“The Forest of Sadness.”
That’s the last stop recorded in the Sinai travel itinerary. The second parsha in our double-reading this week is called Masei – literally, “journeys” – and it begins by listing the forty-two places where the Children of Israel camped during their trek through the desert.
We are at the end of the Book of Numbers. The forty years of wandering is almost over. And just before the Torah begins to map out plans to cross over into the Land of Israel, we are given a chance to pause, and to look back at where we’ve been. These place names form a kind of tour through our collective memory, each coordinate recalling a familiar episode in this nomadic period of our national history.
Until suddenly… we come ominously into the Forest of Sadness. We’ve never seen this name before. What is this strange place? And what pain does it hold, there in the shadows of its trees?
The name, in Hebrew, is Avel Sheetim (אבל שטים), and it is often translated as something like “The Meadow of Sheetim.” But the words literally mean: “The Mourning (avel) at the Acacia Trees (sheetim).” Now, this is apparently the same place that was mentioned earlier, at the beginning of Chapter 25. But there it was just called Sheetim – ‘Acacias.’ Why is it suddenly prefaced with this extra word, Avel – which has such distinct overtones of grief?
Two incredibly rich answers, offered at different moments in the long history of Torah commentary, both attribute the “sadness” in this forest to Moses.
In the first, taken from the rabbinic period, we are told that Moses was crying for us. The Midrash Tanchuma first takes us back to Chapter 25, to the original stop at Sheetim, and to a scene where the Israelites were “whoring with the Moabites” and “worshipping their God.” The midrash then keenly reminds us that in verse 6 of that chapter it says that:
The whole Israelite community were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
כָּל–עֲדַת בְּנֵי–יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
So there was, explicitly, a sadness over there by the Acacias! What was it about? And why specifically mention it now, 8 chapters later? The midrash answers:
Why were they crying? Because it was at that point that they dropped their hands in despair.
What is this like? It is like a princess who is all dressed up in her bridal gown, with her chariot awaiting to take her to the wedding… when suddenly she is discovered sleeping with another man! Her parents and relatives would surely drop their hands in despair.
So it was with Israel, that at the end of forty years, when they were camped on the banks of the Jordan, ready to cross over into the Land of Israel – that they suddenly broke out in mass orgies. So Moses and the righteous dropped their hands in despair.
למה בוכים, שנתרפו ידיהן באותה שעה, משל למה הדבר דומה, לבת מלך שנתקשטה ליכנס בחופה, לישב באפריון, ונמצאת מקלקלת עם אחר, נתרפו ידי אוהביה וקרוביה, כך ישראל בסוף ארבעים שנה חנו על הירדן לעבור אל ארץ ישראל, ושם נפרצו בזנות, ורפו ידי משה ויהי צדיקים עמו
So close! Here they were, at the very last stop before crossing over. The Promised Land was within sight. But they just couldn’t keep it together.
Sometimes, the midrash suggests, people are like that. They love someone deeply, and they want so badly to be faithful and true. But at the very last minute, on the night before their wedding, somehow the pressure is too much. And in a fit of nervous energy they go out and do something stupid and ruin everything. As if they were deliberately sabotaging their own happiness.
It’s so pathetic, so hard to watch. All Moses – our “best man” – can do at this point is throw down his hands and cry.
Or… maybe he was crying for a different reason.
Our second answer is taken from the medieval period, from the great Don Isaac Abarbanel, a Portuguese statesman and philosopher who also managed to be one of the great Biblical commentators of the period. Abarbanel offers a penetrating analysis of Moses’ psychology at this moment. It’s a beautiful piece, worth quoting in full. He picks up, again, right at this strange name that ends the list of places in our parsha:
When Moses had finished writing down all of the journeys, from the day they left Egypt until they came to the Plains of Moab on the banks of the Jordan in Jericho, he remembered that God had said to him, “you will not cross the Jordan.” He saw that his days of reckoning and his end had come, and that this is where he would no doubt die.
So he made a sign for himself from the name of that place, and called it Avel-Sheetim, the ‘Mourning of the Acacias,’ for this is where they would mourn his death.
And because of this, he worried, and was very sad, and said, “I toiled, but rest I never found. I took this people out of Egypt, and I led them through the desert for forty years, to bring them into the Promised Land. And I then came to the bank of the Jordan, but I was not allowed to cross over and deliver it to my people.
