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Hirsch At Your Table

The Desert Itinerary

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

ויכתוב משה את מוצאיהם למסעיהם על פי ד' ואלה מסעיהם למוצאיהם. (Nm 33:2)
The people of Israel are about to enter the Land of Canaan. They had defeated the Midianites and the Moavites. They had decided how to divide up the land including the lands of their former enemies on the east side of the Jordan River. At this point Moshe is commanded to record their travels through the desert, including those places where they made and broke camp.

There were forty two moves listed. Of these, fourteen occurred before the incident of the מרגלים/spies. An additional eight moves occurred in the fortieth year from the death of Aharon until they reached ערבות מואב/the wastes of Moav. That left twenty moves for the entire desert experience lasting thirty eight years. The average time spent in camp was approximately two years.

The word מרגלים is from the root ר-ג-ל which means "to learn step by step". The word ערבות is from the root ע-ר-ב which means "to mix substances without changing the original character". A desert area typically has haphazard growth of various plants.

Hirsch sees in the actual listing of the itinerary of travel an important educational and experiential opportunity. The fact is that places are listed but virtually no mention is made of what transpired in those places. It is obvious that each place represented a major event that was well known to the people. That knowledge was to be transferred to coming generations through the oral tradition.

The listing of the many moves and camps recorded in the Torah had significant value for the descendents of the desert generation. The mention of these locations would trigger memories of the events that happened there, particularly God's wondrous and miraculous revelations. The listings could also serve to attract future generations to visit these places and see how a population of over a million people could survive a period of forty years in a barren and waterless desert.

What is disturbing however, is the unusual structure of the verse that introduces the listings of travel and camping. The beginning of the verse states that Moshe recorded מוצאיהם למסעיהם/their exiting the camp and their travels. The end of the verse reverses the order of the words. It states אלה מסעיהם למוצאיהם/these are their travels and their camp exits.

The word מוצאיהם is from the root י-צ-א which means "to exit" the area by breaking camp. The word מסעיהם is from the root נ-ס-ע which means "to travel to a more appropriate place".

The changes in the order of these two words are a reflection of two points of view. The first is obviously that of God, since the words are followed by the phrase על פי ד'/according to God's word. God's instruction was to break up their camp/מוצאיהם, leaving behind the past experience and looking forward to a new goal that will be reached after additional travel/מסעיהם. Every travel was a sign of progress. God was educating the people to look forward and to increase their excitement at the prospect of getting closer to the Land of Canaan

The people, on the other hand, were dissatisfied wherever they camped. They were impatient wherever they were. There were always complaints about some aspect of their life. It didn't matter where they were going to/מסעיהם as long as they were able to get away/מוצאיהם from where they were camped at that moment. Their goal was not to progress to the next level but only to escape the current situation.

Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
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