There is a story about a wise, kind, generous man who recognized that his good fortune was a gift from God and so he needed to share it. So much of a mensch was he, that it was decreed in Heaven that his three sons should each be granted a wish of their hearts. Elijah the Prophet was dispatched for the task and gave them what they wished for. But because only the youngest was paying close enough attention to absorb their father’s lessons, only he could hold onto his wish. And so the older children ended up living small, arrogant, petty lives.
This week’s torah portion, Ma’sei – journeys – drives home the same lesson. It opens with what appears to be a dull list of “We journeyed to point A and camped there. Then we left point A, journeyed to Point B, and camped there” – about 40 different times. The recap takes place while we are in the aravah, in the desert of Moab, at the very end of the book of B’midbar (in the Wilderness), the next to last book of the Torah.
As soon as a Torah list starts to make my eyes glaze over, I switch to thinking – there must be more to this than meets my eye. What is the spiritual meaning buried here? I’d like to suggest a couple.
First, Moses tells us that our journeys start in Egypt, on the 15th day of the first month—Nisan, the day after we observed our first Pesach – when we packed our bags, grabbed our matzah and headed to the Red Sea. Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, the narrow place of constriction and borders. Spiritually, the journey from Mitzrayim is always the journey beyond the borders that limit us, the narrow straits of habit, convention, and fears of the unknown, whatever oppresses us.
As the children of Israel were reminded of going from point Y to point Z, they were standing on the brink of the Promised Land, a land where they could no longer collect manna every morning, their shoes would finally wear out and they would have to fend for themselves in new, untested ways. If ever a group might need encouragement, this would be it. They needed to be reminded of their experiences to move into the unknown.
Second, notice that half of each journey Moses mentioned was about the encampment – the sitting. The journeys in the Torah are rarely – if ever – just about physical place. They are about spiritual journeys. From the moment Abraham answered the call to Lech Lecha – go forth to himself – each journey we have taken has been one toward spiritual growth. And if you don’t stop along the way, when do you assimilate what you learn? If you don’t have a chance to chew over the experience, will you learn from it? This is especially true of our mistakes, missteps, missing the mark. If the children of Israel didn’t take time to learn from all the kvetching, from Korach and Pinchas, the spiritual lessons would have been lost. And if they hadn’t been recorded for us, they would have been lost to us.
Rashi, the great medieval French commentator, explains that the reminders of every stop on the way is much the way a parent reviews with a grown child a long ago trip, reminding her how she responded to the experience as a child. I think it’s more like a parent reminding a child of past achievements – cheering her on – you overcame great obstacles before, and you can do so again. Rashi’s point is to remind us that journeying and camping (and there was much more camping than journeying over the 40 years) was because of God’s great kindness and love for us. We made it through the periods with no food – manna fell! We made it through periods with no water – the well appeared! Have faith, children of Israel, that what you need will come when you need it.
In the 21st century – not so dissimilar to our ancestors in the desert of Moab – some of us have trouble believing that such a simple faith is real. It is only when we look back at how we have grown, how we have achieved, how the love of people around us, how the resources we have mustered – that we can see how far we’ve come.
Masei reminds us to notice the changes, to remember the distance we have come—for many of us both physically and I hope spiritually, and to listen to the lessons of our ancestors. Let us not be like those two older brothers in the story, but like the youngest one: be grateful for what you have, share with others the bounties of your life. And keep a record of what you did.