From the teachings of Maran Rebbeinu Ovadia Yosef ztzvk”l
(written by his grandson HaRav HaGaon Rav Yaakov Sasson Shlit”a)
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
It states at the beginning of Parashat Masei, “Moshe recorded their stops along the way at Hashem’s command (lit. their leaving according to their travelling). These were their stops along the way (lit. their travelling according to their leaving)” (Bamidbar 33:2), and then the Torah proceeds to delineate the all the journeys that the Bnei Yisrael traversed in the wilderness. We need to understand why does it state, “Moshe recorded their leaving according to their travelling” and then afterwards state, “their travelling according to their leaving”. Why the repetition? And moreover, how may we understand the difference between “their leaving according to their travelling” and “their travelling according to their leaving”?
When our ancestors the Bnei Yisrael where in Egypt they were afflicted and enslaved, they endured back breaking work, with cement and bricks and all work in the field. They were smitten with rods. We can only imagine their great pain! They served Paro! They felt helpless, they couldn’t lift a finger, they couldn’t do anything to better their awful situation.
Then suddenly Moshe Rabbeinu arrived and said to the Bnei Yisrael, know that the time has come for Hashem to redeem you, “The People believed. They accepted the message that Hashem had granted special providence to the Bnei Yisrael, and that He had seen their misery. They bowed their heads and prostrated themselves” (Shemot 4:31). They gave thanks to Hashem that He came to save them from Paro.
And now when the Bnei Yisrael had left Egypt and arrived at the desolate wilderness, Moshe Rabbeinu came and told them, know that you are going to a unique land, “a land flowing with milk and honey!” (Devarim 31:20). The Bnei Yisrael heard this and couldn’t fathom at all what Moshe was telling them. They thought what difference does it make where we going to, the main thing is that we came out of Egypt! We escaped from the awful decrees that were there! But Moshe Rabbeinu knew all too well what he was conveying to them. He knew that the words of Hashem are true, and when Hashem says that the land will be flowing with milk and honey, this means that it is actually so!
Our chachamim (Ketubot 111a) explain that Rabba bar bar Chana said, “I saw with my own eyes what a land flowing with milk and honey looks like! For once I was travelling through Eretz Yisrael and I walked some 14 kilometres and all the way there was a flowing brook, and the brook was all honey. The honey would drip from the dates and figs that grew either side of the brook and due to the large amount of sweet nectar that they produced, it would drop out of them, and the goats would come and eat the grass at the sides of the brook. And due to the fruit’s great sweetness the goats’ udders would fill with milk, and the milk would drip into the brook. And so along the whole length of the brook, the honey and milk mixed together. This is the meaning of a land flowing with milk and honey!”
However, in contrast, Am Yisrael weren’t concerned with where they were travelling to, for their primary concern was their exodus from slavery to freedom, namely the exodus from Egypt!
To what may this be compared to? A person who had just one son, bright and intelligent, and his father loved him deeply. However, this poor man had an unfortunate lot. His wife had passed away at a tender age, and he and his son had been alone for a whole year.
However, since “it isn’t good for man to be alone” (Bereishit 2:18) therefore he remarried. But that woman was wicked and cruel and she was indifferent to her step-son and she would afflict him. He would repeatedly cry to his father. “Father! Save me from her!”
When his son become 18 years old, his father travelled to another city on business. In that city he was provided with hospitality from his good friend and slept the night there. After he concluded his business dealings he realised that his dear friend his host has a daughter, shining like the moon, radiant like the sun, what a daughter! He asked about her qualities, and they responded about them all, that she is perfect! Bright, intelligent and sharp! He was very happy. In the evening he spoke with his friend and said to him, ”See my dear friend, Hashem has graced me with one son, he studies Torah diligently and he is bright, sharp, totally unique. Would it be accepting to you if your daughter would agree to marry my son?” His friend responded, “Certainly, I would be delighted! You are my close friend and I have already heard good things about your son, for his reputation goes before him. He is so pleasant. I too have seen him with my own eyes, and he was pleasing to me!”
They called the young lady. Her father asked her, “Would you like to marry this man’s son?” She replied to her father, “Yes! You are my father who always wants what is best for me. If you think that this is a good shidduch (match), I agree!” They immediately made a “vort” and agreed the various aspects of the shidduch [subject to the young man’s approval].
The father returned home and turned to his son and said. “I know your pain, I know everything that is going on, but listen now my son, I have discovered for you a match, what a fine lady! Shining like the moon and radiant like the sun! She has all the good virtues! Therefore my son, come with me, let’s travel to the young lady’s city and within two weeks you will be able to get married!”
The son agreed whole heartedly with his father. They took a wagon, since there were no cars then, and they travelled to the young lady’s city. On the way the son turned to the wagon driver and asked him, “My master, o wagon driver, how far are we from our home?” The wagon driver responded, “About twenty kilometres!” They continued on their journey, and suddenly the father turned to the wagon driver and asked him, “My master o wagon driver, how much longer is left of the journey?” The wagon driver replied, “Five kilometres!”
The son asked his father, “Father why did I ask in this way, how far are we from home, yet you asked how much longer is left? What is the difference between the styles in which we asked?” The father answered his son, “My son, you are happy that you are escaping from your step-mother and therefore the more you are distant, the more you are happy. But I know what awaits you! What a reception you will receive! How much joy you will have! Therefore I anticipate that we should already arrive at the city. Therefore I am interested when the journey will finish, whereas you are concerned with how far you are away from home.”
This is the difference between Am Yisrael and Moshe Rabbeinu. Am Yisrael were happy that they left Egypt, but Moshe Rabbeinu knew to where they were headed. Therefore Moshe wrote, “their leaving according to their travelling”, because their leaving is the purpose of their travelling forwards in order to reach the Promised Land. But the Bnei Yisrael said, “their travelling according to their leaving” because it didn’t make any difference to where they were travelling, for the main thing was that they left and that the journey was just a by-product of the main purposeful exodus.
May Hashem make us rejoice, may He redeem us a complete redemption. Hashem, may His Name be praised, promised us that Am Yisrael will make teshuva, and everyone will be redeemed a complete redemption, as is states: “There shall come a time when you shall experience all the words of blessing and curse that I have presented to you. There, among the nations where Hashem will have banished you, you will reflect on the situation. You will then return to Hashem your L-rd, and you will obey Him, doing everything that I am commanding you today. You and your children [will repent] with all your heart and with all your soul. Hashem will then bring back your remnants and have mercy on you. Hashem your L-rd will once again gather you from among all the nations where He scattered you. Even if your diaspora is at the ends of the heavens, Hashem your L-rd will gather you up from there and He will take you back. Hashem your L-rd will then bring you to the land that your ancestors occupied, and you too will occupy it. Hashem will be good to you and make you flourish even more than your ancestors” (Devarim 30:1-5). May Hashem have mercy upon us, “for the earth will be as filled with knowledge of Hashem as water covering the seabed.” “Tziyon will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her through righteousness” (Yeshaya 11:9 and ibid. 1:27).