Mattot-Maasei: The Miracle is the Journey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

Our thoughts and prayers are for peace this week- the world is crying
out for peace, but there is still so much needless war. . . . . .

Our Torah portion this week is Mattot-Masei, a double portion, which
concludes the book of Bamidbar/ Numbers. Among the stories and laws of
the double parsha are a recounting of all the places where the
Israelites camped from the time they left Egypt until arriving on the
far side of the Jordan river.

“These are the journeys of the Israelites who left the land of Egypt
in their legions, under the charge of Moshe and Aharon. Moshe
recorded their starting points for their journeys according to the
word of the Lord, and these were their journeys with their starting
points. . . . . ” (Numbers/Bamidbar 33:1-2)

What follows is a large chunk of text with the names of all those
places, which raises a question among commentators: so, nu, what is
this, a travelogue, that we need all the names of every campsite?
Kidding aside, it’s a serious question about the nature of sacred
text: the ancient and medieval rabbis took it as self-evident that the
Torah teaches theological truth, not merely historical data. So if the
Torah is telling us “first they camped here, then there, then over
there. . . . “, it must have a theological purpose in doing so.

One perspective comes from Maimonides (A.K.A. Rambam), the philosopher
who is quoted in the Torah commentary of the later scholar
Nachmanides, (A.K.A. Ramban.) Rambam explains that the Torah goes into
great length to tell us every place the Israelites camped because it’s
part of the larger narrative of God’s greatness and mercy. In fact,
even with all the miracles which the Torah describes, from the
splitting of the Sea to the giving of the Torah and all the rest, the
most amazing miracle of all is that the Israelite nation survived on
its 40 year journey, with the manna falling every day and the people
moving along from one point to the next for an entire generation.
Thus, for Rambam, the campsites are named because knowing the details
of the journey helps us be grateful to God for the entire miraculous
history of our people, which is more amazing than any particular piece
of it.

Of course, what’s true for a people is also true for a person: with
all the ups and downs and detours and travails and triumphs and
challenges and successes and failures and joys and sorrows that a life
can bring, the journey from one stage to another may be the greatest
gift of all. Just the fact that we don’t have to get stuck at one
“campsite” over a life’s journey is pretty amazing- we are always
capable of greater growth and getting closer to the unfolding of our
spiritual potential. Reflecting on the journey can bring us to
amazement and gratitude- precisely the emotions that miracles evoke,
if only we open our hearts to feel them.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- before you go onto further Torah study in the links below, take a
moment to read some of the letters from Masorti (Conservative) rabbis
in Israel, doing amazing work under great stress in the current
situation. To help the Masorti movement bring comfort, healing and
refuge to the people of Israel, please consider donating, through the
link at the top of the page:

Now, as usual, you can find a summary of the double portion and
further commentary in the first link, and the relevant Torah texts in
the second:

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