By Rabbi Robert Layman
In this era of GPS and Waze, road maps, which are still available, have basically become a relic of the past. Some may think just as well, because they were difficult to read and even more difficult to fold after reading.
The second half of this week’s Torah portion, Mattot-Mas’ei, concludes the Book of Bemidbar (Numbers) and is arranged like a road map. Chapter 33, quite frankly, does not make for stimulating reading, nor does it lend itself to extensive homiletical interpretation. There is a refrain that, constantly repeated, can become soporific. We read over and over again: va-yis’u … va-yahanu; in the JPS translation, “They set out … they encamped.”
Why in the world does the Torah review in such detail the names of all the stopping points during the 40 years of wandering in the desert? First of all, why did they wander so long? God had planned a road map for the Israelites and, as we learned in a recent parsha, God had His reasons for compelling the people to wander for 40 years.
Way back in chapter 13 of Exodus, we read that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, ki karov hu, although it was nearer. That phrase could be translated “because it was nearer,” implying that the Almighty deliberately led the people on a long, circuitous route because He perceived that they were not prepared for the challenges of possessing the Promised Land.
We are by no means the first to ask why it was necessary to record all of those stopping points. According to a midrash, it was necessary for later generations to understand God’s beneficence in providing for the needs of the people during the long journey. Maimonides adds that it reminds us that despite their distance from settlements and signs of civilization, the Israelites were able to survive because of the many miracles that God performed for them along the way.
Fully 42 stations are listed in this chapter as a way of impressing this message upon us.
I would like to suggest that road maps are important in our personal lives today. Many of us can describe our life’s journeys in terms of a map or a series of stations like those listed in this week’s portion. Some of us work in professions that require us to move from one location to another every few years. It may not have taken us 40 years to reach the Promised Land, but we eventually settled down for a significant number of years and we have found contentment.
In a similar vein, there are those who have wandered in a spiritual and moral desert for a long time until they have finally gotten their bearings. While the Israelites of old, and Moshe in particular, could have used a compass to help them determine their route, there are those among us who have been desperately in need of a moral compass.
The word for compass in modern Hebrew is matzpen, derived from tzafon, meaning north. The needle of a compass, as we know, points to the north, not true north, as I learned as a Boy Scout, but a little askew to magnetic north.
The Hebrew word for conscience is very similar. It is matzpun, derived from the adjective tzafun, meaning “hidden.”
What is the connection? Perhaps our conscience is the innermost part of our soul. What we are truly thinking is hidden from the outside world. As an aside, how are tzafun (hidden) and tzafon (north) related etymologically? I learned many years ago that to the Jews living in ancient Israel, what lay to the west, south and east was well known. The lands to the far north, however, were terra incognita, unknown, mysterious, hidden.
Each of us has a matzpun that requires a matzpen to direct us on the correct path of life, to point northward to values that may be hidden from us or which we are not yet ready to explore. Each of us needs a compass to assist us in following the road map that God has set out to help us avoid, as much as possible, the inevitable twists and turns and roadblocks that life has placed in our way.
The Torah, the commentaries and our intellect are the GPS that guides us along the way. The texts of our tradition can remain hidden or, if our conscience so dictates, they can be opened and made readily accessible. May we be inspired to use these resources wisely and effectively.
Rabbi Robert Layman, a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, is an instructor in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Temple University. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.