The last Torah portion in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar begins:
These are the masey the Israelites when they departed from the land of Egypt in their troops by the power of Moses and Aaron. Moses wrote down their departures for maseyhem at the word of God. And these were the maseyhem for their departures: (Numbers/Bemidbar 33:1-2)
masey (מַסְעֵי) = stages of the journey of. (A form of the noun massa (מַסַּע) = breaking camp, travelling on, journeying, stage of a journey. Derived from the root verb nasa (נָסַע) = pulled out, started out, uprooted.)
maseyhem (מַסְעֵיהֶם) = their stages of travel, their journeys. (Another form of the noun massa.)
The Torah then lists 42 locations, from Ramses, the city where the Israelites assembled to leave Egypt, to the bank of the Jordan River, where the book of Numbers ends. In the list are a few geographical notes to help locate the campsites, and three references to events that occurred on the way.
Which three events?
- At Rameses
Vayisu from Ramses on the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month. On the day after Passover the Israelites departed with a high hand, before the eyes of all the Egyptians. The Egyptians were burying those that God had struck down, every firstborn; and against their gods God had done justice. (Numbers 33:3-4)
vayisu (וַיִּסְעוּ) = and they pulled out. (A form of the verb nasa.)
The extra information about the first location, the Egyptian city of Ramses, is that the Israelites left the morning after the night of the tenth and final plague God inflicted on the Egyptians, the death of their firstborn;1 that the Egyptians no longer tried to stop them; and that their God was stronger than the Gods of the Egyptians. Therefore the Israelites left proudly and openly, confident that God was on their side.
- At Refidim
Vayisu from Alush and they camped at Refidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. (Numbers 33:14)
This sentence refers to a story in the book of Exodus/Shemot that begins:
Vayisu, the whole community of Israelites, from the wilderness of Sin for maseyhem at the word of God. And they camped at Refidim and there was no water for the people to drink. And they argued with Moses, and they said: “Give us water so we can drink!” And Moses said to them: “Why do you argue with me? Why do you test God?” (Exodus 17:1-2)
At the end of the story, the Torah reports that the Israelites said:
“Is God among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7)
Eleven times during their travels from Egypt to the Jordan River the Israelites complain about the conditions and reveal their lack of trust in God, Moses, or both.2 But this week’s Torah portion picks out only the time at Refidim, when God tells Moses to address the problem by striking a rock with his staff, and water comes out.
Why pick this complaint over any of the other ten times3 the Israelites test the leadership of either God or Moses? Why not include the time when Moses strikes the rock but fails to give God credit for the water?4 Or the confrontation at the Reed Sea?5 Or the complaint about food that led to God sending daily manna?6 Or the demand for the golden calf?7 Or the refusal to cross into Canaan at its southern border, which led to another 38 years in the wilderness?8
- At Hor
Vayisu from Kadeish and they camped at Hor the Mountain, at the edge of the land of Edom. And Aaron the priest went up to Hor the Mountain at the word of God, and he died there in the 40th year of the exodus of the Israelites from the land of Egypt, on the fifth month, on the first of the month. And Aaron was 123 years old when he died at Hor the Mountain. And the Canaanite, the king of Arad who lived in the Negev in the land of Canaan, heard of the coming of the Israelites. (Numbers 33:37-40)
Both of Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron, die on the journey. Both are leaders of the people, but only Aaron’s death is mentioned in the list. It might be sexism, or it might be because his death establishes the succession of high priests. Aaron’s oldest surviving son, Elazar, climbs the mountain with his father and Moses, and Aaron dies after Moses has removed his vestments and dressed Elazar in them.9
But why does the Torah portion Masey also mention the king of Arad? In a brief story earlier in Numbers, this king hears of the approaching Israelites, attacks them, and takes some captives.
Then the Israelites vowed a vow to God and said: “If you actually give this people into our hands, then we will dedicate their towns to destruction.” And God listened to the voice of the Israelites and gave [them] the Canaanites … (Numbers 21:2-3)
They were testing God again, but not complaining. In the Torah, dedicating something captured in battle to destruction means dedicating the whole battle to God instead of keeping some booty for personal benefit. Perhaps the Torah mentions the king of Arad here to show that the Israelites are not always rebellious; once in a while they dedicate everything to God.
