“Its courses wander; you cannot know”

Parshat Masei begins with a detailed description of the People of Israel’s long journey following the Exodus from Egypt: “They journeyed and they camped…They journeyed and they camped”1 – on and on for forty-two journeys. What is the meaning of this lengthy review? Why does the Torah need to tell us all this?

One point that emerges from most of the commentators is that “these were their stops along the way”2 is not a straight line that proceeds in a clear route. This is true of life as well: A person’s path is never smooth and straight, just as on the People of Israel’s path there were many complications along the way. Their path is full of twists and turns, the route is unclear, and the direction is unknown.

According to the map, it is not at all clear, for example, where the People of Israel were located after the conquest of the country of Sichon and Og. In order to conquer the Bashan, which was located in modern-day Syria, they went north, and afterward they apparently retraced their steps and came all the way back. This is surprising, since from the Bashan it is possible to avoid the Jordan entirely and enter the Land from the north. Yet instead they go all the way back south until Jericho. Why precisely Jericho? The answer to this, too, is not clear. Throughout this entire journey it appears that they do not follow a normal route.

All the journeys that appear in the Parshah, like all of the Torah’s narratives, tell the story of the inner life of both the People of Israel as a nation and of each individual Jew. What happens in the Torah is the basic pattern, the mold for everything that happens to the Jewish people throughout the ages. Everything is cast in this mold, and we pass through it again and again, although not in all the details of things but certainly in their general thrust, in the experiences that they represent.

Today, too, we are in a wilderness; not in the wilderness of Sinai but, as Ezekiel calls it, “the wilderness of the peoples”3 – in exile. We have been wandering in the wilderness of the peoples not for forty years but for more than two thousand years, and the length of each one of these journeys has been multiplied several times over. Each station in our history corresponds to a station in the wilderness of Sinai. The Torah says that in the wilderness of Sinai, we “remained in Kadesh for many days,”4 which may correspond to the many days that we resided in a certain place – three hundred years, four hundred years, or six hundred years. Jewish life stays and concentrates in one place for a certain time, and then it picks itself up and begins to move about from place to place.

All these journeys, like the other points of passage in the Torah, have one thing in common: Each one of them signifies a transition point, a point of stopping and change. But the distances and the travel time between them are not the same. During the forty years of travel in the wilderness, the People of Israel experienced forty-two journeys, but the time between each journey was not always a year. Sometimes a year would pass between two stops, while at other times only half a day. Thus, when we travel through the world on our journeys through history, we do not know our present station; what is more, we do not know how long it will take until we reach the next station.

We are in one of the books of the Torah, but we do not know which one. Are we in Deuteronomy or in Leviticus? We proceed from station to station, but we do not know which station is which. Are we in Abel-shittim or in Mithkah? Sometimes many years go by until we have an idea where we are in the narrative, and sometimes we will never know our location.

This is the meaning of the verse, “Its courses wander; you cannot know”5 There is a course or path that runs through the ages, and this is the course of the journey from exile to redemption. It is a course whose number of steps is unknown; neither the distance between the stations nor how much time is spent at each station is known. Sometimes it appears as though we are now approaching the Land of Israel, but then it becomes apparent that although we are truly very close, there are still many more stations to go.

The individual, too, experiences these journeys and travels on this path. “These were their stops along the way” – the stops of all people, only that we do not know what the stations are called. “And they journeyed from Mount Shepher and encamped in Haradah”6 – when does a person move between these two stations? The names of these two stations are easy to understand. When is one in a beautiful mountain (har shefer), and when is one in a state of trembling (ĥaradah)? When is one in a low station, and when is one in a lofty station? This is the meaning of “Its courses wander; you cannot know.”

The holy name on which the Ana BeKo’acĥ prayer is based is the name of forty-two letters, corresponding to the forty-two journeys of the People of Israel in the wilderness. This name is connected with the transition from one reality to another. Hence, Ana BeKo’aĥ is recited at times that involve this kind of transition, such as during Sefirat HaOmer, which is a time when we undergo a process of change, of transition from exile to redemption and the giving of the Torah. We also recite it during Kabbalat Shabbat, at the time of transition between the weekday reality and Shabbat reality. This name is the name of “these were their stops along the way,” the name that alludes to the inner processes of the worlds.

He made them wander in the wilderness

At the beginning of the Parshah,7 Rashi tells a story: A father takes his ailing son to a distant place; because he is ill and dazed, he sees nothing and is not aware of what is happening. Afterward, when the father and son return home along the same route as before, the father points out all the places along the way where they stopped. He says to his son, “Although you do not remember, we stopped in all these places. Here it was difficult, here it was good, etc.” This is the meaning of “these were their stops along the way”.

Nowadays, we, too, feel that we are wandering and moving about, without understanding the meaning of it all. In the future, however, once G‑d brings us to the redemption, He will also tell us about all the stations along the way. He will tell us where this station was and where that station was; which stations were difficult stations and which were easy; which were the important stations and which were unimportant.

Part of the difficulty of the wilderness, which is also a perennial trial for the Jewish community and for the individual, is that if one could understand where one’s steps are leading, one would know his exact distance from the final destination, and one would know what the solution is: Everything would be simpler. The great difficulty is that just when it seems that we are going northward, we suddenly begin to move southward; just when we think that we are ascending the mountain, we suddenly begin our descent.

This problem is the source and essence of the whole conception of Jewish destiny. If we understood all the nuances of the process leading to redemption, and saw clearly that we are progressively drawing nearer to it, everything would seem different. But since we do not know this, we need only recall that “these were their stops along the way,” for the community and for the individual. We constantly ­re-experience the same journeys; we stand and we fall. Some of us are swallowed up by the earth and some of us escape. Sometimes we sin and sometimes we act righteously. There is a station where one can receive Torah, and there is a station where one is liable to be burned by a divine fire. Sometimes the stations switch positions, and if one would know exactly what the stations were, one would be able to take precautions. Only when we reach the final station will we be able to say with confidence that we have reached the point we were destined to reach.

This is our story, which we will be able to read and understand only at the end of time, when we reach the final station. Then we will receive the meaning of the map by which we have traveled, and this will enable us to explain our history and the events that have befallen us.

The path from Egypt to the “good and spacious land” is long and arduous, a path that traversed “the wilderness of the peoples.” Only at the end of the path will we come to the point at which it will be possible to understand both the “going forth” and the “journey”. Only then will we comprehend the meaning and the content of all our experiences over the years.