Author's Note on Parshat Masey
Date: July 17, 2020
25 Tammuz 5780
In Parshat Masey, we read a long list of places through which B’nai Yisrael traveled as they wandered in the desert. It reads as a litany of place after place and begs the question of what Hashem is teaching us by giving this list: “These are the journeys of B’nai Yisrael … They journeyed from Succoth and encamped in Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. They journeyed from Etham and turned back to Pi Hachiroth, which is before Baal Zephon, and they encamped before Migdol, etc., etc.”
Rabbis and commentators, as you can imagine, have had a field day with various explanations and interpretations of the list, what it means spiritually, physically, archaeologically, etc. Here are some of my own personal lessons on what this list of travels means.
Three true stories:
(1) I participate in a lawyer’s listserv. There are hundreds of lawyers on the list and we share information or questions about legal topics. Every now and then I share my thoughts with the group and usually hear not much back from anyone (other than “Thanks.”). One time, though, I got a response from someone on the list who wrote: “Is that really you, Paul Hamburger?” It was from a lawyer I hadn’t heard from in 20 years. I did some legal work for his company and it was a very interesting project. He left that company and I lost contact with him. It was nice to hear from him and we reminisced over the work I did some 20 years earlier.
(2) I was having dinner at the home of a neighbor in Potomac Maryland. I asked where he was from. “Toronto,” he said. I said that I went to summer camp at Camp Ramah in Utterson, Ontario. So did he. It turned out that we were both in the same camp in the same year some 30 plus years earlier. I even signed the back of his camp photo.
(3) A former partner and mentor of mine was on a cruise. He emailed me from the ship to tell me that he was speaking with the couple in the room next door to him on the ship. The other guest introduced himself to my friend and mentioned that the guest was from Detroit. My former partner said that he only knew one person from Detroit — Paul Hamburger. The other guy said: “Really? I was Paul Hamburger’s pediatrician!” In fact, the doctor was my pediatrician and family friend. I was very close to him and his family for many years in Detroit. We lost touch after I moved to Maryland; but thinking of him and his family brought back fond memories of some forty plus years ago.
That’s what Masey means. These are not just cities, locations, and encampments. They include the city where we were born, the place we “camped,” the time when we did something for someone that we didn’t appreciate the significance of until we thought about it some 20 years (or even a few thousand years) later. We often go through our lives without thinking about the fact that years from now we will look back at where we are today and only then realize what today really means. In that sense, the Torah is challenging us to consider whether we are doing all we can to invest this place and this time with significance so that it will be known years from now as our Pi Hachirot where we [fill in the blank].
We may not know exactly what happened at Pi Hachirot or why B’nai Yisrael had to turn back there after they were already comfortably encamped and unpacked at Etham. But as Rabbi Elie Munk wrote in his Torah commentary, “Which Jew has not experienced many wanderings in his existence? Each of us has gone through highs and lows in our sojourns in life. But whatever the disappointments already encountered, we must always go forward. Future redemption for each individual, as for the nation, beckons us to rise to the next challenge.”