Lost Stories

The list of the Israelites' encampments during their journeys in the wilderness reminds us of the importance of preserving and retelling our own stories.

Commentary on Parashat Masei, Numbers 33:1 - 36:13

“They set out from Rithmah and encamped at Rimmon-perez.” (Numbers 33:19) This is one stage on the list of 42 such encampments described in the Torah portion that outlines our people’s journey from slavery to freedom.

What is the use of this list? We know it is important because the text itself tells us so: “Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by Adonai.” (Numbers 33:2) Since God commanded Moses to write the list, we can be sure that there is an important reason for it, but its purpose is still not obvious.

Rashi thinks that the journeys were recorded to make God’s benevolence known — the list shows that they were enabled to settle down for extended periods. In addition, Rashi gives another reason for the list: Midrash Tanchuma compares it “to a king whose son was ill, and he brought him to a distant place for treatment. When they returned, the father began enumerating all the journeys. He said to him, ‘Here we slept; here we were chilled; here your head ached; etc.'” Therefore, says Rashi, this short listing of the stages of their wanderings was designed as reading material for the people to recall what had befallen them at each place, after they had settled in their land.

Maimonides (in the Guide of the Perplexed) goes a step further. The stages had to be recorded for subsequent generations, who might think that the Children of Israel traveled in a desert that was near to cultivated land and in which it was possible to grow or find food. Their subsistence in the real wilderness is confirmed by the list of actual places so that in the future the magnitude of the miracle of our survival could be seen.

But this is only half the story. Rithmah and Rimmon-perez are places that can no longer be identified, and they are not mentioned anywhere else in the Torah (likewise, the other encampments mentioned in verses 18 through 29, according to Jacob Milgrom in the JPS Torah Commentary, Numbers).

What lessons can we learn from this list and these forgotten and remembered places? What further questions emerge upon reflection?

Narratives and lists are metaphors. They serve as one way human beings communicate with one another about things worth remembering and the thoughts associated with them. Current brain research indicates that the narrative form may, in fact, be “hard-wired” in our brains. Like the loop that tells us to move our feet “right, left, right” without thinking after the early trials and errors of the toddler years, the narrative form may be innate to how we think and remember. Stories and the sequence of ideas they impart are essential to understanding the world and our place in it. As Jews, our wandering in the wilderness, marked here by the sequence of 42 places at the beginning of Parashat Masei, appears to be essential to our very being as a people on a continuing journey in which we share history and destiny.

Most likely, this list comes from the most ancient sources. We can imagine that since the list is just a list, our ancestors heard it and knew exactly what these places represented. They had complete stories in mind, having full understanding of the events that took place there (as we do when we hear the words Watergate or Woodstock, for example). They probably thought those stories would always be remembered by the hearers of the list.

So one thing we learn is that even the most important story may be forgotten if the hearers do not pass it on. What happened at Rithmah or at Rimmon-perez? We will never know.

There are stories in our time, too, awesome and tragic ones, and they may also be forgotten. Hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated from centuries-old centers of Jewish life, and a generation was wiped out in Europe, and only a handful are still here to tell of it. This can also be true of our own histories in this renaissance of Jewish life in America. When we are gone, will these dramatic events become like Rithmah?

Let us remember to tell and retell the stories that help us understand our world and our place in it as Jews. Let us make time for stories in our Jewish lives at home and in our congregations. Let us support community projects that record our stories and the stories of those who have come before us. Let us listen and ask questions of our own families — parents and grandparents — and record and preserve their stories for ourselves and for the collective memory of our people. Let us tell and retell so that our common destiny will live on — leolam vaed (forever).

For Further Reading:

Studies in Bemidbar, Nehama Leibowitz (Israel: Haomanim Press, 1993).
A Celebration of Neurons, Robert Sylvester (ASCD,1997).

Reprinted with permission from the Union for Reform Judaism.


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