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Matot(Numbers 30:2-32:42)

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.

Next week's parsha, Masay, 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.

July 22, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 3

(2) Sandy, November 25, 2010 5:45 AM

I'm doing a small presentation in botanical diversity class on the Wandering Jew. When I heard my instructor say the name, I had to ask him to repeat it because I thought I did not hear him correctly! Then I thought, wow, what a good plant to do a presentation on so I could learn a bit about its history. I was a little put back by the name also, but I'm turning it into a positive learning experience. "What does not kill us makes us stronger" I do want to mention that in your article about the plant, someone wrote G-d with an "o" in it and that is a no-no for a Jew to write!! Sandy

andrea, May 17, 2016 9:57 PM

good call on g-d

Great topic...when i first heard the name it was off putting

(1) Beryl Hartman, September 28, 2003 12:00 AM

Ihave always felt that the name given to this plant was derogatory in fact I have a friend who calls it creeping christian , but after reading your comment and description I think I feel different about this plant although it still can be a difficult problem in our gardens your page always give us something wonderful to put our minds to over the coming week Shalom

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