Taking on a New Skill: Civilization
July 17, 2020
By Rabbi Sara Rich

My assumption about the lifestyle of the Israelites when they were wandering through the desert for 40 years was that they were a caravan frequently on the move. They were the first “wandering Jews” on a seemingly endless hike through the wilderness, with occasional extended breaks along the way. However, this image of the desert experience is inaccurate, as medieval Torah commentator Rashi points out in the second part of this week’s Torah portion, Masei. Masei is the final portion in the book of Numbers, and it offers a summary of the Israelite’s journey and the stops that they made along the way. Quoting a scholar named Moshe the Preacher, Rashi uses some arithmetic to show that, in fact, the 40-year journey of the Israelites was mostly spent at rest, not in motion. First, Rashi points out that 42 places were listed as resting points for the Israelites. However, 14 of these sites were reached in the first year after the Exodus from Egypt. Additionally, eight of these sites were visited in the final year of the journey. If you look at the middle 38 years of their wandering, the Israelites only visited 20 places, spending an average of 1.9 years at any given destination. 

Rashi writes that these details are included to show God’s kindness. Although God did decree that the generation of Israelites would wander in the desert for 40 years, it was not an exhausting marathon of constant motion through an endless, winding desert. They could rest and enjoy some semblance of normalcy for extended periods of time before moving ahead in the journey.

The reason that God decreed the 40-year journey was so the former slaves would die in the wilderness, and their children would be the ones to establish a settlement in the land of Canaan. There was a fear that the former slaves would never fully shed the trauma of their experience and would thus be ill-equipped to build a functioning society in a new land, centered on service to the God who redeemed them. God looked ahead to the potential of the next generation to have a new worldview that would allow them to fulfill the greater promise of the Israelites.

Still, building a civilization would take some practice. And this, I imagine, is why God had the Israelites remain at a station on the journey for one or two years at a time. By settling in, pitching their tents, assembling the Tabernacle for worship, and so forth, the Israelites gained experience in what it would mean to be in community together. As newly freed individuals, they would practice what it means to have to make decisions on their own. Maybe each of the 20 sites along the journey gave them a chance to experiment with new ways of organizing, or with different models of leadership, until finally, when they reached the Promised Land, they would have worked out the growing pains.

I think of how this story relates to our lives today. Before the onset of COVID-19, we were largely individuals on the move. Social distance and self-quarantine gave us an extended stay in the encampment of our own homes. From this pause in our regular movements, new hobbies, home projects, quality time with loved ones, and creative ways to connect with others have emerged. What have you learned about yourself that will better prepare you for the next stage of your life journey? What new behaviors or ideas have you developed at home that you hope to maintain when our freedom of movement resumes? How have your relationships changed with loved ones inside your home or outside of your home? 

Just as the Israelites were given the opportunity to reinvent their lives and move closer to a prized destination, may our time spent in encampment bring us new blessings and opportunities to bring with us on the journey that lies ahead.

Rabbi Sara Rich is the Executive Director at Hillel of Buffalo.

Taking on a New Skill: Civilization - Jewish thought of the week graphic