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They journeyed from… and camped at … (Numbers 32: 41 times).
Aaron went up Mount Hor by G-d's command and died there… and the Canaanite King of Arad heard… that the Israelites were coming (32:38-40)
Parashat Massei opens with Moses recalling and recording the Israelites' 40-year tortuous route from Egypt towards the Promised Land, using the style of 'They journeyed from… and camped at …'
Major events, such as the splitting of the Red Sea, the Giving of the Torah, and on the less pleasant side, the Golden Calf, the Twelve Spies, and the Striking of the Rock do not get a mention. The only happening recorded in any detail is the death of Aaron: Aaron went up Mount Hor by G-d's command and died there… and the Canaanite King of Arad heard… that the Israelites were coming (32:38-40). What is special about the Aaron's death and associated events (c.f. parallel text 20:22-21:3) that merits being singled out in what appears to be a fundamentally geographical account of the Israelites' desert travels?
By way of response, Rashi refers to the Jerusalem Talmud in throwing light on the obscure details of the events following Aaron's death. That tradition recounts that Aaron's death saw a 'withdrawal of the (protective) clouds of glory' (the closeness of the Divine Presence), and part of the Israelites broke off from their people and were making their way back to Egypt - fearing the Canaanite King of Arad. The Levites caught up with them, and following civil war, finally brought unity to the Israelites (see Rashi to 26:13, 33:40, and Deut. 10:6).
The Israelites had come close to exhausting G-d's patience on more than one occasion. There had been various uprisings against Moses' authority from various quarters. But they had stayed together - apart from where a group of individuals attempted to make their way prematurely to the Land, and they were pursued by the Amorites 'as the bees pursue' (Deut. 1:44). They were then 'crushed… even as far as Hormah' (ibid.).
Thus the death of Aaron was unique in the Israelites experience. It was the only occasion up to then of the community actually being split down the middle and leaving en masse. As any military commander knows, panic - insidiously destructive - spreads like wildfire (c.f. Rashi to Deut. 20:9).
As long as the Israelites were physically together, their travels could be described as 'Massei Be-nei Yisrael' - the journeys of the Israelites. But the final act of treachery was one where the Israelites as a body would be no more through wholesale leaving and disassociation. By subsequent assimilation, they would no longer be identifiable as the 'Children of Israel' or as 'the Israelites'.
One of the lessons of this observation is the danger of causing 'panic' among the Jewish People. Our very long experience has incorporated many scenarios and social situations which encourage people to cut themselves off from the 'Tree of Life' - the great Torah traditions based on Divine Revelation which bring semblance of priorities within what appears to be the infinity and even chaos we see in the Creation.
Rabindranith Tagore, the famous Bengali poet, puts the idea this way:
I hold in my hand a violin string.
In the above context, those associated with the 'Tree of Life' are still 'bound to violin'. They may 'produce some strange noises' when they 'go off the rails', but it is still 'music of sorts'. Those who cut themselves off from tradition - may go in any direction, but in cutting themselves off from their spiritual and physical roots, and no longer 'free to sing'…
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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