The recapitulation of the journey of the Israelites that starts parashat Masei can seem redundant and irrelevant to some. While I’m not prone to consider any text in the Torah as irrelevant (though some is redundant-and perhaps not always purposefully despite the claims of the rabbis and commentators) I’ve never given much thought to these verses. We know the journey it retells.
Nevertheless, I think I now get it. The rabbis and commentators tell us, recounting this journey serves to remind the Israelites (and we, the reader) of all the things that happened along the way. The rabbis and commentators try to place it in as positive light as possible, saying these verses give us the opportunity to recall each and every miracle that G”d performed for us. That may be so, but it is no less capable of reminding us of the less than optimal things that happened along the way. There is value in that, I am certain. We can learn from all of it. We can learn who we are, what we are, why we are.
It is interesting to note how the text tells us that Moses recording the “starting points” along the journey. The reality, which the sages calculated, is that this recapitulation actually serves to remind us that much of the journey was spent encamped in one of 20 places along the way. Except for the first and last years of our 40 year journey, it wasn’t much of a continuous march. We stopped along the way, and often remained in one place for quite some time. However, not so subtly, the Torah tells us that Moses didn’t note “stopping points” but “starting points.” That’s a reminder that although the journey wasn’t continuous, it still had a clear and ultimate endpoint.
It’s a logical place in the text for a revisiting of the journey, for the Israelites are now on the threshold of the promised land. It’s interesting to examine which events are recounted in this retelling. Lots of place names are mentioned, and perhaps they can remind us of the events that took place there, but only a few places specifically have associated events recalled.The slaying of Egypt’s first-born. The twelve springs at Elim. The lack of water at Rephidim. Aaron’s death at Mt. Hor, and the Canaanite King of Arad who learned of the Israelites coming. Why those five? The last isn’t even a place so much as am indirect recollection of the victory of the Israelites from the beginning of chapter 21. So many more things happened along the way. Manna, Quail. Water from rocks. Sinai! Just to name a few.
Well, the first two are bookends. The slaying of the first-born and the victory over Arad were great miracles wrought by G”d (that also, as it happens, resulted in great death to many. Hmmm.) In between we have a miracle of lots of water; a time of no water when water is provided by a miracle yet a frustrated Moses does it wrong and loses his chance to enter the promised land; and the death of the high priest. I’m sure there are connections in there somewhere, but I’ve not yet been able to suss them out to my satisfaction. Perhaps you, dear reader, will have better luck?
More interesting than the five enumerated places/events is the process of trying to recall what happened at all the other “starting points” mentioned. That, perhaps, is the real purpose of this whole exercise. I get it, I think. It would be too easy if it were all spelled out for us (though yes, Moses, in sometimes very over-stated fashion, is about to do just that in the whole book of D’varim. Not just places and events, but lots of editorializing, some of it with very selective memory.) Looking through the list I have to rack* my brain and try to remember what happened at all these places, and what lessons we can learn from those things. Oh, what lessons there are to be learned. Still.
(Yes, it’s “rack” as a reference to the medieval torture device, not “wrack” meaning damage/destruction. )
I have been fortunate in my life to have had the opportunity to revisit many places, particularly places from my childhood, and of significant events throughout my life. When I revisit these places, memories come flooding back. Not just memories of events, people, places, but also of things learned and experienced. I also feel fortunate to live in a time when I can revisit these places and events without going there again – through pictures, social media, the internet. On FaceBook and elsewhere, I have connected to groups of people from many of the “starting places” on my life journey. Through this, I can re-experience events, relationships, lessons learned.
I enjoy doing it. It can take all sorts of forms. I might use Google Maps and Google Earth to locate and look down upon places I have lived. Street View might show me how things have changed (or not.) I reminisce with old friends (and sometimes with people I never really knew) about shared locations, neighborhoods, schools, sites, workplaces and more on Facebook groups. Charting my journey is not just about nostalgia. It helps me to rediscover myself, and develop greater insight into who I was then, who I am today, and perhaps why that is so.
Through the Torah, and I can revisit the places where our distant ancestors had their life experiences. She, too, can help me discover and rediscover myself, and develop greater insight into who I am (and perhaps why I am.) (Ah, there’s a connection to that favorite word of mine, anamnesis. Look it up.) My ancestors’ journey is my journey. My journey is my ancestor’s journey. Together, we can explore the past, live the present, and plan and prepare for the future. I’m going to press the LIKE button on that.
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Matot-Masei 5772 – And the Punting Goes On
Masei 5771 – Cause and Effect
Matot 5771 – Don’t Become Like…Them
Matot-Masei 5770 – Treasure Trove of Trouble
Masei 5768 – Accidents Matter
Matot 5768/5765-Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
Matot-Masei 5766 – First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot–Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot–Masey 5762–The Rebel’s Complaint and Promises, Promises