Matot-Masei: The Journey Is Not Taken Alone

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

While I’m on vacation it
seems appropriate to bring to your attention that the second of this
week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Masei, is all about traveling and
journeys. Moshe recounts for the people all the places they made their
camp, from the days of Egypt to the borders of the Land of Israel. For
forty-nine verses of Bamidbar/Numbers 33, all Moshe does is recount
where they’ve been before, which leaves our friend Rashi with an
implied question: why do we need to read the “Triptik” (ah, the
pre-Mapquest days. . . ) again, since it’s all been recorded in
earlier chapters of the Torah?

Rashi gives two answers, the first of which is that Moshe recalled the
journeys in so that the people (including later generations,
presumably) would remember God’s kindness to the Israelites in
providing resting places along the long way towards the Holy Land.
Rashi does what I call “rabbi math” (i.e., don’t try this on your
1040) in order to show that the middle 38 years of the journey only
contained about half the number of total re-locations- i.e., most of
the moving from place to place was in the first and last years of the
40, so that there really wasn’t that much “journeying” as such over
the 40 years at all.

Rashi’s second explanation comes from an earlier sage, R. Tanchuma,
who offers a parable:

“It is like a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a far away
place to have him healed. On the way back, the father began citing all
the stages of their journey, saying to him, ‘This is where we sat,
here we were cold, here you had a headache, etc.’ ” (Rashi on
Bamidbar/Numbers 33:1)

R. Tanchuma’s parable begs two questions: first, who do the characters
of the story represent in terms of the Torah narrative, and second,
why is it important for the son to know what happened along the way to
the place where he was healed? Isn’t it enough to know that everything
turned out OK in the end?

In many religious parables and allegories, the character of
the “King” represents God, and if that’s what R. Tanchuma meant, then
we have to understand that Moshe was following God’s instructions to
review all the stages of the journey. In that case, then it seems that
Rashi’s first answer and his second answer are the same: the review of
the stages of the journey is a praise of God’s kindness, both in
providing for resting places along the way and in staying with the
people in their times of trouble at various points.

However, perhaps another possibility is that the “King” in R.
Tanchuma’s parable is not God, but Moshe, and if so, that creates the
problem of understanding how Moshe brought the people- the “son”-
“back” home, since Moshe never came from the land of Israel. I have no
particular answer to that problem, but on the other hand, this reading
makes R. Tanchuma’s parable more poignant and human, casting the
relationship between Moshe and the people as one of parent and child.
Moshe comes across as more of a care-giver than a law-giver, more a
shepherd than a judge .Perhaps in recalling the stages of the journey,
he is really talking about his long relationship with the people,
saying: “here were all the places I took care of you as your leader
and friend.”

Now, perhaps it’s understandable that Moshe would like a little bit of
gratitude from the people, given that he knows that his days are soon
drawing to an end, but there is also something touching about the idea
that this long-serving leader would ask the people to remember all
they’ve been through together. In this reading, it feels to me that
these verses are about Moshe’s love and kindness for the people- which
perhaps is what he’d like them to remember about him, rather than the
times he was a strict judge and stern lawgiver.

Returning to Rashi, perhaps we can say that he offers two different
reasons for recounting each stage of the journey because the people
had multiple thanks to give, both to God and to Moshe. If so, then the
long passage at the beginning of chapter 33 is more than a log-book of
campsites, but is paradigmatic of all human journeys: we take them
with God, and we take them with our friends and loved ones. To God we
give thanks for the blessings and goodness along the way, and if we
are blessed enough to have companions and family who strengthen us, we
give thanks for the amazing gift that human hearts can be loyal and
loving. Remembering the stages of the journey, in this light, isn’t
about nostalgia, it’s about recognizing to Whom thanks are due, both
in the Heavens above and right here on earth.

Shabbat Shalom,


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