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The Wandering Jew – Parshat Masei

The Wandering Jew – Parshat Masei

We make lists. Most of us do, anyway. Lists have a purpose. Every list is different. Shopping lists, packing lists, comparative lists, bucket lists, inventory lists, to do lists, etc., etc., etc. There are even lists of lists. But they all have a purpose. Each list has its own purpose.

Even this week’s parsha, Parshat Masei, has a list. It is a list of 42 different places that the Israelites visited in their 40 year wandering from being slaves in Egypt to building an independent state in Israel.1 (Is it possible that this is the source of the term, ‘The Wandering Jew’? The flower in the picture is also called The Wandering Jew.) Most of the 42 places they visited were mentioned by name only, while a few merited a short summary of what occurred in that place. This is where the questions start. If a place has no event worthy of note, why even mention the place? Let the Torah tell us that there were many stops along the way and let that suffice. But no. The Torah recounts every single place. Why? We know the Torah doesn’t waste words. And why make a list in the first place?  We already read what happened. In addition, many of these places, excuse me, most of these places had negative events attached to them. Why would we want to remember them?

There may be a fascinating lesson to be learned here. In our wandering through the desert, we didn’t always know how long we would stay there. God may be upset with us because of our transgressions and lead us through the desert for 40 years, yet, even so, He did not move us around constantly in the desert. In fact, there was one encampment that lasted about 19 years. Yet there were others that lasted a day or two.2 And the whole time, in each and every place we wondered how long we will be there. When will we have to pack up again. Is it really worth unpacking? And our eyes were constantly seeking and asking Heaven, “when?” Therein lies the catch. There, in the desert, an active and dynamic relationship was created with Him. “The story of the life of the Jewish people,”  says Rabbi Berman in discussing this week’s parsha, “is a drama of a dynamic relationship with God,”.3

As we wander through life, we have many places we visit. As a child, throughout adolescence, in our spousal relationship, in our careers, with our children – we have trials and tribulations, loss and hurt. Sometimes we too ask ‘when’. Sometimes we ask ‘why’. How we deal with suffering and loss and other challenges is a central issue in life to many of us. Yet, Viktor Frankl speaks of a “Tragic Optimism”, of being optimistic through tragedies, an ability to view what we’ve been through as a question/challenge –  a question for us to answer, or at least search for an answer – for what purpose did this happen to me? How can I say ‘yes’ to life in spite of everything? “This presupposes,” he adds, “that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are miserable. And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.”4

This is indeed a challenge for us. As we wander through our life, only we can decide if we are up to the challenges we face and how we answer them.



  1. Bamidbar 33. There are differing opinions if this was an exhaustive list or not – see Or Hachayim 33:1 and Rashi 33:1
  2. Ibid.9:17-23
  3. An audio recording of Rabbi Berman’s class on this topic, ‘Life’s Journey, A Dynamic Relationship with Hashem’ can be found here. Click here
  4. Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning p. 139