“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel who departed Egypt in their legions, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.” (Num. 33:1)
The above verse is the introduction to one of the longest pieces of uninterrupted narrative in all of scripture: Forty-nine verses summarising the forty-two encampments settled by the Israelites as they journeyed from Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula toward the Promised Land.
Many if not most commentators are bothered by a simple question: On many occasions, the Torah spares little detail describing the ins and outs of a particular episode. Some sections are developed at length, whilst others are almost circumvented entirely. What then is so uniquely important about the chronicles of the Israelites’ journeys that warranted its appearance here at the conclusion of the book of Numbers? Isn’t it enough that the Torah already notes many of the locations as and when they were encountered back in the book of Exodus?
Renaissance scholar Rabbi Moshe Alshich (d.1593, Safed) develops this question further: As an introductory verse to forty-two locations, wouldn’t it have been more accurate to write: “These are the encampments of the Children of Israel etc.”? He makes a strong point: Jews aren’t the biggest fans of walking. We invented double-parking and the General Theory of Relativity just to avoid it. So why the emphasis on the act of journeying over that of camping?
In his answer, Rabbi Alshich cites a well-known Midrashic parable:
A king once took his son for a ride through what would one day become his kingdom. They stopped at regular intervals, at which point the king would dismount and walk over to a specific place. ‘Remember what happened here?’ the king asked, ‘This is where that wild bear attacked you and I had to fight him off’. Not too long after, they came to a stream. ‘Oh, who could forget when you were thirsty and made me wade into that stream to fetch you some water!’ the king laughed. This continued for miles on end, until the king and his heir finally arrived back at the palace gates.
What struck me when I first read this parable, aside from the fact that it is quite heart-warming, is how it does almost nothing to solve the Alshich’s question. The king’s emphasis and true purpose to embark on a journey with his son is to reminisce about the locations they stopped at and the experiences, trials and tribulations they shared. The path that led them from A to B pales into insignificance stacked up against what took place once they got there.
Unless we’re missing something. You see, while it is rare for a Midrash to compose a parable and expect the reader to take it literally, certain details do stand out. The one that caught my eye was a very simple one. In fact, it was so simple and straightforward that I probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all had I not read it in through the zeitgeist glasses of ‘Track and Trace’.
Why did the king take his son on a tour of every single significant location in the course of one uninterrupted horseback ride? Why not visit a few, spend a decent amount of time at each one, return to the palace and embark afresh to visit more locations at a later date? Why the Magical Mystery Tour? To put this question differently: If it is indeed true that the locations carry significantly more importance than the journey, what’s the hurry?
Unless the king was trying to show his son much more than the memories of individual places and the lessons they teach. Unless the king wanted his son to realise a fact that so often eludes us in life:
Every one of these locations is another thread in the same tapestry. It is a mistake to view them - the impact they have and the lessons they impart - as distinct and separate, when in reality they are united by dint of the fact that they are part of the same journey.
The point isn’t getting from A to B; it is nurturing an understanding of how everything internalised at Point A will inevitably be carried with us to Point B, defining our journey, informing our path in its wake. In this regard, their ‘bonding trip’ wasn’t simply a matter of recalling fond memories. It was a far deeper study into how the experience of fighting off the bear defined the experience of fetching water. And so on, and so forth until they finally returned to the palace gates – wiser and more astute.
Perhaps it took a global pandemic to take stock of how far our actions in one place can influence another. Track & Trace apps the world over seek to tackle the potentially deadly butterfly effect caused by those who cannot or perhaps (sadly) will not recognise this interconnectivity of things; that my actions and behaviour in this shop will affect what happens in this cinema, which will in turn affect what happens in this bar. Never before has the cautionary axiom in Pirkei Avot rang so true: ‘Know where you have come from and [thereby you will know] where you are going’.
“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel”. Forty-two stitches in one magnificent tapestry.
- July 16th 2020