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Parashat Masai: A Torah Travelogue by Yaakov Bieler

July 28, 2011 by  
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The assumption that everything contained in the Tora has spiritual meaning.

When encountering biblical material whose significance is not readily apparent, the creativity of Rabbinic commentators down through the ages comes to the fore. Most begin with the premise that whatever is recorded in the Tora has some sort of lasting spiritual significance.[1] However, determining exactly what the significance of such verses may be, is subject to individual insights and associations.

Searching for meaning in the names of the places where the Jews encamped during their desert wanderings.

A case in point is the listing of the journeys undertaken by the Jewish people en route to the land of Israel, appearing at the beginning of Parashat Masai (BaMidbar 33:3-49). While very few of the locations mentioned in these verses are accompanied by editorial comments regarding the significant events that transpired there,[2] for the most part each verse begins with the verb “VaYisu Mi…” (and they journeyed from…) and concludes with a phrase beginning “VaYachanu Be…” (and they encamped in…). Assuming that the places mentioned merely by name without additional historical clarifications had no particular inherent significance in their own rights, other than that these were the places where the Divine Pillar of Cloud stopped, thereby indicating that the people were to encamp in these locations,[3] what rationale could be supplied for the Tora dedicating such a large number of verses to this travelogue?[4]

A reminder of God’s Compassion.

RaShI on 33:1, in the first of two comments, citing R. Moshe HaDarshan, perceives that the listing of journeys constitutes yet another indication of the Mercy of HaShem, despite the Divine Decree that imposed upon the Jews forty years of wandering. Although the Tora records in BaMidbar 14:33-34,

And your children shall wander in the desert for forty years and bear your backslidings, until your dead bodies be consumed in the desert.

According to the number of days that you spied out the land, even forty days (see BaMidbar 13:25), each day for a year, shall you bear your iniquities, namely forty years, and you shall know My Displeasure,

implying that not only the quantity of the wanderings, but also their quality would constitute one prolonged punishment for the people’s lack of faith in HaShem, RaShI contends that this was not entirely the case. While conditions in the desert were less than ideal—despite the fact that there were clouds protecting them,[5] they usually had enough water,[6] and their food was provided in the form of Manna,[7] nevertheless being removed from civilization for such a prolonged period of time and watching an entire generation of individuals, some of them your close relatives, die, could not have been very pleasant—RaShI notes that only forty-two places are mentioned in the listing at the beginning of Parashat Masai in terms of the forty years summarized in verses 33:3-49.[8] While the individual who proverbially sees the “glass half empty” will see this as another dimension of Divine Imposition of difficulty, those who view the “glass as half full” will argue that it would have been that much worse if the “bugging-out” exercise would have been required even more frequently. Furthermore, the first fourteen, or one third of the places in the list of forty-two, reflect travels during the year immediately after leaving Egypt,[9] thereby suggesting that the remaining twenty-eight locations on the list were visited over the course of forty-one years. The spacing between the bulk of the trips becomes even more pronounced when one recognizes that many trips at the opposite end of the list of the forty-two, i.e., the last eight, took place following the death of Aharon,[10] during the final year spent in the desert. This leaves twenty locations to be spread out over thirty-eight years of wandering, a rate of travel that would not have necessarily[11] required the Jews to have been constantly on the move.

RaShI, therefore contends that HaShem was reflecting an approach that could be referred to as “Rachum BaDin” (merciful while meting out justice).[12] There is no question that the Jews deserved to be punished after trying HaShem’s “Patience” so many times in the desert. Not only was the people’s hysterical reaction to the report of the spies sufficient cause for HaShem to Decide that the Generation of the Exodus was not worthy of constituting the Jewish people in Canaan, but He explicitly Contends that this incident followed on the heels of numerous others, and therefore was in effect the “straw that broke the camel’s back”.

BaMidbar 14:22

…And they have tested Me these ten times[13] and they did not listen to My Voice.

