Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4
San Francisco native Robert Frost famously wrote, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both.” Life is a series of choices about which path to take. Although we must ultimately pick one road to follow in any given moment in life, there is nothing preventing us from wondering, “What if?” What if I had gone in the other direction or said “no” instead of “yes”? Yes, we may get lucky and get the chance to walk down the other road to see where it leads, but there may also be blessing in the path we did take.
As we read the final Torah portion in Bamidbar/Numbers, I imagine that the Israelites were filled with perpetual wonder of “what if” about their 40-year journey in the wilderness. What if they had gone a different route, hadn’t sinned or had more faith in God? With the Israelites encamped at the Jordan River, just on the other side of the land of Israel, Parashat Masei begins, “These were the marches of the Israelites … Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Lord” (Numbers 33:1-2). In total, the Torah accounts for every one of the 42 stops along the journey.
Maimonides suggests that the reason for mentioning each of these 42 stops was to put the “what if” question aside, suggesting that each stop along the way was part of a collective narrative, reflecting on a major event that happened in each place, some miraculous and some unfortunate.
A midrash from Bamidbar Rabbah reminds us that at the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites escaped from the Egyptians. In the Wilderness of Zin, the Jews received the manna. In Rephidim, the Israelites first received water when Moses struck the rock, and in the Paran, 10 of the 12 scouts returned with a negative report on the land of Israel. Although the list goes on, naming a specific event linked to every stop, the Torah focuses on how our lives are changed based on the roads we have taken.
Author and lecturer Rabbi Ilana Grinblat wrote that one way of summarizing the journeys throughout the Five Books of Moses is by looking at the last word of each book of the Torah. “The Book of Genesis tells the story from the creation of the world through the death of Joseph. The last word of the Book of Genesis is b’mitzrayim (‘in Egypt’). This is a perfect segue into the Book of Exodus, which is all about the Israelites’ slavery and the Exodus from Egypt. The last word of the Book of Shemot is ma’saehem, ‘their journeys,’ which leads beautifully into the Book of Leviticus, which is about the people’s desert travels.
“The last word of Vayikra is Sinai, the mountain on which the Israelites received the Torah. The last word of Numbers is Jericho, a place near the Jordan River and one of the last stops along the trek. Finally, the last word of Deuteronomy is Israel, the ultimate destination” (Ziegler’s Today’s Torah: Parashat Mattot-Masei, July 2012).
What’s clever about this interpretation is that it creates a linkage between each leg of the journey of the Jewish people from the creation of the world to their arrival in the Holy Land. Grinblat notes, “Taken together, those five words: ‘b’mitzrayim (in Egypt), ma’saehem (their journeys), Sinai, Jericho and Israel’ are a concise summary of the Torah. These words are like a current flowing through the Torah — pulling from one book to the other, moving the Jewish people forward” (ibid).
There will always be a sense of curiosity about what would have happened had we taken the other path. Yet, at the end of the day, the paths we choose in life become our narrative, a way of living a life of purpose and meaning. Frost beautifully concludes, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
For the Jewish people, our journey in life is far from straight and far from easy. But because of where we’ve been — the obstacles we have surmounted and the destinations that we have come to — we appreciate how we’ve moved forward instead of bemoaning “what if”: “And that has made all the difference.”
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.