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  • Torah Reading: Naso
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Masay(Numbers 33-36)

The Wandering Jew

Any botanist will tell you that the "Wandering Jew" is a unique species of plant which - when given minimal sustenance - will nevertheless spread and grow. Similarly, if you cut out its roots and plant it in other soil, it will regenerate itself and start anew.

This plant's nomenclature is, of course, a comment on the Jewish People's ability to adapt to varied environments and conditions. "Wandering" is what Jewish history has been all about. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs were nomads. The Jewish nation itself was forged in Egypt and while wandering through the Sinai desert - the only nation ever to establish its identity while wandering outside its homeland. And for the past 2000 years we have been wandering the world.

This week's double Parsha, Matot-Masai, details the Jewish wanderings through the Sinai desert. No less than 42 locations are listed as encampments throughout the 40 years in the wilderness.

The wanderings have, however, been the subject of some misunderstanding: They are often portrayed as a "shlep" from one place to another. In fact, the commentators raise several fascinating issues regarding these wanderings. First of all, why does the Torah bother to mention the names of all 42 encampments? Furthermore, why does the Torah alternately describe the travels as "going forth to journey" and "journeying to go forth?"

The commentators explain that the number 42 alludes to the mystical 42-letter name of God. This indicates that the Jewish People acquired a greater spiritual awareness as they traveled through the desert. The Chasam Sofer, a great 19th century sage, offers some examples: At Kivrot Hataiva (literally "burial of desire"), they learned to confront their desires. At Chatzerot (literally "courtyards"), they understood the concept that "this world is a courtyard to the next world." Thus, the entire desert experience was a journey of growth, incorporating new elements of insight into the collective Jewish consciousness.

Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch suggests that the Torah's differing description of the wanderings - "journeying to go forth" versus "going forth to journey" - reflects different attitudes among the Jews of that time. To some, the purpose of "going forth" was "to journey" -to a goal of new growth. For others, the purpose of the "journey" was to simply "go forth" - to relieve the challenge of their present condition.

The Sfas Emes, a great 19th century Chassidic master, explains that each of these 42 places offered a unique challenge to the Jewish People. In each place, the Jews were to accomplish a specific tikkun, a "spiritual repair." Just as the Israelites' leaving Egypt had eternal significance, so too the Jewish People met challenges at their 42 encampments!

The Sfas Emes explains that we all have various stations -good and bad - as we travel through the "journey of life." Each has its unique purpose and challenge. And each can help us achieve the repairs we must accomplish on our souls.

As we embark on the various journeys that create the tapestry of our lives, it is important to remain focused on the exciting goals we are moving towards. In that way, with God's help, we will find the strength and courage to stand up to the myriad of challenges life may present.

January 16, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) selma Soss, July 15, 2012 6:31 PM

This gives a new concept to "The Wandering Jew". It is the Jewish thing to gain more wisdom in such situations; and always, God is with us.

(4) paul smith, December 13, 2011 11:23 PM

thank you

Thank you for your insight

(3) Nancy Appel, July 26, 2011 12:42 PM

Wonderful article and so true.

I have taken this journey thru the dark side of life but without it I would not know who I am. I have come full circle and would not change a thing as I feel blessed of the changes god has made in me. I now live on the other side, the joyful side of life with many blessings always coming my way. I never gave up faith or hope as I always knew god was leading the way. Always believe as this is the secret to never stop trusting.

(2) Sarah, July 5, 2010 9:31 AM

Thank you for a most interesting article!

(1) Jack L. Yohay, July 19, 2001 12:00 AM


'Journey' originally denoted a day's worth of travel, un jour. How about: to go forth in order better to appreciate and live each day, whether (physically) en route/in motion or in one place/at rest?

Shabbat(ot) shalom and well over the fast.

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