Instead, another man will prepare it and deliver it to them. It was I who planted the fig tree, but I will not eat its fruit. Joshua, my attendant, will eat it, and the Land will be remembered for him. For he will conquer it and deliver it to Israel. And my name will never be mentioned again.”
And because of this, his heart twisted inside of him, and all of his bones trembled.
כאשר השלים מרע“ה לכתוב כל המסעות מיום צאתם ממצרי‘ עד בואם בערבות מואב על ירדן ירחו שה‘ אמר אליו לא תעבור את הירדן. ראה שבאו ימי הפקדה ימי השלום ששם ימות בלי ספק ולקח סימן לעצמו ממקום תחנותם שמה שהיה אבל השטים כי שם התאבלו עליו. והיה מפני זה דואג ועצב מאד באמרו יגעתי ומנוחה לא מצאתי אני הוצאתי את העם הזה ממצרים והולכתים במדבר ארבעים שנה להנחילם את הארץ ובאתי על שפת הירדן ולא זכיתי לעבור עליה ולא להנחילנה לעמי אבל איש אחר יחנכנה וינחילנה להם ואני נצרתי התאנה ולא אכלתי את פריה ויהושע משרתי יאכלנה ותקרא הארץ על שמו שיכבוש אותה מידי העמים וינחילנה לישראל ולא יזכר שמי עוד עליה. ומפני שהיה על זה נהפך לבו בקרבו רחפו כל עצמותיו
In this version, poor Moses wasn’t crying for us. He was crying for himself.
Here he had led a revolution, delivered a revelation, and defended against constant rebellion. Sometimes he defended us before God. Sometimes he defended God before us. Always his job was hard. But he devoted his whole self to it. Devoted his whole life to it.
Yet for one mistake, for losing his temper in one moment, God took from Moses the only thing that would have made it all worthwhile: the chance to finish the journey. The man who made the return to the homeland possible would die on the other side of the river.
It does seem unfair. Not just to Moses, but to any reader who has been following along with this story. It is one of the most tragic things in all of the Torah. This is a sadness we can surely share with Moses.
But if that were not enough, Abarbanel is also describing an even greater sadness. His Moses is so overcome with bitterness and grief that he begins to lose his grip on reality. He becomes convinced that not only will he die – he will be forgotten.
How could he think such a thing?! The leader, the prophet, the national hero? Could he really believe that when he was gone, no one would remember his name?
Only a man consumed by a massive, all-consuming, terrible sadness could entertain such a delusional thought. This is a great sadness indeed – the kind of sadness that deserves to have a whole forest named for it.
Oh God, what will You do? Will You leave Moses in this forest all alone?
Abarbanel actually has an answer to that question, an answer that also explains much of the rest of our parsha. For immediately after its opening list of places, the parsha moves on to: the commandment of settling the land and ridding it of idolatry; the mapping of its borders; the division of the land amongst the tribes; and the establishment of special garrison cities for Levites and for criminal refugees.
Why command all these things right now, Abarbanel asks? Why not either give these laws earlier, along with all the other laws at Mount Sinai, or later, when Joshua actually takes them into the land and all these issues become relevant?
The answer, he says, is that all of this is mentioned right after Moses names the ‘Forest of Sadness,’ specifically, “in order to comfort Moses, and to speak to his heart.” God has heard Moses crying, heard his fear of being forgotten. And so God says: Look, take these things, command them to the people, and then you will always be remembered for them. Even when they leave you behind, they will take your words with them, and through these commandments, it is as if you will live on in the Land. “And with this,” Abarbanel concludes, “your mind will be at peace, just as if you had crossed over yourself.”
ובזה יתפייס דעתך כאלו עברת בארץ
I imagine that if Moses did find this sense of peace, it was above all through the detailed mapping of the land given in our parsha – which seems at first so unnecessary. I’d like to think that this map is here because God said to Moses, “You want to see the Promised Land? Close your eyes. I’ll describe it to you. Put your hand in Mine, I’ll trace out the shape for you.”
I hope, when Moses spoke out the borders of the Land to the Children of Israel, that in his mind, he was already there – flying above, surveying every hill and valley, from north to south. I hope it felt so real that it was just as good as actually being there.
I hope Moses found his way out of the forest. I hope he made it home.