However, instead of immediately Ridding Himself of the people who refused to place their faith in Him, which certainly would have been justified  and a possibility from which God “allows Himself” to be dissuaded by Moshe on two different occasions—see Shemot 32:10-14; BaMidbar 14:11-20—HaShem Permits the offending generation to die off gradually over the course of forty years of relatively leisurely wanderings through the desert.

Challenging RaShI’s assumption.

While RaShI sees R. Moshe HaDarshan clearly searching for a silver lining regarding the situation in which the Dor HaMidbar (the Generation of the Desert) is trapped, it is not altogether clear that a relatively lesser amount of relocation and traveling should make a difference to people who effectively have a death penalty hanging over their heads. Furthermore, the Midrashic description of the manner in which these people died over the course of the forty years seems to me to be a case of prolonged torture and death rather than a reflection of great concern and sensitivity to their plight.

Midrash Eicha Rabba, Petichtot #33

Said R. Levi: Every eve of Tisha B’Av, Moshe would make an announcement throughout the encampment, and said, “Go out and dig!” And the people would go out and dig their graves and sleep in them. The next morning, he would make an announcement, and say, “Rise up and separate the dead from the living. And they would stand and find themselves to be 15,000 less than 600,000. And in the last of the forty years, they did the same, and they found that they were “whole” (no one had died). They said, “It is possible that we miscalculated the date, (i.e., this really isn’t the eve of Tisha B’Av, and the miracle occurs specifically when the sleeping in the graves is carried out on the exact date). So they repeated the process on the 10th, the 11th, the 12th, the 13th and the 14th. And when they saw that the moon was now full, they said, “It appears as if HaShem has Rescinded the Decree.”[14] And they made the day (Tisha B’Av) into a holiday. (!) But their sins accumulated and eventually the day reverted to a day of mourning due to the destructions of the Temples on two separate occasions…

While one can understand how HaShem not only Wished to commemorate the forty days of spying with forty years of wandering, but also the anniversary when the spies delivered their report causing the people’s wild, faithless consternation, to have to undergo this process year after year appears to be an extremely severe consequence to impose.

RaShI sees fit to offer an alternative interpretation to the one discussed above.

Perhaps the relativistic nature of R. Moshe Darshan’s approach, i.e., is the manner in which the people are treated really a reflection of “Chesed”, or should the forty years in the desert be looked upon as an intensely severe punishment that is designed not only to give the sinners a chance to repent and atone, but also to make a powerful impression of deterrence upon those who are coming after them, is why RaShI presents a second interpretation for the inclusion of the list of places at the beginning of Parashat Masai. For an alternative to R. Moshe HaDarshan’s perspective, RaShI quotes the Midrash Tanchuma.

Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Masai #3

A parable: To what is this to be compared? To a king whose son was ill. He (the king) took him (the son) to a different location to cure him. When they were returning, the father began to list all of the travels and he said to him, “Here is where we slept; here is where we were cold; here is where your head hurt.” So too the Holy One Blessed Be He said to Moshe, “List all of the places where they made Me Angry.” Therefore it is written, “These are the journeys of the Children of Israel.”

On the one hand, Midrash Tanchuma and R. Moshe HaDarshan’s interpretations have in common focusing attention upon HaShem’s Consideration for the Jewish people, whether it be in terms of lessening the amount of trips to which they were subjected over the course of the forty years, or the lengths to which HaShem Himself “Went” to effect a cure for his less than perfect “Child”, in the spirit of the Divine Instructions to Moshe with regard to how to approach Pharoah in  Shemot 4:22, “And you will say to Pharoah, ‘So says HaShem: Israel is My first-born child.’” But rather than Tanchuma exclusively emphasizing the manner of HaShem’s Punishment in terms of the extent to which the people were forced to travel during the forty years, the Midrash also stresses how God “personally Accompanied” the Jews, throughout their long recuperation, i.e., “This is where WE slept; where WE were cold.” Such language calls to mind other insights of RaShI such as the commentary explaining why HaShem Appears to Moshe from the midst of a bramble bush,[15] and why when Moshe and the other Jewish dignitaries “see” God, there is sapphire brickwork beneath His “Feet”.[16]

Questions can be raised about Tanchuma’s approach as well.

