The Torah portion of this week includes the last four chapters of the book of Numbers or Bemidbar – 33, 34, 35 and 36. The name of the portion comes from the Hebrew word “massa” which means “journey”. Interestingly enough, Bemidbar 33 does not say that the people of Israel undertook one journey from Egypt to Canaan that took them 40 years. It actually says that they undertook 42 journeys! It is not the singular form of the word “massa” that is used, but the plural. No less than 6 times in the book of Numbers it is re-iterated that they undertook many journeys, not one journey. From Raämses in Egypt to Sukkot, was one journey. From Sukkot to Etam was another journey, and so forth. What was supposed to be one, single journey, ended up to be 42 journeys!
Many reasons are given for the fact that the Book of Numbers came up with this rather strange idea of referring to the wanderings through the wilderness as many journeys, as opposed to one journey. Some say it is to remind us that each person’s life consists of many journeys and that each journey is an exodus from the land of Egypt. Each journey is an effort to break free from bondage and to proceed towards fulfilment. Some say that the plural form of “massa” in Bemidbar should not be translated with the word “journeys” but rather with the word “stepping-stones”. Each journey in life consists of a number of stepping stones that need to be overcome in order to reach the final destination.
Whatever the explanation may be, I somehow feel that one of the main reasons why the one journey turned out to be many journeys, is because of the disobedience of the people of Israel and the fact that the nature and duration of the journey was extended far beyond the normal proportions, because of their repeated and stubborn refusal to listen to the words of Yahweh. The entire portion of Numbers 33-36 is a scale model of Torah as a whole. When one looks at it from a distance, it seems to be only about the journeys and the ways of the people of Israel. The places where they pitched their tents, the boundaries of the land that was promised to them, the cities of refuge that were designated for those who needed some sort of protection and the guarantees that were given to each tribe to ensure that they would not lose a part their inheritance. Their camps, their boundaries, their cities, their tribes, their inheritance and their journeys. And this is exactly where all the problems started. The people of Israel were not able to look beyond their own, petty journeys to the (one) journey that Yahweh had in mind for them. And what was this journey? This one journey was about following after Yahweh, carefully listening to his words and getting to know and to love Him better. It seems that the people of Israel constantly strayed from this journey and became entangled in all kinds of secondary journeys that were all about them and very little about Yahweh.
Numbers 33-36 is a description of 42 journeys and even more than 42 other issues related to the needs of the people of Israel. But at the end of each of the four chapters there is a reminder that it was really all about ONE journey – the journey that begins with Yahweh and belongs to Yahweh and ends with Yahweh, the journey that is about complete obedience to Him alone and embracing his majestic plan for his people. At the end of chapter 33 Yahweh reminds the people that if they would not obey his words, He would do to them the things that He planned to do to their enemies. At the end of chapter 34 Yahweh reminds them that it was He who gave and divided the heritance among the people of Israel. At the end of chapter 35 Yahweh reminds them that they should not defile the new land because He Himself was going to dwell in the midst of the people of Israel. And at the end of chapter 36 Yahweh reminds them that He was the One who gave them all the commandments and instructions “by the hand of Mosheh”. This is why Numbers 33-36 may be seen as a scale model, a prototype of the entire Torah. One may be tempted to think that the Torah is all about the people of Israel and the various journeys that they undertook. But in essence it is about Yahweh – the fact that He requires simple obedience, that we have received a wonderful inheritance out of his hand, that He desires to live in the midst of his people and that we should honour and love Him by obeying his commandments.
Many people are struggling to come to grips with the idea of “obeying the commandments”. Which commandments?, they would ask. Are we not living in a completely different time? And did Y’shua not fulfill the commandments on our behalf? In the 13th Century a book called “Sefer Hachinukh” (“Book of Education”) was published in Spain. The idea of the book was to discuss the 613 commandments of the Torah, trying to find an answer to the question whether these commandments were all still valid and binding at that time. The book was written from a Jewish perspective and it claimed that of the 613 commandments, only 339 could be observed in 13th Century Spain, mainly because of the destruction of the temple and the exile from the land of Israel. Among these 339 commandments are commandments for which a person becomes obligated only under certain circumstances, so that it is possible that never in ones lifetime will these circumstances come about and one may never have the opportunity to do them, for example the commandment to pay an employee on time (Lev 19:13 and Deut 24:15). Therefore, according to this book, the number of commandments that can be applied to every single person is only 270. Of these 270 commandments there are many that are only binding on certain days of the year, or at certain times of the day (like the commandments to keep the Shabbat and the annual feasts). The “Sefer Hachinukh” concluded that there were only 6 commandments of which the obligation was constant. The obligation of these 6 commandments did not depart from a person for a single moment throughout his lifetime. These 6 commandments were: (1) To believe in Yahweh; (2) To acknowledge that He is one; (3) To renounce idolatry; (4) To love Yahweh with all one’s heart; (5) To fear Yahweh and (6) To avoid temptation to sin. And then this book concludes with a surprising addition: These 6 commandments are symbolized by the verse, “Six cities of refuge shall they be for you” (Numbers 35:13).
We do not have to agree with the findings of “Sefer Hachinukh”. It was just an effort to systemize and classify the 613 commandments found in the Torah. There is nothing in Scriptures that points towards a connection between the 6 cities of refuge and the so-called 6 commandments of constant obligation. But the 6 commandments of constant obligation highlighted by this ancient document are very closely related to the one journey that Yahweh constantly set up before the eyes of his people. And it is very similar to the example set up for us by his Son, Y’shua the Messiah. When I learned about these 6 commandments, it reminded me of Y’shua’s temptation in the wilderness, which was all about the last of the 6 commandments (“to avoid temptation to sin”) but included each one of the preceding 5 commandments, as well. Throughout his encounter with Satan, during that episode, Y’shua showed that He firmly believed in Yahweh and the fact that He was the only Elohim. He was not going to walk into the trap of idolatry (“Him alone you shall serve”). He also clearly showed that He feared Yahweh and loved Him with all his heart (“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh”).
It is true that there may be a number of commandments that we are not required (or even able) to fulfil in our day. However, let us not fall into the trap of constantly looking for all kinds of reasons why we may skip certain commandments today. An attitude such as this will almost certainly sidetrack us back into the habit of engaging in our own self-centered journeys and losing sight of the most important journey of all – the journey alongside Y’shua where we recognize that man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh. Let us not forget that when Y’shua said that He came to fulfil the Torah, what He was really trying to bring across, was that He did not come to ignore or to dilute or to scrap the Torah, but that He simply came to DO the Torah and that THIS was exactly the example that He had left for us. In the Hebrew vocabulary, to fulfil something is to DO something. The opposite of fulfilling the Torah is looking for excuses NOT to obey the commandments – like Israel did when they constantly became engaged in their own journeys and subsequently had to bear the consequences for not focusing on the ONE JOURNEY that Yahweh had set before them. Let us never stop believing in Yahweh. Let us keep on reminding one another that there is no one like Him. Let us constantly turn our backs upon every single trace of idolatry in our lives. Let us love Yahweh with all our hearts and love those around us, like ourselves. Let us fear Yahweh and honour Him more than we honour our own ambitions. And let us stand with Y’shua in our commitment not to give in to the temptation of allowing our own shortsighted projects to interfere with the most important journey of all – the journey that leads to the everlasting kingdom of Yahweh! These 6 lanes of our journey will eventually become to us like 6 cities of refuge – principles of redemption, commitment and dedication that will ensure that we do not lose our way and our footing in this life!