Matot-Masei: “A Hundred Names for Sand”

They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. They set out from Etham, and turned back to Pi-hahiroth, which faces Baal-zephon; and they camped before Migdol. They set out from Pi-hahiroth . . . . (Num. 33:6-8)

Numbers 33:1-49 enumerates 42 stations of Israel’s wilderness journey, between Ramses (the starting point in Egypt) and the final encampment at Jordan.  Interpreters have puzzled over the need for this summary.  My favorite explanation comes from the 19th century commentary of Dovber Salomon.

“The summation of the wilderness itinerary was made for the benefit of the generation that died in the wilderness.  Just as I have heard the Bedouin have a hundred names for sand, so for that generation each of these wilderness locales had its distinctive texture and sensibility.  What looks to us like a bare list was to them a diary, each destination with its memories, its miracles, its trials.    Most importantly, this itinerary served to remind them that, despite their failings, they had carried their newfound sacred legacy a long way across the desert, even if it fell to their children, rather than them, to enter the land.”

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