The People of the Journey & the Journey of the People: Matot-Mas’ei

L and I are introduced warmly because “you’re both from Israel! isn’t it wonderful?!” I quickly notice that my Hebrew is too fast for her and that she has an accent I can’t quite place. The hospital worker who made the connection says that L needs assistance and maybe I could help? Sure. She just needs someone to walk with her and her two children across the street to an emergency room a couple of blocks away.
It doesn’t take us long to realize that we come from very different sides of Israel as she’s from a large Palestinian village in the “West Bank”. 6000 miles from here this would matter so much it might be the end of the conversation, but in NYC, somehow’ almost magically, it’s possible. On the eve of Rosh Hodesh Av, when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple and all its ramifications, exile and dispersion, I’m reminded of what are (so far) my 3 favorite words in Gemara (Baba Batra 14:b): —- Shkoyach (good job!) Moses, for breaking them, says (supposedly) G-d regarding the smashed Tablets. Somehow, good things – might at times – come out of the broken shards scattered around us.
When it’s time for good byes, we hug once and again. The 5-year-old tugs at me, “Don’t I get a hug too?” I think, this evening was one of those times.
Reuven and Gad approach Moses with a scary request: Even after this whole journey, on the verge on entering the Land, they wish to be allowed not to go into the Land; to create the first diaspora, purposefully, not through a horrible disaster but through a valid, different scale of priorities, and a new promise: for those “overseas” to help those in the Land, to be there for each other.
Ultimately, per later prophets, we’re taught that everybody should be and will be in the Land, one day, but for now, that history needs completion; that we don’t do things all at once, that life takes time, for us as individuals and as a People.
This week’s reading is made of two Torah portions: Matot – Mas’ei, literally meaning: The Staffs and The Journeys of”. I am especially fascinated by the latter, a grammatical construct that needs another word, that begs for the rest: the journeys of… ? tell me more! Ah, sorry, it’s the end of the Book; you’ll have to write in your own…
Of course, the Torah – past the portion’s name – continues the verse (Numbers 33:1-2):
אֵ֜לֶּה מַסְעֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָצְא֛וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְצִבְאֹתָ֑ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃
These were the journeys of the Children of Israel who went out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.
וַיִּכְתֹּ֨ב מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־מוֹצָאֵיהֶ֛ם לְמַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־פִּ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וְאֵ֥לֶּה מַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם לְמוֹצָאֵיהֶֽם׃
Moses recorded the starting points of their various journeys as directed by the LORD, and their journeys by their starting points are as follows:
This is followed by a list of 42 sites, described rhythmically with “and they traveled from… and they camped at…”. In Hebrew from is described with the letter מ- mem, which (coincidentally) equals 40, while at is described with the letter ב- bet, which equals 2, altogether 42.
The list is often challenging to read, like a strange “laundry list” which makes no sense. Some of these places, we have never heard of. For example, we don’t know that this particular journey passed through a specific place called חרדה – Charada (Numbers 33:24), but we might wonder, as Charada in Hebrew means – anxiety, and how fitting for this to be right in the heart of the journey! The place we left, is far; the place we’re going to, is nowhere in sight; it’s just us and this desert. Have we chosen correctly to leave the “flesh pots of Egypt”? should we have stayed? Gone elsewhere? Plod along? How do we know that tomorrow will be better? That we did right by our kids? By or forefathers? By our time on this earth? Each moment is our best guess. At times, we feel confident and secure, and at times, anxious. For the Torah “slips”, either one is an integral part of the journey.
We’re often called “The People of the Book”, but I think even more so, we are the People of the Journey. Many years later, a famous Chasidic story will tell us about Reb Yitzchak who traveled far to look for the treasure in his dreams, only to find it back at home. The verse that talks about the “starting point of our journeys” maybe teaches just this: in Hebrew, motza – is indeed, the starting point, but the same root, matza (not matza the Pesach bread, which is spelled differently), is also a “find”. The Children of Israel return to the Land of their forefathers, where it all begun. Our own journey might, at the end of the day, lead us back home, to find and rediscover our very origins as a new found treasure once again.

Shabbat Shalom.

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