A popular song from the ’80s had the refrain “where the streets have no names.” The image of a backpacker on college or summer break is perhaps synonymous with American freedom and the spirit of discovery. However, the experiences of travelers on their journey usually supersede their adventure at their ultimate destination.
In this week’s double parsha of Matos-Masei, the Torah delineates the 42 encampments the Jewish people stopped at during their sojourn in the desert. What is the point of us knowing these locations by name? Other commentaries question further that if the Jewish people were traveling in the desert where people did not dwell, who named these cities to begin with — and in Hebrew?
Rav Nisan Alpert, zt”l, in his seminal work Limudei Nisan, explains that each encampment served a specific purpose for the Jewish people and the names of the locations are reflective of the events that transpired at each. The names of the cities became a method of remembering and recording the happenings that the Jews faced in their journey through the Sinai desert. Another explanation of these minute details included in the Torah is that each stop represented a specific test or tribulation that the Jews faced. We were only able to move ahead after conquering and progressing past the current test and then were able to face our next challenge.
We are supposed to learn from our past tests so that we can grow and be prepared for our future. However, human nature is to forget the bad and remember only the good. We often beautify and glorify past occurrences and gloss over our failings. In so doing we lose the lessons that we and future generations are supposed to learn. It is for that reason that G-d ordained that all stops should be listed by name so that we don’t forget our past history in the desert and its lessons.
Rav Alpert adds that for the Jewish people to grow in Torah learning and to progress educationally and spiritually in G-d’s ways, they needed to be without the distractions of modern-day living, outside influences and perhaps today he would have added technology as well.
Jewish education requires us to focus and to view our setbacks as part of the plan for our future successes. To be involved with our society, whether old or young, is a key element to our growth as people. During the quieter summer months, we should take time for introspection and identify areas where we can use some personal growth, perhaps realizing that this is the time to actualize certain potential that has been dormant possibly for many years.
The Talmud mentions many reasons for the Churban — the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem — for which we mournfully observe Tisha B’Av in approximately one week’s time. But the Talmud specifies two distinct categories of reasons — one due to the sins between us and our fellow humans and one due to the sins between us and G-d. Matos-Masei falling during this time could be a lesson for us to focus on positive growth. The 42 stops of the Jewish people teach us lessons as a nation and growth patterns for an individual. Moreover, we should always remember that the Jews’ ultimate stop is in the Land of Israel, no matter how many stops in the Diaspora we make before entering.
It is quite possible that society views each step in life as a street to travel on without regard for its name or its purpose. With G-d’s help, oversight, direction and protection, all roads are open to us to learn lessons, to hear our individual callings, and to grow spiritually with others who come along with us for the journey. JN
Rabbi Michael Dubitsky is a chaplain for Jewish Family & Children’s Service and a teacher at Shearim Torah High School for Girls.