Parashat Mattot-Massei 5777

Rabbi René Pfertzel, 21 July 2017

Parashat Massei opens with no less than forty-two names of encampments where the Children of Israel put up their tents on their way from slavery to freedom. “Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Eternal” (Numbers 33:2 – JPS translation). Vayyikhtov Moshe, and Moses wrote down, as if he wanted to keep a precise record of all the different steps leading from the narrow places of Egypt (a play of word with Mitzrayyim, Egypt, and metzarim, the narrow places), to the freedom that will be obtained in the Promised Land. They are indeed a few miles away, and a few weeks away, and before entering this new step of the collective narrative, Moses felt the need to recap. This will be the whole point of the book starting next week, the Deuteronomy, a recapitulation of the entire Torah/collective narrative.

Each place is a story in itself. Each encampment saw people interacting with each other. Each time the Israelites stopped somewhere and camped for a while, they lived their lives, cooking, sleeping, laughing, or being sad. They made love, argued, rested, or repaired their tools. The Torah does not record these petty details of daily life. Suffice to know where they stopped, and let our imagination fill the gaps.

Each day is unique and can never be relived. The sum of all these days constitutes the story of our life, and one should be very cautious not to waste too much of these days. Some days are more important than the others, as are the few weeks from now until the moment the Israelites cross the Jordan. One may wonder (as one of our students in the LJS Exploring Judaism class asked): why has Torah stopped its narrative precisely before this moment? Why don’t we follow them in their first steps in the Promised Land? I would suggest that the answer lies in these verses. We started Torah with Bereshit, the beginning, and we are about to end it before the next Bereshit, when they finally reach their goal and cross the river Jordan. The whole Torah is a journey, first of individuals, then of a group towards themselves. Reading these forty-two names provides the necessary milestones to understand the whole process of transformation. Each of them, even the humblest, is of the same importance, because each of them has been an opportunity to grow. Maybe the journey matters more than the destination?

The final destination was their ultimate horizon, their drive to move on, to go forward despite the hardship of the wilderness. Only two of the old generation would eventually step in the new world, and yet, they were all driven by this dream. They had a sense of purpose that sustained them even when they despaired. They were at the same time deeply rooted in their past, marking all the steps of their journey, and leaning towards the future. The present, our present, only makes sense in this tension between the past and the future. Many of us are currently having some time off, some well-deserved vacation, whether at home or abroad. May this time be for you a time of reflection on the different encampments you built in your lives, so that you may face the future with confidence and strength.

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