Parsha Masei begins the final narrative of the Torah and takes place on the veritable eve of the Israelites’ war to conquer Canaan. The Parsha begins with a recollection of the journey which had been undertaken, from the land of Egypt to the eastern bank of the Jordan River. The Israelites’ had been led by God and Moses on a circuitous path, at first to shelter them from encounters with hostile tribes and then to bide time until the older generations had died. In the approximately forty-two years since they had left Egypt, the Israelites endured a peripatetic existence; they erected and struck camp forty-two times. Moving so many people, the Torah recounts a population in excess of three million people, was necessarily an enormous undertaking.
Several of the places mentioned in the itinerary are not found in the prior narratives of the Torah, which described the time period in question: conversely, several of the places already mentioned in the Torah are not included in the summary. The most glaring omission is Mt. Sinai, the most important place visited by the Israelites. Many of the sites that were named by Moses remain obscure, thus we only approximate the route taken by the Israelites. We can also only approximate the boundaries of the Promised Land.
In Parsha Lech Lecha God entered into a covenant with Abraham: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River”. These lands would encompass the area between present day Bagdad and Cairo. The borders of the Promised Land are next referred to in Parsha Mishpatim. There, God told Moses that Promised Lands would stretch: “from the Sea of Reeds to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the Wilderness until the River”. These boundaries are not known with any degree of certainty.
This week’s Parsha again delineates the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, and expands on the shortened description previously recorded in Parsha Mishpatim. However, only few of the names used in the Torah were familiar even to the earliest commentators; and many of the locations have yet to be conclusively identified by present day archaeologists There are however some landmarks which are still familiar. For example, the Salt Sea is likely the Dead Sea. The ascent of Akrabbim, the Scorpions Pass, is also very familiar to travelers. Its was a winding path located near the southern shore of the Dead Sea, connecting Sodom and the Aravah to the central Negev and the town of Beersheba.
Throughout its history the actual boundaries of Eretz Yisrael were constantly in flux. The lands captured by Joshua included land that lay to the east of the Jordan River, but not the lands of present day Lebanon, which the Torah appeared to include. During the reign of King David, the realm of Eretz Yisrael was at is most expansive and surpassed the borders described in the Torah. That realm, called by some “Greater Israel” extended in the east to an arc running between Damascus and Amman. The borders of Eretz Yisrael however contracted over time as the nation divided into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and as powerful neighbors began to appreciate the trade routes that ran through it. Interestingly, the borders of Eretz Yisrael still remain uncertain.