July 26, 2014 – 28 Tammuz 5774
Annual (Numbers 33:1-36:13): Etz Hayim p. 954; Hertz p. 714
Triennial (Numbers 33:1-49): Etz Hayim p. 954; Hertz p. 714
Haftarah (Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4): Etz Hayim p. 973, Hertz p. 725
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina
The years of wandering in the wilderness are outlined, with each Israelite encampment identified. God commands the Israelites to destroy all of Canaan’s inhabitants and their deities, and outlines the boundaries of where the Israelites will settle, including special towns in each tribe that are set aside for the Levites.
Other towns are reserved as a hiding place for someone who commits manslaughter. As long as the one who commits manslaughter remains in the city of refuge, no legal revenge can be taken against him; that protection ends if he leaves the city. Those who murder intentionally are punished with death.
The inheritance rules for the daughters of Zelophehad are clarified further: If they wish to retain their portion of their father's inheritance, they must marry someone from a clan of their father's tribe.
Theme #1: On the Road
These were the marches of the Israelites who started from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Lord. (Numbers 33:1-2a)
Israel’s itinerary is recounted in great detail.
A parable: It may be compared to the case of a king whose son was ill and whom he took to a distant place to cure him. When they returned home, the father began to enumerate all the stages of the journey, saying: “Here we slept, here you caught cold; here you had a headache (and so forth).” -- Rashi
The “wanderings” are a hint at exiles and pardons. Every person who embarks on a long and tiring walk to learn Torah and, as we read in the name of Rabbi Nehorai in Pirkei Avot 4:14, “wanders afar to a place of Torah,” [should know that] this wandering is the very source. … Thus these Jews were the first who wandered far from their homes to find a place of Torah. -- Isaiah ben Abraham HaLevi Horowitz
People would think that [the Israelites] sojourned in a desert that was near to cultivated land and in which man can live, like the deserts inhabited at present by the Arabs, or that it consisted of places in which it was possible to till and to reap or to feed on plants that were to be found there, or that there were wells of water in those places. Therefore all these fancies are rebutted and the traditional relation of all these miracles is confirmed through the enumeration of those stations. -- Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:50
Questions for Discussion:
Rashi compares Israel’s travelogue to a person waxing nostalgically about the difficult steps in a personal journey that leads to restored health and vigor. When we think back on the challenges we face when pursuing our goals, is it easy to remember the places where hardships once occurred? Are we ever better-served by blocking out memories of the tougher times? Does recalling the bumps on the road a necessary way to fully appreciate how far we’ve come?
Isaiah ben Abraham HaLevi Horowitz speaks of our ancestors embarking on a long journey for the sake of finding “a place of Torah.” How can we understand “a place of Torah?” Does it refer to a physical location mentioned frequently in the Torah text? Is it a place where the ideas of the Torah are observed and kept? Or is it a place where Torah isn’t observed currently, but can be when the Israelites arrive?
Maimonides reminds us that the recalling of Israelites’ itinerary should not be seen as a nostalgic look at the places they visited, much as we flip through pictures from family vacations and assorted road trips. Rather, the purpose of this lengthy passage is to marvel at the remarkable feats that God provides the people in locations where living is difficult or even impossible. If the feats are so amazing, why are so many of them mentioned in a brief manner?
Theme #2: I Could’ve Sworn We’ve Been Here Before...
They set out from Rephidim and encamped in the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from the wilderness of Sinai and encamped at Kibroth-hattaavah. (Numbers 33:15-16)
Unlike the Revelation described in the book of Exodus, Sinai is but a footnote -- and a mysterious one at that.
The question as to why the redactor of the list of camping sites inserts them precisely at this point is difficult to answer. Did the “document” used by him perhaps give the appearance of having its starting-point in the Sinai region (with the wilderness of Zin, one had already arrived, according to Exodus 16:1, in the Sinai region)? -- Martin Noth, Numbers
The region [of Sinai] has not been identified with certainty. The identification of Sinai with Jebel Sin Bisher, about 48 kilometers southeast of Suez, has much to commend it. … [But it] has been effectively refuted. … A location in Edom or Midian (northwestern Arabia) is equally improbable since it would place Mount Sinai too far from Egypt and would also render absurd Hobab’s wish to return to his homeland (Numbers 10:29). He would already have been there! -- Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers
Why, in the recital of the journeys, was the revelation at Sinai left out? Because once the Torah was given it became timeless and cut loose from any one place: every moment is its moment and and every place its place. -- Mordecai HaCohen, Al HaTorah
Questions for Discussion:
Martin Noth wonders why the list of the places where the Israelites stops is placed in Numbers 33. Would it have made more sense to include this list spread through the stories that feature Israel in the wilderness? Would it have made more sense to place them at the very end of the book of Numbers, so that the reader can review the full list of the Israelites’ itinerary? Does the list’s placement make it appear an afterthought in the Israelites’ story?
Jacob Milgrom details the difficulties of pinpointing the location of the Sinai wilderness. If we knew Sinai’s precise location, would we better appreciate the story of the Torah? Is it important for us to travel to the place where the Israelites wandered and to know exactly where every event in the story took place? Is Sinai more important as a location or as a concept?
Mordecai HaCohen notes that while Sinai is mentioned in the Israelites’ itinerary, the significance of the place is not mentioned at this time. Is it safe to assume that the Israelites don’t need to receive another reminder of the importance of Sinai to their history? Given how the Israelites have a penchant to forget the miracles that lead them from bondage to freedom, wouldn’t an extra reminder of a place as important as Sinai be helpful? Or must the Israelites learn to appreciate their communal origins on their own?