This week’s double parasha marks the end of the book of Numbers. In the second portion, there is a curious list of 42 places where the Israelites stopped during their wanderings in the desert. There they are, poised to enter the Promised Land, about to conclude a journey which has taken 40 years, and Moses recounts a small travelogue. Interestingly, he does not say anything about any of the places, he simply recites the list of names. It was as though he only had limited space and had to get in as many memories as he could. So rather than give details about what happened, he just says: there was Sukkot then Etham and Migdol…
I imagine the Israelites listening to the stories of those places and remembering what happened there; laughing, smiling, cringing, crying. Through that list they are inspired to recall the people who walked beside them during their travels; many of whom no longer walk the earth. They recall the moments of pride, the times they were ashamed of their actions and so much more. It is interesting to see which places are left off and which included. There is, for example, no recalling of Mount Sinai, the place of revelation — perhaps the most momentous event of their entire travels. Instead, the smaller moments are recalled; those which might otherwise have been lost in the sands of time.
There is much discussion in the commentaries about what this list of place names is trying to teach us, because we do not have the memories of the Israelites to be triggered. We did not have the experiences – we only have the stories of them – and so the list might seem dry and somewhat irrelevant. But, just as with everything else in the Torah, the sages of our tradition have extracted great meaning from just a few verses. One of my favorite explanations is from the Apter Rebbe. He refers to another section in the Torah portion which commands the creation of six cities of refuge to which people can flee. The Rebbe notes that there are six cities of refuge and six words in the shema; 42 places in Moses’ travelogue and 42 words in the veahavta prayer. This teaches us, he says, that just as people found refuge in the six cities, we should find refuge in the shema:
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad,
Listen Israel Adonai is your God Adonai is One.
When people cry out, we need to shema – to listen – to hear their cries, to hear their pain; and then veahavta – to reach out in love – in openness with compassion and justice. Shema Yisrael – listen Israel – our tradition calls to us. Listen to the pain, the hurt and the suffering; and work for justice with an open heart and with love. The Israelite journey was about finding a place where we could be one. It was about finding a home away from persecution and pain; a place where we could live true to our principles and our faith: the cities of refuge.
We fled the persecution and slavery of pharaoh; we journeyed to 42 places, healing, becoming one, learning to love and to be; and then we arrived at the Promised Land. So many are in that same place, on that journey — seeking hope and safety, a future for themselves and their families. Judaism, the Torah, and our parashah all call upon us to listen. To hear and to act, to create cities of refuge, places of healing, of welcome, and of love.