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By: Rabbi Eitan Mayer

Parshat Masei begins with (not surprisingly, for those who’ve been reading Sefer BeMidbar carefully each week) a list, the latest of the many lists which populate the Sefer. This time, we’re listing the names all the places Bnei Yisrael camped over the forty years from their departure from Egypt until the present moment, when they stand ready to enter Eretz Yisrael.


But why? Unlike other lists in the Sefer, which might report details which make us wonder about their importance to posterity (what do we learn today from the number of soldiers in the tribe of Naftali in the year 2449, or the names of the tribal chiefs who helped Moshe count them, and so on), this list is reporting a lot of information we already have. If we know these places from their appearance in the story the first time, why revisit them? And if some of these names are new to us, but the Torah provides no detail about them beyond the bare fact that we camped there once, why mention them at all?


Perhaps the Torah is teaching us something about journeys, and most importantly, the journey we are each on alone, as well as the journey our nation is on together. Every couple of decades (or maybe a little more often than that), it’s important to pause and look back. 


Life is full so full of frenetic activity. We so often find ourselves busy, even rushing. But if we never pause to see where all that movement has taken us, we are sure to lose our way. Like explorers making our way through the forest with no compass, we may find that all of our movements have brought us merely in a large circle. We may be no closer to our goals than we were when we first set out; we have walked many miles, we have overcome many obstacles, but we are right back where we started.


As students, we attend thousands of class meetings, face many hundreds of exams, write so many reports; as workers, we log thousands of hours at work, thousands of miles on the road, attend hundreds of meetings, answer calls, messages and emails beyond number; as parents, we prepare countless lunches and dinners, wake them up and put them to sleep and dress them and remind them and drive them places. But a lot of activity is not the same thing as a lot of accomplished goals. A lot of hope that that activity will pay off is not enough to make sure that it actually will. 


We need to stop and look back, and not only to appreciate how far we’ve come (that’s important too), but to make sure that we’re not confusing our busy-ness with the sense of certainty that all that activity must be getting us closer to our goals. 


Parshat Masei tells us that it took forty years for Bnei Yisrael to make the journey from Egypt to Israel. Next week, Parshat Devarim will tell us that it should have taken them just eleven days. Those on the journey could be forgiven for thinking that each step in the trackless desert was moving them forward. But when Parshat Masei provides us with a map, we can see the tragedy of those forty wasted years, as it becomes clear that their progress was an illusion. Many places visited, many miles logged, but a generation wasted walking in circles.


The message to us: Don’t be so distracted by life’s insistent routines that you forget to check whether your life-goals are getting closer. And if your life-routines are not getting you closer to those goals, it’s time to hit the GPS and recalculate your route.





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