What was according to the word of God, their journeys or the writing down? Ibn Ezra says the former; Ramban says the latter. This is often the very ambiguity that we struggle with. Sometimes we can embrace the belief that our current journey is directed by God. In those moments we will be able to mark our journey as we are living it. At other times, however, this belief will be very distant from us, and we will only be able to feel connected to a larger system of meaning when we have emerged on the other side and are able to look back and reflect.
If we can at least record our milestones at the end of the journey, then we will have come a long way. Our hardships and struggles will become life lessons and periods of growth, and we will have made these periods into our own personal Torah. As Sefat Emet comments, it is in the writing down of these events that we declare them to be of lasting value, that we transform all of these dangerous, difficult journeys into an integral part of God’s Torah.