By Yosef Y. Jacobson
“Moses wrote their departures according to their journeys … and these were their journeys according to their departures.” -- Numbers 33:2, this week’s Torah portion.
“While the reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” -- George Bernard Shaw
The concluding portion of the Book of Numbers (Maasei), read this week the world over, begins by offering a summation of the Israelites’ forty-year journey through the wilderness, as they ventured toward the Promise Land. This odyssey across the Sinai Peninsula was comprised of forty-two segments, ultimately leading the young nation along the eastern coast of the Jordan River as they prepared to enter the Land of Canaan through the city of Jericho.
The Bible, before documenting the specific route of their journey, notes that “Moses wrote their departures according to their journeys … and these were their journeys according to their departures.”
This diction is as strange as it is perplexing. Three questions come to mind.
First, what is the actual meaning of “departures according to their journeys,” and “journeys according to their departures?”
Second, why is the verse redundant? What is the difference between “departures according to their journeys,” and “journeys according to their departures?”
Third, why does the Torah flip the sequence of terms, first mentioning “departures” followed by “journeys,” and then in the second half of the verse switching the order, referring first to “journeys” and then to “departures?”
Past & future
Two divergent roads define the voyage of Jewish history. There are the Jews who ascribe to the “departure” paradigm, and the Jews who embrace the “journey” paradigm.
The “journeying” Jews focus on the constant changes in history: the fluctuating trends, the cultural developments, the novel inventions, and the newly discovered wisdom. These Jews are sensitive to the winds of progression, to the alterations in the human climate, and to the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead. They aspire to define a Judaism – or a philosophy of life -- that would be relevant to the contemporary conversation of humanity in its journey toward its own self-defined “promised land.”
Yet in their zeal to embrace the future, they often abandon the past. In their passion to remain relevant today, they forfeit the power of yesterday. In their yearning to capture the individual “your,” they neglect the depth of the “yore.” In their ambition to grow tall, they detach from the roots that have given them their original sap.
“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he’s wrong,” Charles Wadsworth once said. The youth, fresh in spirit, creative in ideas, often seeks to chart a new path, to take the road never traveled by. There is something monotonous about traveling in the footsteps of your ancestors, and there is something intoxicating about developing a path you can call your own.
In many ways, it was this perspective which gave birth to the contemporary Jewish world. As the winds of modernity swept Europe, as enlightenment and emancipation cast its glow on a downtrodden nation, millions of Jews felt that clinging to the life style and traditions of their ancestors would impede their bright journey to a new world order. In the process, they bid farewell to the old to embrace the new; they said goodbye to the yore to embrace the “your.”
As we know today, their good intentions were met with profound disappointment. On one hand, enlightenment in Europe and socialism in Russia turned against the Jews, and on the other hand, the descendants of the Jews who embraced them have been lost to our people. In their passion to journey ahead, to revolutionize the past, they failed to realize the power of eternity imbedded in their tradition and faith.
Then there are the “departure” Jews – those who are always looking back to the past, to their point of departure. Their primary focus is on the unchangeable truths of history. Life, in their vision, is not linear, but cyclical. Tradition, ritual, custom, law, faith do not change just because Voltaire gave us Enlightenment, Nietzsche taught us about choice, Tocqueville explained to us democracy, Freud discovered the subconscious, and Barak Obama called for change. “What was good for my great-great grandfather is good for me,” these Jews rooted in tradition exclaim.
Yet in their attempt to hold on to the sacred past, they often stifle the ability to utilize and actualize the new energy of today, to discern the voice of G-d not only in the ancient, but also in the novel, not only in the world that was, but also in the world that is. In their hope to continue the chain of history by adding their identically matching link, they fail to create space for freshness, for creativity, for authentic self expression. In their genuine zeal to protect the “piano” of Judaism, they scoff at any new composition, failing to realize that the very same piano keys allow for infinite compositions. The word of G-d, articulated in the Torah, can and must serve as a blueprint for the challenges of today, not only for the dialogue of the past.
The Tree & the Roots
So “Moses wrote their departures according to their journeys … and these were their journeys according to their departures.” The majesty and magic of Jewish history, the Bible is intimating to us, is based on the synthesis between “departures” and “journeys.” The departures – the points of reference that have always defined Judaism – ought to serve as catalysts for the journeys of the future, invigorating growth and inspiring expansiveness. Conversely, the journeys toward new horizons ought to be “according to their departures,” founded and inspired on the timeless values of our faith and our Torah.
Just as Moses wrote the first chapter of Jewish history, we all are summoned to write our own. Let the tree grow taller and taller, but let it never fail its roots. Rather, let the roots exclaim, “Look how beautiful and tall my tree has grown.”
*) My thanks to Rabbi Shmuel Kuperman who shared with me the nucleus of this idea, heard from Rabbi Israel Meir Lau. My thanks to Yaakov Shlomo for his assistance in writing this essay.