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Places and Pathways Torah insights for the journey

1 March 2016 | General Interest

By Teresa Pirola

“These were the marches of the Israelites ...”Places and PathwayS-Teresa Pirola-BBI

Thus begins chapter 33 of the Book of Numbers. It reviews the journey of the Israelites from their departure from Egypt to the point where they stand ready to enter the land promised by God.

“They set out from Libnah and camped at Rissah. They set out from Rissah and camped at Kehelathah. They set out from Kehelathah and camped at Mount Shepher...” (33.21-23)

Commentators have long been fascinated by the detailed itinerary and apparent tedium of this text. The people set out on their wilderness trek and march from place to place: from A to B, from B to C, from C to D, from D to E and so on.... this is the pattern for 49 verses! An unsuspecting reader might be tempted to succumb to boredom, skip to the end and move on.

However the Jewish sages of old teach us to stay with the text. With their creative interpretative methods and appreciation of oral storytelling traditions, they show us how to seek wells of refreshment amidst the apparent ‘dryness’ of such a passage.

Try it for yourself. With the sages, be patient as you read this long, repetitious text (Num 33:1-49). Relax. Read aloud, perhaps sharing the reading with a friend. Listen to the rhythm. Allow it to get ‘inside’ you, drawing you into the march. Observe how it speaks to you through the litany of place-names.

Said one parishioner: “The repetition drew me into a meditative space ... For the Israelites this was an epic journey—to the Promised Land, no less—yet comprised of lots of little journeys. So much of life is like that! I have noble goals—to raise a family, to accomplish important things at work—yet living those goals involves numerous ordinary, tedious steps: I woke up at 6 o’clock, and changed my baby’s diaper. After I changed his diaper I organized the kids for school. When the kids left for school, I drove to the shopping centre. After leaving the shopping centre, I drove on to work ... Tedious? Perhaps. But each step represents an honest, committed, authentic footprint in the journey of life.”

And you? What reflections surfaced in your reading of the text? Did the rhythm of the Israelites’ march resonate with the rhythms of your life?

Torah commentators who ponder this passage often note the value of reviewing our lives. In order to go forward we must have a clear idea of where we have come from and how life’s events and places have shaped us. Our future depends on a well-understood past.

In the midrash (Jewish storytelling traditions) there is a poignant story about a king with an ill son who takes him to a distant place to be cured. On the return journey, the father recounts for his son each stage of their first journey: “Here we slept. Here we felt cold. Here you had a headache, etc.”[1] Sometimes we only appreciate a place or stage in life with the help of someone who loves us and who has journeyed with us.

In another midrashic interpretation[2] the desert places are seen to be holy because they welcomed the Israelites, and would one day be rewarded by God by becoming fertile and inhabited. Perhaps this story serves to remind us of places that have been blessed by our presence, and by the presence of our faith community. Can we see this? Can we name such places and even identify some of the fruits already visible?

The recording of the marches of the Israelites can be interpreted as evidence of God’s care for the chosen people in the wilderness. Try this prayer-exercise. Sketch a timeline listing the important places where you have dwelt or visited in your life. Can you see God’s hand at work as you retrace these journeys and ‘stop-overs’?

1. A place of life. Recall a place where you loved and laboured to bring life into the world. Perhaps physically. Perhaps spiritually. Perhaps artistically.

2. A place of struggle. Recall a place where you struggled with a challenging task. A building site. A place of study. A place where you faced conflict, illness, setback, disappointment.

3. A place of healing. Recall a place where you ‘paused’ in your life to seek healing, rest, comfort, hope, refuelling, refreshment. A hospital. A retreat house. A holiday house. The home of a friend.

4. A place of joy. Recall a place where you laughed, partied, sang, celebrated and enjoyed special times. At this place did you praise God? Make new friends? Organize community functions?

5. A place of learning. Recall a place where you were taught something that shaped your life’s direction. A place of formation. A classroom. A sporting field. A family home. A place where values were instilled, ideas formed, decisions were influenced.

Continue to ponder this passage. Why do you think the Torah mentions that at each destination the Israelites both ‘journeyed’ there and ‘encamped’ there? How is a place’s significance shaped by my experience of ‘arrival’, ‘sojourn’ and ‘departure’? •



Eskenazi &Weiss, eds., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (NY: URJ Press, 2008);
Midrash Rabbah: Numbers Vol.2 (London/NY: Soncino, 1983);
Munk, The Call of the Torah (NY: Mesorah, 1993);
Rashi: Commentary on the Torah (NY: Mesorah, 2001).

If you wish to comment on this or anything in the Newsletter, please email me, Carmel Duffy, at carmel.duffy@dbb.org.au.  Your words may be published in later editions of the Newsletter.

Teresa Pirola-bbiTeresa Pirola is the founder and coordinator of Light of Torah (www.lightoftorah.net), a ministry that promotes Torah study for Christians, drawing on the insights of Jewish interpretative traditions.



[1] Midrash Tanchuma, 3
[2] Midrash Rabbah, xxiii, 4

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