Not at Mount Sinai
Why does the Torah pick these three events, and no others—not even what happened at Mount Sinai? The Torah portion merely says:
Yet at Mount Sinai the Israelites experience the presence of God in a revelation full of smoke, fire, thunder, and earthquake.10 God gives them the Ten Commandments, first in a voice only Moses can bear to hear, then engraved on pair of stone tablets, twice.11 At Mount Sinai the Israelites believe Moses will never return from the mountaintop, and worship Golden Calf.12 At Mount Sinai the Israelites make covenants with God, verbal and sacrificial, and their elders see God’s feet.13 At Mount Sinai they craft a portable tent-sanctuary so God will dwell among them.14
During their year in the wilderness at Mount Sinai, the attitude of the Israelites toward God swings between terror and total devotion, with a side-trip into ecstatic idol-worship.
The three events mentioned in this week’s list, however, focus on the attitude of the Israelites toward God when they are on their journey, not pausing in ecstasy. At Ramses the Israelites who leave with Moses are confident that God can and will protect them. At Refidim they doubt that God is with them. At Hor they accept their high priest’s successor (a sign that they will also accept Moses’ successor), and they rededicate themselves to God.
Vayisu from the hills of the Avarim and they camped in the deserts of Moab, by the Jordan at Jericho. (Numbers 33:48)
The list ends where the Israelites are waiting to cross the river into Canaan, their “promised land”.
An itinerary is a planned route for a journey, listing locations and transportation between them in the order one has determined. But Moses’ list in Masey covers only the locations the Israelites have already camped at. It follows their route in the past, not the future. The added comments on three events mark their attitudes toward God in the past, but do not predict their attitudes toward God in the future.
When the Israelites travel, they cannot even predict where their next campsite will be. For each stage of their journey, they follow the God’s pillar of cloud and fire to their next stopping place.15
I am preparing now to go on a journey through Europe to Israel, crossing two seas to get to the same land the Israelites in the Torah reached by crossing the Jordan River. My husband and I have been longing to take this trip since the turn of the century, and now we can finally do it.
We have made an itinerary. We are paying for our reservations for the first three months, and making tentative plans in case we can extend our trip to nine months. But even when you have pre-paid for airfare and lodging, things happen along the way; you do not really know where you will find yourself. The definitive list is the one you make at the end of your travels.
What will happen to this blog while we are moving our things into storage, then moving ourselves from country to country?
This is the last new blog post I will have time to write for months. Knowing that makes me wistful. But every week I plan to look at the posts I have written on that week’s Torah portion over the last eight years, and choose one of my favorites.
Then I will e-mail the link to you, my readers. From time to time I will add my photos of old synagogues and other relevant sites in Europe and Israel. I will keep you posted on the masey of Melissa and Will Carpenter!
- Exodus 12:1-32. Exodus 12:37 begins: Vayisu, the Israelites, from Ramses …
- I am not counting the times in the book of Numbers when only a small subset of Israelites complained: Miriam and Aaron in Numbers 12:1-2, 250 Levites in 16:1-11, two Reuvenites in 16:12-5, and Moses and Aaron in Numbers 20:10-12.
- The other ten times are Exodus 14:10, Exodus 15:23-24, Exodus 16:2-3, Exodus 32:1-10, Numbers 11:1-2, Numbers 11:4-20, Numbers 14:1-4, Numbers 17:6-15, Numbers 20:2-5, and Numbers 21:4-7.
- Numbers 20:2-13.
- Exodus 14:10-12.
- Exodus 16:1-4.
- Exodus 32:1-10.
- Numbers 14:1-4.
- Numbers 20:22-29.
- Exodus 19:16-20, 20:15-18.
- Exodus 20:1-18, 31:18, 32:15-19, 34:1-4, and 34:27-28.
- See my post Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear.
- Exodus 19:1-9, 24:3-13. See my posts Mishpatim & Ki Tissa: A Covenant in Writing, and Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.
- See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
- Exodus 13:20-22 and 40:36-38.