But once again, reservations can be voiced about Tanchuma’s explanation for the list of places in BaMidbar 33. Were each of the forty-two locations listed in Parashat Masai a place where the Jews challenged HaShem’s Authority and/or the leadership of His Chosen Representatives, i.e., Moshe and Aharon, and thereby qualifying all of these places as “locations where they made Me Angry”? Whereas some of the places readily lend themselves to such an understanding,[17] the overwhelming majority do not.[18] Are we to therefore presume that even though these place names are not mentioned explicitly in the Tora text as scenes of rebellion and conflict, they nevertheless are to be associated with these types of difficulties? RaShI makes a similar claim with regard to the places mentioned in the first verse of Devarim:

Devarim 1:1

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel on the banks of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain over against the Red Sea, between Paran and Tophel and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di Zahav.


“In the desert”—…they provoked Him to anger in the desert, as in Shemot 16:3, (the complaint about lacking food).

“In the plain”—they had sinned with Ba’al Pe’or at Shittim in the plains of Moav.

“Over against the Red Sea”–…on their arrival at the Red Sea, as in Shemot 14:11 (the complaint that they would have preferred to die in Egypt)…as well as when they left the midst of the sea as in Tehillim 106:7 (the fear that the Egyptians would pursue them on the other side).

“Between Paran and Tophel and Lavan”—…he reproved them because of the belittling (“Taphel”) statements regarding the Manna which was white (“Lavan”) in color…and because of what they had done in the desert of Paran, i.e., a reference to the sin of the spies.

“And Chatzeirot”—the rebellion of Korach; what was done to Miriam as a result of her slandering Moshe.

“And Di Zahav”—the Golden Calf which they made because they had so much gold…

Although the list of places in Devarim 1:1 is much shorter, nevertheless, RaShI has to resort to homiletic interpretations to account for Paran, Tophel and Lavan. How much more difficult would it be to come up with an interpretation for each of the additional elements in the list of forty-two that are not clearly linked to a significant event discussed in the Tora!

A third interpretation that is not subject to the critiques leveled against RaShI’s two commentaries.

It would appear that Sephorno, in a very short comment, takes just the opposite position from both of RaShI’s hypotheses with respect to who is being praised in terms of the list of places mentioned in BaMidbar 33.

Sephorno on BaMidbar 33:1

“These are the journeys”—HaShem Desired to Record the journeys of Israel to indicate their merit in their following Him into an uncultivated desert,[19] to the extent that they deserved entering into the Land of Israel.

Sephorno understands the list as implicitly praising the Jews rather than emphasizing HaShem’s Kindnesses. Although admittedly, it was the people’s fault that God Decreed that they would have to spend such a long period in the desert, nevertheless, rather than actually returning to Egypt, or even threatening to do so, the overwhelming majority allowed themselves to be led from place to place over the course of forty years. It had been virtuous of the people to follow HaShem from lush Egypt into the barren desert in the first place, even when there had been a reasonable expectation that their stay in the wilderness would be brief. But once the sin of the spies resulted in an incredibly longer series of journeys, Sephorno is emphasizing how amazing it was that most of the Jews stayed the course, despite difficult conditions.

What is the reader to do in the face of such diametrically opposed interpretations?

So who among the commentators[20] is closest to the truth? Who makes the most sense within the context of the Tora in general and these verses in particular? While the rule “Eilu VaEilu Divrei Elokim Chayim”[21] (these and these are the words of the Living God) do not only apply to the disputes of Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai, but to every “Machloket LeShem Shamayim”[22] (a dispute for the sake of Heaven), a student of the Tora has the privilege to prefer one approach over another, and to even offer his/her own alternative, if one presents itself.  Struggling to understand dueling interpretations is the ultimately fulfillment of being “Osek” (engaged) in the study of Tora.

