Lessons Within The Listings
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Lessons Within The Listings

Masei, the second of Shabbat’s twin-bill of Torah portions, begins with a listing of places, a catalogue of way-stations, in the Israelites’ seemingly endless journey to the Land of Israel. As is the case with other listings (the boring genealogies, for example) the list is hardly trivial. Attention needs to be paid.

In the long list of way-stations (the “masei”) of the Israelites — 42 in all — we look at which are singled out. Rabbi David Silber teaches that lists of places, of kings, of ancestors are important not only because they identify a historical record but because lists alert us to deviations from the list, the pauses and tangents that are significant to the narrative. For example, a break from the pattern in which the Israelites “set out from X and encamped at Y; they set out from Y and encamped at Z,” is the report [Numbers 33:37-39] of Aaron’s death. The text deviates from its soporific listing of names in order to report on Aaron’s passing.

The point is that the Chumash views the death of Aaron as a crucial moment — perhaps the crucial moment — in Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. Aaron’s death on Mount Hor marks the end of the first generation of the Exodus, those who left Egypt, the slave-generation. To underscore the point, the note on Aaron’s death is followed immediately [Num. 33:40], seemingly gratuitously, by the report: “The Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev, learned of the coming of the Israelites.” With Aaron’s death, the slave generation, with its many failures, passes on. We have a precursor to the beginning of the conquest of Canaan. The reader is taken back to the beginning of Numbers 21, a text identical to ours, the narrative of how the Israelites defeated Arad, seemingly without Moses; a new generation.

Curious as well, in the list, is the sojourn from Marah to Elim [Num. 33:9]. Why Elim? Because “there were 12 springs and 70 palm trees in Elim, so they encamped there.” Why this puzzling detail? In fact, why detail Elim at all? Nothing happens there.

Not so puzzling, suggests Rabbi Silber. The point is not Elim, but Elim’s predecessor, Marah, a place that figures prominently in the post-Egypt, pre-Sinai narrative. The numbers 12 and 70 are not coincidental; we have encountered them before. First, at the very beginning of the Book of Exodus, with the enumeration of the 12 sons of Jacob, and Jacob’s 70 descendants who “went down” to Egypt. The typological number 70 identifies the Elders of Israel. Exodus 24 recounts how, right after the stop at Marah, Moses and the 70 Elders erected an alter with 12 pillars (corresponding to the tribes) at the foot of the mountain – a precursor to the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The typological numbers 12 and 70 in Masei are clear references to the events at Sinai.

The point of our narrative is what’s missing in the listing of the way-stations. There is no actual mention of Mount Sinai, no mention of the giving of the Torah – only an oblique one, those three verses of Marah and Elim, the 12 and the 70. The composite of these two places is the receiving of the Torah. The text deliberately bypasses the events at Sinai, at least explicitly, masking it within an obscure reference. 

The message of Masei, then, is that Matan Torah, the receiving of the Torah at Sinai, is not the be-all and end-all, not the ultimate goal of the journey that began with the leaving of Egypt. The new goal, made clear in these final verses of the Book of Numbers, and nailed down in this listing of the way-stations, is to get to the Land of Israel. That is the lesson of our parasha.

Jerome Chanes is the author of four books on Jewish public affairs, history, and arts and letters. His next books are “The Future of American Judaism” and a book on Israeli theatre.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 7:52 p.m.

Torah: Num. 30:2-36:13

Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4; 4:1-2

Havdalah: 8:51 p.m.

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