“And these were the journeys of Israel from the time they left the land of Egypt at the hands of Moshe and Aharon.” (Numbers 33:1)
From that opening verse, the Torah then proceeds to list the 42 separate legs of our journey through the desert, identifying each of Israel’s 42 desert encampment sites by name.
When you scan the list of these places, you can’t help but be struck by their obscurity. The great majority of them have never appeared in the Torah up to this point, and even here the Torah makes no effort to further identify them or to explain their significance. It’s just a list of relatively meaningless place names. Which is precisely what prompts Rashi to bluntly pose the question on everybody’s mind: “Why were these journeys recorded?”
It is fascinating and instructive to contrast Rashi’s response to this question with the response offered by Rabbi Ovadia Seforno of 16th century Italy.
For his part, Rashi posits that the list of 42 is recorded “to tell of the loving kindness of the Almighty.” How so? Well, Rashi analyzes the list, using the handful of familiar names as his guideposts, and comes to the following conclusion: Of the 42 journeys, 14 took place all within the first year or so after the Exodus. Of the remaining 28 journeys, eight took place after the death of Aharon, which places them in the final year in the desert, as we were literally en route to entering the promised land.
All told then, over the course of the intervening 38 years that we wandered in the desert, God caused us to pick up and travel a mere 20 times. This fact is a very significant one in Rashi’s estimation. It demonstrates that although we were condemned to wander in the desert for 38 years as punishment for the sin of the spies, God really spared us the brunt of our sentence. God didn’t keep us constantly on the move so that our weary feet would never know rest. We spent months or even years at some of the encampments to which the cloud of God led us. This was the “loving kindness of God.” And every time we – the descendents of the wanderers – read this Torah section, we express gratitude.
Seforno, on the other hand, sees the purpose of the listing as being something else altogether. “God desired that the journeys of Israel be recorded to tell of the merit of Israel.”
What merit is that? The merit of faithfully following God regardless of the hardship of decades of wandering with no place ever to call home. We did it because we believed in the promise and wanted our children to inherit that promise. And every time that we – the descendents of those faithful wanderers – read this Torah section, God expresses gratitude.
Rashi’s and Seforno’s interpretations are the precise opposites of each other. The list is either intended to remind us to appreciate God, or to remind God to appreciate us. I wonder, though, whether the two interpretations need to be seen as contradictory. Perhaps they are actually complementary.
In the combination of the two interpretations we find the secret of the successful love relationship. We all know from experience how easy it is to find fault in the conduct of someone whom we love. And we know that the response to our doing that is often the reciprocal finding of fault. The key to success in love is to train ourselves to turn that pattern inside out.
Sure, we children of Israel could have reviewed our catalog of desert wanderings and criticized God for having troubled us so. But instead, with Rashi’s urging, we choose to see the kindness and the compassion that was manifest in God’s minimizing our travels relative to what the letter of the law actually called for.God could have read the same list and recalled all of the occasions on which we doubted Him, and the various points at which we even spoke of returning to Egypt. But God chooses instead to see the long stretches in between, during which we displayed a faithfulness unmatched in the annals of ancient societies. It’s all a matter of what you choose to see.
What do we choose to see in our loved ones? What do we want them to see in us? The two are as intertwined as Rashi and Seforno, as God and Israel.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea in Los Angeles.