[1] Megilla 14a

As the Rabbis have taught: Many prophets have prophesied on behalf of Israel, double the number of individuals who left Egypt (603,550 men above the age of 20). Yet prophecy that is relevant to future generations is written down; that which is not necessary, is not written down.

Just as this rule pertains to a particular prophet’s entire prophecy, it is likewise the case with regard to which part of a prophet’s teaching is recorded for posterity. While Moshe is the greatest of all prophets, he is subject to the same considerations.

[2] a) Eilim 33:9—12 springs of water, 70 date palms.

b) Refidim 33:14—no water to drink.

c) Har HaHar 33:37-40—Aharon dies and the king of Arad hears about this development.

[3] HaShem’s Decisions regarding where the Jewish encampment ought to relocate has an interesting Halachic dimension:

Shabbat 31b

R. Yose is of the opinion that whenever someone engages in “Soter” (destroying, one of the 39 prohibited activities on Shabbat), if his/her intent is to reconstruct the structure in the same place where it originally stood, it is considered a violation of “Melacha” (creative physical activity prohibited on Shabbat); however, if the intent is to reconstruct it in a new location, then it is not considered a violation of “Soter” (according to the Tora; it may be nevertheless prohibited Rabbinically.)

Rabba said to him: Since the definitions of “Melachot” are derived from the Tabernacle, and with respect to the Tabernacle, each time it was taken apart, it was in order to rebuild it in a new location (the places listed in Parashat Masai, following Sinai), then the definition of “Soter” should be that the accompanying intent is to rebuild the structure in a new location!

He (R. Yose) said to him: It is different there (with respect to the journeys in the desert), since it is written (BaMidbar 9:23) “At the Command of the Lord they encamped, and at the Command of the Lord they journeyed.” Consequently it is comparable to destroying in order to build in the same place (i.e., as soon as HaShem Decides that a new location is in order, it is as if the old location never existed, and the proper location is the new destination. Such a thing cannot be said when a person makes such a decision by his own lights.)

[4] This type of question is equally relevant with regard to e.g., 1) the names of Eisav’s descendents (Beraishit 36:1 ff.), 2) the details regarding the construction of the Mishkan and the fabrication of the clothing of the Kohanim (Shemot 25:2-30:38; 35:1-40:38), and 3) the donations of the Nesi’im during the dedication of the Mishkan (BaMidbar 7:1 ff.)

[5] See

[6] Although there are a number of crises having to do with either not finding potable water (Shemot 15:22-25), or not having water at all (Shemot 17:1-6; BaMidbar 20:2-13; 21:5), when considering the entire time period that the people are in the desert, these instances are relatively few. According to the Midrash, the water supply was provided in the merit of Miriam, and it is for this reason that the crisis in BaMidbar evolves, immediately after Miriam’s death is recorded in BaMidbar 20:1.

VaYikra Rabba 27:6

Said R. Berachya: It is a parable to a king who sent his representatives to a country, and the citizens of the country stood before them and served them with fear, trepidation, trembling and perspiration.

So said The Holy One, Blessed Be He to the Jews: I have sent to you my representatives, Moshe, Aharon and Miriam. Do you think that you are eating your own food, drinking your own drinks? Do you think that they are a burden upon you? Not at all. Because of their merit are you able to have your needs provided for: the Manna is in Moshe’s merit; the Spring (from which fresh water emanates) is in Miriam’s merit; and the Clouds of Glory are in Aharon’s merit.

[7] Just as there were intermittent problems with water, so too the Manna came in for criticism, at least by the “Eiruv Rav” (the mixed multitude) in BaMidbar 11:6. Given that these individuals are blamed for many of the people’s transgressions in the desert, it is possible that they were looking for an issue when there really wasn’t one. Were they just complaining for the sake of complaining, or was there a monotony factor in terms of even if the Manna tasted like many different things, its appearance became boring and unattractive.

