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    “Moshe wrote their
    departures according to
    their journeys … and
    these were their journeys
    according to their
    departures.” — Bamidbar
    33:2, this week’s parsha,

    “While the reasonable man adapts himself
    to the world, the unreasonable one persists in
    trying to adapt the world to himself.
    Therefore, all progress depends on the
    unreasonable man.” — George Bernard Shaw
    The concluding parsha of Sefer Bamidbar
    (Maasei), read this week the world over,
    begins by offering a summation of Bnei
    Yisroel’s forty-year journey through the
    wilderness, as they ventured toward the
    Promise Land. This odyssey across the Sinai
    Peninsula was comprised of forty-two
    segments, ultimately leading the young
    nation along the eastern coast of the Jordan
    River as they prepared to enter the Land of
    Canaan through the city of Yericho.
    The Torah, before documenting the specific
    route of their journey, notes that “Moshe
    wrote their departures according to their
    journeys… and these were their journeys

    according to their departures.”
    This diction is as strange as it is perplexing.
    Three questions come to mind.
    First, what is the actual meaning of
    “departures according to their journeys,” and
    “journeys according to their departures?”
    Second, why is the verse redundant? What
    is the difference between “departures
    according to their journeys,” and “journeys
    according to their departures?”
    Third, why does the Torah flip the sequence
    of terms, first mentioning “departures”
    followed by “journeys,” and then in the
    second half of the verse switching the order,
    referring first to “journeys” and then to
    Here we shall discover how these slight
    “errors” capture timeless truths of history and
    Past & Future
    Two divergent roads define the voyage of
    Jewish history. There are the Jews who
    ascribe to the “departure” paradigm, and the
    Jews who embrace the “journey” paradigm.
    The “journeying” Jews focus on the

    constant changes in history: the
    fluctuating trends, the cultural
    developments, the novel
    inventions, and the newly
    discovered wisdom. These Jews
    are sensitive to the winds of
    progression, to the alterations in
    the human climate, and to the
    opportunities and challenges that
    lay ahead. They aspire to define
    Judaism – or a philosophy of life
    — that would be relevant to the
    contemporary conversation of
    humanity in its journey toward its
    own self-defined “promised land.”
    Yet, in their zeal to embrace the future, they
    often abandon the past. In their passion to
    remain relevant today, they forfeit the power
    of yesteryear. In their yearning to capture the
    individual “your,” they neglect the depth of
    the “yore.” In their ambition to grow tall,
    they detach from the roots that have given
    them their original sap.
    “By the time a man realizes that maybe his
    father was right, he usually has a son who
    thinks he’s wrong,” Charles Wadsworth once
    said. The youth, fresh in spirit, creative in
    ideas, often seeks to chart a new path, to take
    the road never traveled by. There is
    something monotonous about traveling in
    the footsteps of your ancestors, and there
    is something intoxicating about
    developing a path you can call your own.
    In many ways, it was this perspective
    which gave birth to the contemporary
    Jewish world. As the winds of modernity
    swept Europe, as enlightenment and
    emancipation cast their glowing promise
    on a downtrodden nation in the 18th
    century, millions of Jews felt that clinging
    to the lifestyle and traditions of their
    ancestors would impede their bright
    journey to a new world order. In the
    process, they bid farewell to the old to
    embrace the new; they said goodbye to
    the yore to embrace the “your.”
    As we know today, their good intentions
    were met with profound disappointment.
    On one hand, enlightenment in Europe
    and socialism in Russia turned against the
    Jews, and on the other hand, the
    descendants of the Jews who embraced
    them have been lost to our people. In
    their passion to journey ahead, to
    revolutionize the past, they failed to
    realize the power of eternity imbedded in
    their tradition and faith.
    Then there are the “departure” Jews –
    those who are always looking back to the
    past, to their point of departure. Their
    primary focus is on the unchangeable
    truths of history. Life, in their vision, is
    not linear, but cyclical. Tradition, ritual,

    custom, law, faith do not change just because
    Voltaire gave us Enlightenment, Nietzsche
    taught us about the will for power, Tocqueville
    explained to us democracy, and Freud
    uncovered the subconscious. “What was
    good for my great-great grandfather is good
    for me,” these Jews rooted in tradition
    Yet in their attempt to hold on to the sacred
    past, they often stifle the ability to utilize and
    actualize the new energy of today, to discern
    the voice of G-d not only in the ancient, but
    also in the present, not only in the world that
    was, but also in the world that is. In their
    hope to continue the chain of history by
    adding their identically matching link, they
    fail to create space for freshness, for
    creativity, for authentic self-expression. In
    their genuine zeal to protect the “piano” of
    Judaism, they scoff at any new composition,
    failing to realize that the very same piano
    keys allow for infinite compositions. The
    word of G-d, articulated in the Torah, can and
    must serve as a blueprint for the challenges
    of today, not only for the dialogue of the past.
    The Tree & the Roots
    So “Moshe wrote their departures according
    to their journeys … and these were their
    journeys according to their departures.” The
    majesty and magic of Jewish history is based
    on the synthesis between “departures” and
    “journeys.” The departures – the points of
    reference that have always defined Judaism
    – ought to serve as catalysts for the journeys
    of the future, invigorating growth and
    inspiring expansiveness. Conversely, the
    journeys toward new horizons ought to be
    “according to their departures,” founded and
    inspired on the timeless values of our faith
    and our Torah.
    Just as Moshe wrote the first chapter of
    Jewish history, we all are summoned to write
    our own. Let the tree grow taller and taller,
    but let it never fail its roots. Rather, let the
    roots exclaim, “Look how beautiful and tall
    my tree has grown.”
    * My thanks to R. Shmuel Kuperman who
    shared the nucleus of this idea with me, as he
    heard from Rabbi Israel Meir Lau. Thank you
    to Yaakov Shlomo for his assistance in
    writing this essay.