Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk
Former Rosh Kollel (Melbourne, 1998-2001)
Currently Head of the Beit Midrash in Netanya College
The first chapter of parshat Mas’ei is devoted almost entirely to the journeys of Bnei Yisrael during their forty-year stay in the wilderness. The style is brief, laconic – almost boring. “They travelled from …. and encamped at… ; they travelled from … and encamped at …”. This literary phenomenon of monotonous repetition is quite rare in the Torah. It would seem that the only other instance of it appears in the section of the identical sacrifices offered by the princes of the various tribes, as recorded in parshat Naso (Bamidbar 7). In both places we ask ourselves: for what purpose does the Torah record such a long, monotonous list?
Let us examine this question against the background of the haftarah for parshat Mas’ei, which is traditionally from the Book of Yirmiyahu, chapter 2. Interestingly, we start at verse 4, rather than verse 1: “So says God: what iniquity have your fathers found in Me, that they have gone far from Me and have gone after vanity, and themselves become worthless? Nor have they said, “Where is God Who brought us out of the landof Egyptand Who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and the shadow of death; in a land where no man passed through, nor did any man live there. And I brought you to the land of plenty, to eat of its fruit and its bounty, but you entered and you defiled My land, and made My inheritance an abomination.” (Yirmiyahu 2:4-7)
The prophet bemoans the fact that Bnei Yisrael have forgotten the miracles and the favors that God bestowed upon them in the desert.
Seforno suggests (Bamidbar 33:1-2) that the purpose of the list of stops on Bnei Yisrael’s journey is to make known the great merit of the nation. He explains the need for all the repetition of “they journeyed…” and “they encamped…”:
“These are the journeys – The blessed God wanted the journeys of Bnei Yisrael to be recorded in order to make known their merit in walking after Him in the desert, in a land that was not sown, such that they were worthy of entering the land. And Moshewrote it. He recorded each destination to which they headed, and each place that they left. For sometimes that place to which they were headed was a very inhospitable place, while the place that they left was good. So these are their journeys and their places of departure. And sometimes it was the opposite. And also contained in the matter of the journey is the fact that they would move from one place to the next without prior warning; this was very difficult, but nevertheless they did not hold back. And therefore it is written, for each of [the stops], that they journeyed from place “X” and encamped in place “Y”. For both the journeying and the encampment were difficult [each in its own way].”
If we accept this interpretation, the fact that we start reading the ‘haftarah’ from verse 4 is most puzzling. Verses 1-3 reflect precisely the purpose of the list of journeys, according to Seforno:
“God’s word came to me, saying: Go and call in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: So says God – I remember in your favor the kindness of your youth, your love as a bride, when you walked after Me in the desert, in a land that was not sown. Israelis holy to God, the first fruits of His produce; all that devour them shall be held guilty; evil shall come upon them, promises God.”
This, surely, is exactly what Seforno is referring to when he writes, “The blessed God wanted to record the journeys of Bnei Yisrael in order ot make known their merit in going after Him in the desert, in a land that was not sown.” Nevertheless, these verses are not read as part of the haftarah. It is as though a malicious hand erased these verses from the haftarah. Why? Apparently, by omitting these verses, the compiler of the haftarot expresses his insistence that this was not the Torah’s purpose in listing the journeys. Seforno’s interpretation is resoundingly rejected.
Perhaps it is not so difficult to reconcile Seforno’s interpretation with the fact that the haftarah begins where it does. After all, Seforno lived and was active in Rome, and thereafter in Bologna. According to the Italian custom, the haftarot for parshat Matot and Mas’ei are from the Book of Yehoshua, and they address a completely different aspect of the parsha. Hence, the question that our haftarah addresses to Seforno is irrelevant, in his eyes.
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 23:3) suggests that the list of journeys is a form of rebuke to Bnei Yisrael for their sins and transgressions in the desert. To the view of the Midrash, the list of stops is actually a list – and a lengthy one, at that – of all of Bnei Yisrael’s misdeeds in the desert:
“These are the journeys – we may compare this to a king, whose son was ill. He took him to a certain place for healing. Upon their return, the father began to recount all of the stages of their journey. He said, “Here we slept, here we gave thanks, here your head felt bad…”. Likewise, the Holy One tells Moshe: “Recount for them all the places where they made Me angry”. Therefore it is written, “These are the journeys…”.”
According to this explanation, we can well understand why the haftarah skips the first three verses of chapter 2, since these verses praise and extol Bnei Yisrael, while the aim of the list of journeys is the opposite: to make mention of their sins.
If we adopt this explanation, we may also raise an interesting point concerning the haftarah of the preceding Shabbat – parshat Pinhas or Matot. The haftarah of the Shabbat preceding parshat Mas’ei is always Yirmiyahu (1:1-2:3). When Matot and Mas’ei are read on the same Shabbat, this haftarah is read on the preceding Shabbat – Pinhas; when they are read on separate Shabbatot, this is the haftarah for parshat Matot. The reason for this is that this haftarah has as its theme not the parsha, but rather the 17thof Tammuz, since it is always read on the Shabbat after the 17th of Tammuz.
The connection between chpater 1 of Yirmiyahu and the destruction of the Templein general, and the 17th of Tammuz in particular, is clear. But at the end of the haftarah there is a small appendix from chapter 2: the same three verses that are omitted from the haftarah for parshat Mas’ei suddenly appear at the end of the haftarah on the Shabbat preceding Mas’ei. For what reason are these verses appended there? Sometimes the haftarah is not related to the parsha of the week when it is read, but rather serves as a sort of introduction and preparation for the parsha of the following week. This is the case here: the first three verses of chapter 2 in the Book of Yirmiyahu serve as an introduction to the parsha of Mas’ei.
Parshat Mas’ei begins with a long list of places and events in which, according to the Midrash, Bnei Yisrael sinned and angered God. If we read the list of stops with this in mind, we might – heaven forefend – get the impression that this nation, making its way through the desert, was a gang of ungrateful criminals. This, of course, would be a mistaken view, and we may not permit ourselves to entertain such ideas. In order to put things into perspective, so that we will have a more accurate and balanced view of what the stature of that gneeration was, the Sages bring the verses from Yirmiyahu as background:
“So says God: I remember in your favor the kindness of your youth, your love as a bride, when you walked after Me in the wilderness, in an unsown land.”