By Rabbi Yisroel Newman
The concluding portion of the Book of Numbers (Maasei), read this week begins by offering a summation of the Israelites’ 40-year journey through the wilderness, as they ventured toward the Promise Land.
The Bible, before documenting the specific route of their journey, notes that “Moses 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. What is the difference between “departures according to their journeys,” and “journeys according to their departures?”
And 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 “departures?”
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, and to the opportunities and challenges that layahead. 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 yearning to capture the individual “your,” they neglect the depth of the “yore.”
In many ways, it was this perspective that gave birth to the contemporary Jewish world. As we now know, 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.
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, for them, is cyclical: Tradition, ritual, custom, law, faith do not change.
Yet in their attempt to hold on to the sacred past, they often stifle the ability to utilise and actualise the new energy of today, to discern the voice of God not only in the ancient, but also in the novel, not only in the world that was, but also in the world that is.
The majesty and magic of Jewish history, the Bible is intimating to us, 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 towards new horizons ought to be “according to their departures,” founded and inspired on the timeless values of our faith and our Torah.
Yisroel (Teddy) Newman is a British- born rabbi, living in New York.