SPORADIC SPIRITUAL SOJOURNS
(על פי ה’ יסעו בני ישראל ועל פי ה’ יחנו כל ימי אשר ישכון הענן על המשכן יחנו” (במדבר ט’:י”ח”
Our פרשה is distinctly divided into two sections, split in the middle with the short section of “ויהי בנסוע הארון,” where we read of the procedures that בני ישראל would go through before setting out for and settling in from their travels. While many focus on the unique notation used to separate this section (the backwards ‘nun’), I would like to focus a little bit on the lifestyle that these travels forced on בני ישראל. If we look earlier in the פרשה, we see:
וּלְפִי הֵעָלוֹת הֶעָנָן, מֵעַל הָאֹהֶל–וְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן, יִסְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וּבִמְקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכָּן-שָׁם הֶעָנָן–שָׁם יַחֲנוּ, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. עַל-פִּי ה’, יִסְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְעַל-פִּי ה’, יַחֲנוּ:…וְיֵשׁ אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה הֶעָנָן, יָמִים מִסְפָּר–עַל-הַמִּשְׁכָּן; עַל-פִּי ה’ יַחֲנוּ, וְעַל-פִּי ה’ יִסָּעוּ. וְיֵשׁ אֲשֶׁר-יִהְיֶה הֶעָנָן, מֵעֶרֶב עַד-בֹּקֶר, וְנַעֲלָה הֶעָנָן בַּבֹּקֶר, וְנָסָעוּ; אוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה, וְנַעֲלָה הֶעָנָן וְנָסָעוּ. אוֹ-יֹמַיִם אוֹ-חֹדֶשׁ אוֹ-יָמִים, בְּהַאֲרִיךְ הֶעָנָן עַל-הַמִּשְׁכָּן לִשְׁכֹּן עָלָיו, יַחֲנוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלֹא יִסָּעוּ; וּבְהֵעָלֹתוֹ, יִסָּעוּ. עַל-פִּי ה’ יַחֲנוּ, וְעַל-פִּי ה’ יִסָּעוּ. אֶת-מִשְׁמֶרֶת ה’ שָׁמָרוּ, עַל-פִּי ה’ בְּיַד-מֹשֶׁה (במדבר ט’: י”ז-כ”ג)
These פסוקים, aside from being extremely repetitive, highlight how religiously בני ישראל followed G-d’s commands to start traveling and stop traveling. Sometimes, they would have to encamp in the same place for months at a time, other times, they would stay where they were for only a few hours. No matter what the conditions, they would always start moving on G-d’s signal, and they would stop moving on G-d’s signal- truly “על פי ה’ יחנו, ועל פי ה’ יסעו,” a phrase repeated many times in this small section.
The מפורשים grapple with the significance of this repetitive language:
Rashi (9:17) answers that the repetitive nature of our section teaches us that when בני ישראל were commanded to travel, they always, without fail, followed the procedure that we are told about later in the פרשה, namely “ויהי בנסוע הארון ויאמר משה ‘קומה ה’ ויפוצו אויבך וינסו משנאיך מפניך,'” and when they were told to stop, “ובנחה יאמר שובה ה’ רבבי אלפי ישראל,” as explained there. This did not vary, and they would often have to drop what they were doing to give this ceremony the proper attention, which was a huge merit for them, and big מוסר for us whenever we do not feel up to doing מצות in a timely manner.
While רש”י learns that the emphasis of the travels is a lesson in their attitude towards their travels, רמב”ן teaches a lesson more about the types of travels that בני ישראל faced on their trips:
לומר כי אם יאריך הענן על המשכן ימים רבים, והמקום ההוא איננו טוב בעיניהם והיו חפצים ומתאוים מאד לנסוע מן המקום, אעפ”כ לא יעברו על רצון השם. וזה טעם ושמרו בני ישראל את משמרת ה’ ולא יסעו – כי מיראת השם ומשמרם משמרת מצותו לא יסעו. וכן אם יהיה הענן ימים מספר כשנים או שלשה ימים, והיו העם יגעים מאד וענה בדרך כחם, יעשו רצון השם ללכת אחרי הענן…
This teaches us that sometimes the Anan would remain in the Mishkan for many days, and that place may not be good for them and they would want to leave for someplace more suitable- despite this, they would not go against G-d’s will. This explains “And Israel guarded the word of G-d and didn’t travel”- because their fear of G-d and following Mitzvot kept them from traveling. So too, if the Anan would move for a few days and the nation would be tired and run out of strength, they would still follow G-d’s command to follow the Anan… (רמב”ן ט’:י”ט).
Ramban goes onto explain the other difficult situations that בני ישראל would go through in their travels, such as traveling only at nights sometimes, or long travels on difficult terrains. No matter what they faced, they didn’t complain and always followed G-d’s ענן on the treacherous travels through the wilderness.
We can learn a very important lesson from בני ישראל’s attitude here. בני ישראל were on a journey from their enslavement in ארץ מצרים, a national low, to their promised land in ארץ ישראל. Looking back at their journey millennia later, we know that G-d did not take them on the most direct way to Israel, instead leading them on the ‘scenic route of Sinai.’ Nevertheless, despite the long travels and uncomfortable camps without an end in sight, they did not stop and give up. They kept on going because they knew what their יעוד (destiny) was- to inherit their land and become a nation. This motivation kept them going through their travels, despite the comfortable stops they might have made along the way.
In his introduction to אם הבנים שמחה, Rav Teichtel quotes a short, but potent Midrash:
נטל הקב”ה שיחתן של אבות ועשאן מפתח לגאולה של בנים
G-d took occurrences of our forefathers and applied them to the redemption of His children. (בראשית רבה פרשה ע’, אות ו’)
While this מדרש was written in the context of יעקב’s promise to G-d to return to ארץ ישראל safely in פרשת ויצא, I believe it applies equally well to our פרשה. Judaism is a religion that relies heavily on precedent- “מעשה אבות סימן לבנים” is a huge factor in making decisions on a personal level and on a national level, and we cannot disregard lessons from our forefathers if they could affect or change our lives. Based on this, I would like to suggest an approach for applying the lesson of בני ישראל’s travels to our lives.
The Jewish People have been on a spiritual journey for the past 2000+ years. We left Jerusalem in ruins after the חורבן בית שני, and have been wandering through the wilderness since then, being led by G-d through the lands of our enemies waiting to continue our journey to the Holy Land. At times, He has told us to stop, and we have stopped and camped there, no matter how uncomfortable, until we are told to get up again when He gives His sign for us to leave. Unfortunately, our long גלות has robbed us of the motivation and ethic of the Jewish People of פרשת בהעלותך. We have lost sight of our destination, focusing instead on the comfortable ‘stopping place’ that G-d has placed us in for the past century or so, to the point that now, as G-d has lifted the cloud for us to travel again, we deign to stay in the land of our enemies, ignoring our final destination even as we are now on the homestretch to the גאולה. We as a nation must be מתחזק from the lesson of the emphasis of בני ישראל’s travels in פרק ט’ of ספר במדבר, so that we can internalize the message and implications of “על פי ה’ יחנו ועל פי ה’ יסעו,” and by doing so, we can end the 2000-year-old spiritual journey of the Jewish People by reaching the final destination of our physical travels. Only through this can we end our sojourns in our enemies’ land, end the physical and spiritual journeys of the Jewish People, and fulfill our destiny as our ancestors did in the wilderness by bringing an end to our גלות, very speedily in our days. Shabbat Shalom.