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“……And they journeyed from the wilderness of Sinai, and pitched in Kibroth-hattaavah And they journeyed from Kibroth-hattaavah, and pitched in Hazeroth. And they journeyed from Hazeroth, and pitched in Rithmah. And they journeyed from Rithmah, and pitched in Rimmon-perez. And they journeyed from Rimmon-perez, and pitched in Libnah. .And they journeyed from Libnah, and pitched in Rissah. And they journeyed from Rissah, and pitched in Kehelah. And they journeyed from Kehelah, and pitched in mount Shepher.” (Numbers 33:19).


There is a list of 42 such encampments described in the Parsha that outlines our people’s journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  Most of the sites along this route are unknown, and their position can only be gathered tentantively from the meaning of the names.


What is the use of this list? We know it is important because the text itself tells us so: “Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by Hashem” (Numbers 33:2). Since God commanded Moses to write the list, we can be sure that there is an important reason for it, but its purpose is still not obvious. Rashi suggests that the journeys were recorded to inform us of God’s kindness.   Although He had decreed that they would wander aimlessly in the desert, one should not imagine that they were wandering without interruption from place to place throughout the forty years and they had no rest.   The list shows that they were able to settle down for extended periods of time. For there were not that many encampments from the time of their arrival at Sinai and throughout the thirty-eight years, they made only twenty journeys. In addition, Rashi gives another reason for the list: Midrash Tanchuma compares it to a king whose son became sick and he took him to a faraway place for treatment. On the way back, the father began to mention all the stages of their journey, saying to him, “This is where we slept. This is where we felt cold. Here you had a headache, etc” Therefore, says Rashi, this account of each stage in the journey was designed as reading material for the people to recall what had befallen them at each place, after they had settled in their land. Maimonides (in the Guide and quoted by Ramban) goes a step further. The stages had to be recorded for subsequent generations, who might think that the Children of Israel traveled in a desert that was close to cultivated land and in which it was possible to grow or find food. Their existence in the real wilderness is confirmed by the list of actual places so that in the future the enormity of the miracle of the Children of Israel could be seen. But this is only part of the story. Most of the sites enumerated are places that can nowadays no longer be identified, and most are not mentioned anywhere else in the Torah.  What lessons can we learn from this list of long forgotten places? As Jews, our wandering in the wilderness, marked here by the sequence of forty-two places at the beginning of Parshat Masei, appears to be essential to our very being as a people on a continuing journey in which we share history and destiny. We can imagine that since the list is not elaborated upon in the Torah, our ancestors heard it and knew exactly what each and every one of these places meant.  They had complete stories in mind, having full understanding of the events that took place at each of the places listed.  Probably those stories which were remembered by our ancestors would still have been known to this day  had there not been the terrible traumas of Jewish History which have been the cause of much of our history being forgotten and buried in the past.


So, one thing we learn is that even the most important story may be forgotten if the listener does not pass it on. What happened at all the stations in the Midbar (desert)? We will never know. The most we have today is a list that reminds us that great things happened that we don’t know about today. Perhaps this list of 42 unknown places provides with a vital message for these modern times –  that if stories of the past are not told, they will be forgotten


There are stories in our time, too, awesome and tragic ones and they may also be forgotten. Millions of Jews emigrated from centuries-old centers of Jewish life, and whole a generation was wiped out in Europe, and only a handful are still here to tell of it.. When they are gone, will these dramatic events become like Kibroth-hattaavah, and Hazeroth, and Rithmah? Let us remember to tell and retell the stories that help us understand our past as Jews and thus have a better understanding and appreciation of our present situation as Jews. Let us make time to record our stories and the stories of those who have come before us. Let us listen and ask questions of our own families–parents and grandparents–and record and preserve their stories for ourselves and for the collective memory of our people.


When the founder of Hassidic Judaism, the great Rabbi Israel Shem Tov, saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezritch, had occasion for the same reason to intercede with Heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” Again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God, “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient. It is our duty to make sure that the story of the past continues to be told.

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