These two parashot close the period of the desert. Final preparations to enter the Promised Land, closing unresolved matters from desert times, last Moshe’s government actions – all these are the elements that make up the general atmosphere at the end of the book of Numbers.
Here finishes, in fact, the process of the Exodus from Egypt. Leaving Egypt wasn’t only about quitting the place itself. It included all the period during which the Children of Israel did not enter the land of Canaan, they were in “stand by” in that wilderness prolonged corridor. Physically they weren’t in Egypt any more, but spiritually they had to go on leaving; the desert represented for them Egypt’s long arm. It represented their belonging to that old reality of oppression, exploitation, slavery, dependence, idolatry, social injustice. As long as that space related them to Egypt, they were still in the Exodus process. Only now, after forty years of challenges and drastic changes, they are ready to stop leaving and begin entering the Promise Land to start there a new society.
As part of this closing process, the Torah summarizes in a list the places where the Children of Israel wandered in the desert.
The verse that opens the list has a strange formulation. Maybe because of this oddity, it is full of meaning:
“And Moses wrote their departures to the their journeys as commanded by the Lord; these are their journeys to their departures” (Num. 33:2)
Departures to journeys… OK; but journeys to departures?? Why repeating the issue? Why in inverse order? We’d have expected a text to say “their journeys to their destinations” or something telling the objective. But a journey to a departure? The Torah says they traveled to a place from where they will travel to a place from where they will travel to a place from where… and so on and on!
Well, in fact, that is what they actually did. They didn’t journey to those places in order to establish themselves there. It was part of their going out from Egypt. All those places were “exits”, instead of “goals”.
The journey is the essential element; during it we learn, we change, we grow. The goal of the journey, says the Torah, is the point from where we may go on without stopping or becoming stagnant. Regarding the verse I quoted upper, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the Gerer Rebbe during the second half of the 19th Century, wrote: “For the Human Being is called ‘walker’ and he must always go from one stage to another” (Sefat Emet B’midbar, Massae )
He who encourages stopping and becoming fixated is like somebody who is not ready at all to leave Egypt and prefers to stay in the desert, even if he does so under the excuse of being closer to Mount Sinai.
“In every generation a person must regard himself as though he himself came out from Egypt”. In this way, his journeys will be to his departure points, and these departure points will allow him continuing his journeys.