[8] 1) Ramses; 2) Sukkot; 3) Eitham; 4) Pi HaChirot; 5) Mara; 6) Eilim; 7) Yam Suf; 8) Midbar Sin; 9) Dofka; 10) Alush; 11) Refidim; 12) Midbar Sinai; 13) Kivrot HaTa’ava; 14) Chatzeirot; 15 ) Ritma; 16) Rimon Peretz; 17) Livna; 18) Risa; 19) Keheilata; 20) Har Shafer; 21) Charada; 22) Makheilot; 23) Tachat; 24) Tarach; 25) Mitka; 26) Chashmona; 27) Moseirot; 28) Venia Ya’akan; 29) Chor HaGidgod; 30) Yatvata; 31) Avrona; 32) Etzion Gaver; 33) Midbar Tzin/Kadesh; 34) Har HaHar; 35) Tzalmona; 36) Funan; 37) Ovot; 38) Iyai HaAvorim; 39) Divon Gad; 40) Almon Divlatayma; 41) Harai HaAvarim; 42) Arvot Moav. (It is interesting to note that two significant places appear to be left out of the list: Taveira in BaMidbar 11:1, and Shitim in BaMidbar 25:1. It is possible that they had alternative names and therefore are in fact included in the list of the 42.

[9] RaShI is able to make such an assumption for the following reasons:

a) What is recorded in the book of Shemot took place during the first year, with the book culminating in the time spent at the foot of Har Sinai. The receiving of the Tora took exactly 50 days after the Exodus, and the construction and dedication of the Mishkan was completed the following month of Nissan. As far as the places that are parts of journeys in BaMidbar are concerned, everything before the story of the spies in BaMidbar 13 is also considered to have occurred during the first year, since it is only after that particular sin that it was decreed that the Jews would have to spend any time at all wandering in the desert.  Here is the breakdown between the place names that appear in Shemot as opposed to those in BaMidbar.


1) Ramses—Shemot 1:11; 12:37; 2) Sukkot—12:37; 3) Eitham—13:20; 4) Pi HaChirot—14:2, 9; 5) Mara—15:22-23; 6) Eilim—15:27; 7) Yam Suf—13:18; 8) Midbar Sin—16:1; 9) Dofka—??; 9) Alush—??; 10) Refidim—17:1; 11) Midbar Sinai—19:1.


12) Kivrot HaTa’ava—BaMidbar 11:4-35; 13) Chatzeirot—11:35; 14 ) Ritma—??

[10] Aharon’s death is recorded after the people travel from Kadesh to Har HaHar in BaMidbar 20:22

34) Har HaHar—BaMidbar 20:22; 35) Tzalmona—??; 36) Funan—??; 37) Ovot—21:10; 38) Iyai HaAvorim—21:11; 39) Divon Gad—??; 40) Almon Divlatayma—??; 41) Harai HaAvarim—??; 42) Arvot Moav—22:1.

Although some of these locations are not explicitly mentioned in the Tora text, since the first, Har HaHar, and the last, Arvot Moav, are mentioned, it is possible to then proceed to establish the time frame, even if not all of the places are readily identifiable. Even the commentary Da’at Mikra, which often resorts to archaeological supports, is hard-pressed to identify all of the locales listed.

[11] A variable that is not readily accounted for is the length of time that they spent on each trip. Even if there are a relatively small number of journeys, if each is spread out over an inordinate period of time, the people could have still been made to travel rather than encamp.

[12] See e.g., RaShI on Devarim 3:24, commenting on the Divine Name, “HaShem Elokim”, applying the principle that whereas the Tetragrammaton is associated with the Attribute of Mercy, “Elokim” is usually understood as reflecting the Divine Characteristic of Judgment.

