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Traveling On

By: Miriam Wolf

Traveling On[1] 

Parshat Bamidbar begins a new Sefer in Chumash.  There is room to wonder what fundamental change takes place between last week’s Parsha and this week’s Parsha that deems Bamidbar a whole new entity? Are we not just continuing the story of the Jewish people in the desert?

Last week’s Parsha, and for that matter, all of Sefer VaYikra ends with the words:

"אלה המצוות אשר צוה ה' את-משה אל-בני ישראל בהר סיני"[2]

“These are the commandments which G-d commanded Moshe to give to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai”

In other words, all of Sefer Vayikra was said at Mount Sinai. If we follow the chronology as it appears in the pesukim, we see that on the first of Sivan in the first year of the Exodus from Egypt the Jewish People arrived at Mount Sinai. There they received the Ten Commandments and the Torah, there they built the Mishkan and began to learn its laws and all the commandments found in Sefer Vayikra. The Jewish people did this while camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. This is the story of Sefer Vayikra.

Sefer Bamidbar, in contrast, begins with the census and the layout of the camp in preparation for traveling on to Eretz Yisrael. Twelve months short ten days after arriving at Sinai, on the twentieth of Iyar of the second year, the cloud rose and the Jewish people began the journey.[3] By the end of Sefer Bamidbar,[4] the Jewish people will have completed 42 journeys, the majority of which took place after leaving Mount Sinai.

Sefer Bamidbar is the book of the Journey.

Journeys are difficult by nature, challenging physically and mentally. The Jewish people will stumble on, and because of the journey:[5] "ותקצר נפש העם בדרך"  - but the people grew restive on the journey. There are those who don’t want to be on this journey at all and want to return to Egypt,[6] and there are those who have no patience and demand to reach the destination without hardship.[7]

Our Parsha teaches that a journey is not an unessential bridge between two important destinations.  Rather the place to be is the journey and through it we acquire what we need in order to achieve the next level.

Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook says that there are two types of Avodat Hashem.  The first is "בשבתך בביתך" when you are “in your home” stable and confident, familiar with what you are supposed to do and be. The second is  "ובלכתך בדרך"  when you are moving on. When you are no longer in the old and familiar place but not yet at the next destination towards which you set out. There is an entire area of Avodat Hashem called  "Being on the Journey". Traveling on.[8]

When the Jewish people leave Mount Sinai they dismantle the Mishkan, the camp is dispersed and everyone is moving. One can no longer see the Mishkan and the cloud hovering above and feel the presence of the Shechina. One can no longer simply look at Har Sinai to immediately relive the sights, sounds and experience of Matan Torah. Even one’s neighbours, the community that together fostered a place of Avodat Hashem, is no longer there. That vacuum is the hardship in traveling on.

In our Parsha however, we learn  that the void is intentional. It is the vacuum itself that demands:

In a place lacking worthy leaders, you yourself be a leader.

השתדל להיות איש"  [9]  "במקום שאין אנשים

In contrast to Sefer Shmot and Vayikra where mainly Moshe and Aharon carry the people, in Bamidbar we begin to see leaders who emerge because of the journey. The Nesiim in our Parsha, the Zekainim, the request for Pesach Sheni and the request for Eretz Yisrael by the Bnot Tslafchad , Calev, Yehoshua and Pinchas are all examples.

To keep strong in transit one has to be a leader. To be a leader one does not need followers, to be a leader one only needs a flag.

In this week's Parsha we see that every Tribe of Israel had a leader, and every Tribe had its flag.[10] A good leader is a leader with a flag. When in the midst of the journey, when things are neither clear nor easy, in the midst of the struggle, then a person needs their flag. The secret of a flag is that it lets you look up, literally, beyond the present circumstances. It reconnects to the eternal values of identity and destination - who you are, what you stand for and where you are going.  It reminds us that although we don’t know all the answers to everything the journey will bring, we haven’t lost our bearings.

Parshat Bamidbar is always read towards the end of the year program when students set out on their personal journeys. Interestingly the Parsha is also read in proximity to Yom Yerushalayim, a landmark on our National journey. On Yom Yerushalayim we feel so close to the destination and yet we still have more to achieve in order to truly arrive.  To me it is telling that intuitively Am Yisrael has chosen to celebrate Yerushalyim with flags.  

Parshat Bamidbar offers us a timely message, as individuals and as a People, to give us strength and clarity as we travel on.


[1] This sicha is based Sichot Harav Tzvi Yehuda . and Rabbi Eliezer Kashtiel

[2] ויקרא כז:לד

[3] במדבר י:יא-יג, ורש"י שם

[4] במדבר לג פרשת מסעי

[5] במדבר כא:ד

[6] מדבר יד:ד "נתנה ראש ונשובה מצרימה"

[7]לא אל ארץ זבת  לא הבאתנו"  במדבר טז:יד ואף

[8]  שיחות הרב צבי יהודה  במדבר

[9] מסכת אבות ב:ה

[10] במדבר ב:א-ג


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