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Torah Sparks

August 2, 2008 – 1 Av 5768

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)
Maftir: Numbers 28:9 – 15 (Etz Hayim, p. 930 Hertz p. 695)
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1 – 24, 66:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 1220; Hertz p. 944)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Moses records all the stages of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, from Egypt to the steppes of Moab.

God tells Moses to instruct the people that when they enter the land, they are to destroy the Canaanites’ idols and cult places. They are to remove the Canaanites themselves from the land lest any who remain become a source of trouble in the future. God describes the borders of the Promised Land. Moses tells the Israelites that this is the land that will be given to the nine and one-half tribes (excluding Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh). God names the men who will join Joshua and Eleazar in apportioning the land.

God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to set aside 48 towns for the Levites. Six of these are to be designated cities of refuge to which a person who commits unintentional manslaughter may flee and be safe from the victim’s family. Intentional murder is to be punished by death.

Leaders of the tribe of Manasseh express concern that when the daughters of Zelophehad, who were to receive their father’s share of the land, married, the land they inherited would pass to their husbands’ tribes. Moses relays God’s instruction that women who inherit land must marry within their own tribes to preserve the integrity of the land.

On the Road Again

These were the marches of the Israelites who started out 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. (Bamidbar 33:1-2)

  1. Why are these stations recorded here? In order to publicize the loving acts of the Omnipresent; that although He had decreed to move them about and make them wander in the wilderness, you should not think they wandered and moved about from one stage to another the whole 40 years and that they had no rest, for you see that there are only 42 stages... [After deducting the 14 stages mentioned during the first year and the 8 mentioned during the last], all 38 years they journeyed only 20 stages. And Rabbi Tanhum offered another interpretation: To what may it be compared? To a king whose son was ill and whom he took to a distant place to cure. As soon as they returned home the father began to enumerate all the stages, saying to him: Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had a headache. So the Holy One said to him: Moses! Enumerate all the places where they provoked Me to anger. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Since the Holy One brought them out of Egypt till they arrived at the gates of the land of promise, much had befallen them, both favorable and unfavorable. This short listing of the stages of their wanderings was designed as reading material for them after they settled down in their homeland. Each stage that they noted in the reading would enable them to recall what had befallen them at that place. They would accordingly take to heart the kindness shown to them by the Omnipresent and the sufferings they endured for their disobedience so that in future they would act rightly and not sin. (Be’er Yitzhak [Rabbi Yitzhak Horowitz of Yaroslav, d 1864, Poland], supercommentary to Rashi)
  3. The Lord desired that the stages of the Israelites’ journeyings be written down to make known their merit in their going after Him in a wilderness, in a land that was not sown, so that they eventually deserved to enter the land. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  4. Why were all these stations privileged to be recorded in the Torah? In return for their having received Israel, the Holy One will in the future give them their reward; as it is written, The arid desert shall be glad, the wilderness shall rejoice and shall blossom like a rose. It shall blossom abundantly, it shall also exult and shout. (Isaiah 35:1-2) Now if the wilderness will be thus rewarded for having received Israel, is it not certain that one who receives scholars into his house will be rewarded all the more? (Bamidbar Rabbah 23:4)

Sparks for Discussion

The Torah devotes 49 verses to the list of the stages of the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness. Why? About half of the places listed are not mentioned elsewhere in the Torah and we do not know what happened there. What can we infer about the wilderness years from this list? What questions do you wish the Torah had answered?

Life is a Journey

These were the marches of the Israelites... (Bamidbar 33:1)

  1. Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the 42 journeys of the children of Israel will occur to each individual between the time he is born and the time he dies. (Israel ben Eliezer Ba’al Shem Tov, 1700-1760, Poland)
  2. The Torah commentaries say that the enumeration of the journeys and encampments was to review all that had transpired during the 40 years in the desert. A person who had a purpose and goal in life will pause every now and then to assess how much he has accomplished toward reaching his objective... So it was with Moses at the end of the 40 years in the desert. The Israelites were about to enter the Holy Land, and he was about to turn over the leadership to Joshua. The period of his stewardship had come to a close. It was time to see what he and the Israelites had achieved during the past 40 years, hence the meticulous review of the journeys and encampments and what had happened in each.

    If we are serious about achieving a goal in our lives, we must periodically take inventory. Each night, each week, at the beginning of a new year, and perhaps on our birthdays as well. A segment of time has passed. What do we have to show for it? How can we make the next segment of time more productive? (Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, Twerski on Chumash, pp. 348-349)

Sparks for Discussion

The Ba’al Shem Tov suggests that each individual Jew’s journey through life will replicate our ancestors’ journey in the wilderness. How do you understand this observation? What can we as individuals learn from the journey through the wilderness? Do you find this analogy encouraging or depressing? Why?

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