[13] Although RaShBaM and Ibn Ezra understand the number” ten” in this instance to simply mean “repeatedly”, RaShI, quoting Erchin 15a,  actually attempts to identify 10 incidents that could be considered as distinct cases of the people testing HaShem:

Erchin 15a

It was taught: R. Yehuda said, With 10 trials did our forefathers test the Holy One, Blessed Be He:

Two at the Sea—at the going down: Shemot 14:11; at the coming up: Shemot 14:30.

Two because of water—at Mara Shemot 15:24; at Refidim Shemot 17:1.

Two because of Manna—16:25-26; Shemot 16:19.

Two because of the quails—Shemot 16:3; BaMidbar 11:4.

One in connection with the Golden Calf—Shemot 32:1 ff.

One in connection with Midbar Paran—BaMidbar 13-14.

[14] According to RaMBaM in his commentary on the Mishna for Ta’anit 4:7, this Midrash is the source for the festival of T’U B’Av.

[15] RaShI on Shemot 3:2—“From the midst of the bramble bush”: And not another shrub, because of the theme (Tehillim 91:15) “I am with him when (he is) in trouble.”

[16] RaShI on Shemot 24:10—“Like a sapphire brickwork”: It was before Him during the enslavement to “remember” the troubles of Israel, that they were enslaved to manufacture bricks.

[17] a)    Pi HaChirot (Shemot 14:9-12) The Jews wanted to turn back to Egypt when they saw the chariots coming after them.

b)   Mara (Sh 15:24) The Jews complain because the water is too bitter to drink.

c)    Midbar Sin (Sh 16:2-3,8,20,27) The Jews complain regarding a lack of food; individuals try to save   Manna from day to day despite being told not to; individuals going out on Shabbat looking for Manna despite being told not to.

d)    Refidim (Sh 17:2,3,7) The Jews complain about not having water, as well as their perceived  lack of Direct Involvement on the part of HaShem.

e)    Midbar Sinai (Sh 32:1) ff. The fabrication and worship of the Golden Calf.

f)     Kivrot HaTa’ava (BaMidbar 11:4-6) The Eiruv Rav, probably followed by the Jews, complain about the lack of meat, thereby belittling the Manna.

g)    Chatzeirot (BaM 12:1-2) Aharon and Miriam speak against Moshe.(While these are only two people, on the other hand, if Moshe’s siblings speak against him, it is implied that others also lack the respect that he is do.

h)   Midbar Paran (BaM 13:1 ff; 16:1 ff.) The sin of the spies’ report and the people’s reaction to it;  Korach’s rebellion (since the Tora does not report on any relocation of the encampment between the sin of the spies and the sin of Korach and his followers, it is defensible to presume that they took place in the same location.)

i)   Midbar Tzin (BaM 20:1 ff) The Jews once again complain about the lack of water.

[18] 1) Ramses; 2) Sukkot; 3) Eitham; 6) Eilim; 9) Dofka; 10) Alush; 15) Ritma; 16) Rimon Peretz; 17) Livna; 18) Risa; 19) Keheilata; 20) Har Shafer; 21) Charada; 22) Makheilot; 23) Tachat; 24) Tarach; 25) Mitka; 26) Chashmona; 27) Moseirot; 28) Venia Ya’akan; 29) Chor HaGidgod; 30) Yatvata; 31) Avrona; 32) Etzion Gaver; 34) Har HaHar; 35) Tzalmona; 36) Funan; 37) Ovot; 38) Iyai HaAvorim; 39) Divon Gad; 40) Almon Divlatayma; 41) Harai HaAvarim; 42) Arvot Moav.

[19] Sephorno is obviously paraphrasing Yirmiyahu 2:2 “Thus Says HaShem: I remember in your merit the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, when you followed Me in the desert, in a land that was not cultivated.”

[20] Further research will yield additional theories regarding the meaning of these verses. A complete consideration of this topic will have to include approaches beyond those of only RaShI and Sephorno. Yet a reader could still make up his/her mind as to which of the views presented in this essay resonates more powerfully.

[21] Eiruvin 13b.

[22] Avot 5:17.

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