Shabbat Parashat Mattot – Mas’ey - 5777 – Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

By: Rabbi Cheryl Peretz,
Associate Dean Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

The Road to the Future Through the Past

  Torah Reading:  Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

  Haftarah Reading:  Jeremiah 2:4 – 28; 3:4

This week, we read the double Torah portion of Mattot-Mas'ey, completing the book of Numbers, bringing to an end the wandering of our people in the desert as they realize the fulfilment of the original Divine promise – arrival to the Land of Israel – the land flowing with milk and honey. As a pretty central part of the Jewish narrative, we might expect that the Torah portion would focus on what our ancestors may have seen as they stand at the entry to the land – the quality of the land, the beauty of the horizon, the people, what might happen once they cross over into the land. Yet, as the final chapters of desert wandering unfold, what is described is very different. Instead, the opening words of Parashat Mas'ey begin: "These are the travels of the Israelites who went out from the land of Egypt, with their armies, by the hands of Moses and Aaron. And Moses wrote down their goings out and their comings forward according to the word of the Lord; these are their comings forward and their goings out."

In the verses that follow, the Torah narrates how our people left one place, camped in another; left that place, and camped in yet another – recalling each of the 42 stops in the desert on the way to the Promised Land.

Why, at this point, does it mention when they left Egypt? It should have just said when they went to the Land of Israel. After all, if I were to take a trip from Los Angeles to Dallas and wanted to share my experiences along the way, I would not say 'this is what happened to me on my trip from Los Angeles'. It is more likely that I would say 'this is what happened to me on my way to Dallas'. So, why then does this parashah take us back to Egypt and the image of the slavery, degradation, plagues and the like?

This question occupies the minds and the imagination of biblical commentators of all generations and the possible answers find new expressions in different time periods and commentaries. In the midrash of Bamidbar Rabbah (compiled in the medieval period and consisting of interpretive messages from the text) alone, three possible answers are given: recalling each of the camps helps recall the myriad of miracles God brought in the desert when there was no source of food/water, shelter, or protection; listing the name of each and every camp was to remind us of our own mistakes in the wilderness in the doubt, the kvetching (complaining), the lack of faith in Moses and even God; and the purpose was to enhance to critical values, hakhnasat orhim (hosting guests) and gratitude - God cared for us throughout the forty years, so we should be willing to host guests in our own homes, and provide for shelter to those in need. And, just as we would expect our guests to show appropriate gratitude for our efforts to care for them, so we should be grateful to God for the hospitality that God provided.

Rabbi Meir Loeb ben Yechi'el Michael Malbim (1809-1879, Eastern Europe) – known simply as the Malbim and famous for his commentary on the entire Bible answers the question in another way. After all, he says, while the people were in Egypt there were constant reminders of where they were and what was happening to them. And, at each of the 42 stops they made in the desert, they were immersed in experiences that, at times reminded them of their enslavement and persecution at the hands of the Egyptians. According to Malbim, the purpose of the long journey was to rid the Jews of exactly the contagious and dangerous elements that could threaten their fulfillment in the Land of Israel. At every stop they discarded, as it were, another part of their defilement to be ready for what was to come.

The question is similarly asked in another way by the Eastern European commentator known as S'fat Emet. Commenting on the verse, "Moses wrote down their goings out and their comings forward according to the word of the Lord; these are their comings forward and their goings out" he wonders why it is that the order is reversed from the beginning of the verse (which refers to the goings out and their comings forward) to the end of the verse (which refers to the comings forward and their goings out). His answer it seems is that the "coming forward" depends on "goings out" from Egypt.

Only after going out of Egypt and leaving pieces of it behind in each subsequent stop can the Exodus ultimately be complete and the Israelites move forward into the land of Israel. Likewise, in our individual journeys, each of us has those places (physical, emotional, and spiritual) that we have been. And, like our ancestors in the desert, some of those places have left us with our own anger, fears, resentment, disappointment and challenges. But, also like our ancestors of so many years ago, unless and until we look to where we have been and face ourselves honestly and humbly, we cannot possibly let go that which blocks us from growing and experiencing our own journey's promise.


 

As we journey through this week and into this Shabbat, I pray that each of us and all of us can revisit the places we have been and leave behind that which impedes our meeting in the Promised Land.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, is the Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, where she also received her ordination. She also holds her MBA in Marketing Management from Baruch College, and helps bring those skills and expertise into the operational practices of rabbis and congregations throughout North America.

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University