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Guest Sermons and Commentaries

Mattot-Masei/Numbers 32:1 to 33:49 A Torah Introduction - By Harvey Freedenberg



Shabbat Shalom. This week's parasha, Mattot-Masei, begins with an unusual conversation. In it, representatives of the tribes of Reuven and Gad, who we are told "owned cattle in very great numbers" come before Moses and the other leaders of the community and tell them, in so many words, we're very happy here east of the Jordan River, thank you very much, and we'd just as soon pitch our tents in this neighborhood rather than cross the river into the Promised Land.

 As you can imagine, this request isn't received well by Moses (who knows he never will enter the land himself and would give anything to avoid that sad fate), to say the least. He likens these tribes to the ten scouts from Numbers ch. 13, who returned with a pessimistic report about the ability of the Israelites to conquer the land of Canaan. "Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?" Moses asks them, all but accusing them of cowardice, asserting that they "will bring calamity upon all [G-d's] people" if they remain behind.

 Whether it's through shame or enlightened self-interest, the Reuvenites and Gadites relent and vow to serve as shock troops for the advancing army, but they inform Moses that once the land has been conquered they will return to the towns they have built for their children and the sheepfolds they have constructed for their flocks. "Whatever the Lord has spoken concerning your servants, that we will do," they say.

 From there we move on to the beginning of Parashat Masei, most of whose first 49 verses consist of a largely unadorned account of the "marches of the Israelites," as they traveled from "Etham and turned about toward Pi-hachiroth, which faces Baal-zephon, and they encamped before Migdol."

You get the idea.

When I introduced Parashat Masei in 2011, I compared reading the recitation of those travels it to being taken as a child, against my will, to the home of a relative or friend to sit in front of a darkened screen while an adult clicked noisily through a carousel of slides from a recent vacation.

I'm happy to have the chance to revisit what I've since learned Rabbi Arthur Green calls this "seemingly obscure portion," especially in conjunction with the concluding verses of Mattot with which it's fortuitously paired in this portion of the triennial cycle, because I fear I seriously underestimated it on first reading.

Indeed, in an essay entitled "Resting Places on the Journey," in the book The Modern Men's Torah Commentary, Rabbi Green observes that "if there is a new Kabbalah" he has "long suspected that its biblical basis will be in these opening verses of Masei."

Juxtaposed with the portion of Mattot we read today there's a fascinating contrast between the desire of the two tribes to stay put east of the Jordan, even at the expense of not entering the land that G-d has promised them, and the story of wandering that's recounted in Masei's travelogue.

Doesn't that juxtaposition somehow sum up the tension in each of our souls between the desire for security and comfort and our understanding that life is "a journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage," in the words of Rabbi Alvin Fine's beloved poem?

It's understandable that these tribes would want to rest from nearly 40 years of wandering, all along the way having to battle hostile tribes and an inhospitable environment. 

That conflict carries through to our own day. Characterizing our generation as "wanderers," Rabbi Green states that the "The decision to stop wandering was a hard one; many of us never quite come to peace with it. When we do settle, it is often to yet newer places. Each generation, so it begins to seem, seeks out a new place to call home and make its nest."

And even if our life doesn't involve a perpetual physical journey, aren't all of us, even those who, like some of us here today, have never moved more than a few miles from the place where we were born, on a lifelong journey? 

We understand, again in the words of Rabbi Fine's poem, that life's journey involves a passage "from innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing; from foolishness to discretion and then perhaps, to wisdom."

When we reach the point where we feel we've learned everything there is to learn and know everything there is to know, haven't we suffered a form of spiritual death, even if we are physically alive? As my dear friend Rose Blecker once reminded me walking into minyan one Friday morning, "We don't live long enough to learn everything important."

For each of us, then, it seems to me that life plays out in a perpetual tension between the desire to establish a place of security and comfort and what should always be an eagerness to experience new places, new people and new ideas.

So may each of us come to attain a level of insight that allows us to reconcile these urges and understand that "We shall not cease from exploration," as the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, "and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive  we started and know the place for the first time."          

Wednesday, October 27 2021, 21 Cheshvan 5782