July 2, 2013
Station to station: Parashat Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13)
We conclude the reading of Bamidbar (Numbers) this week. Over the course of the book, the children of Israel spend approximately 40 years in the desert, camping in 42 different places, each of which is mentioned in Masei, the second of this week’s two parshiyot. Somewhat unexpectedly, the Torah displays a great deal of interest in many of the small details of the journey. It describes the order in which the tribes marched and under which flags they did so, how the Levites wrapped and carried all of the holy implements during the journey, and — when they reached their destinations — who camped next to whom.
Even so, the amount of detail that is devoted to the journey’s basic rule is curious. Here are just a few, abridged verses from the description that, when read in full, comprise one of the Torah’s most redundant-seeming sections: “And whenever the cloud lifted from over the Tent, then the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel encamped. … As long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle they remained encamped. And when the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle many days, then the children of Israel kept the charge of the Lord, and journeyed not. And sometimes the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle. … And sometimes the cloud was from evening until morning. … Whether it were two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle, abiding thereon, the children of Israel remained encamped, and journeyed not; but when it was taken up, they journeyed” (Numbers 9:17-22).
Even the most casual reader would be struck by the text’s uncharacteristic loquaciousness. What is the Torah attempting to convey through this lengthy description of the rule of journeying?
Nachmanides, by inserting just a few phrases, which he believes are implicit, transforms the meaning of the entire passage. Under Nachmanides’ pen, these many verses aren’t ultimately about Israel’s journey through the desert. Rather, they describe the journey we each take through life.
There are times in our lives that God’s cloud remains in one particular place for a long while, even though we find this particular place unpleasant and we are eager to move on. But we need to remain in this place, for this is where God needs us to be.
Although we spend much of life’s journey in places where our parents are physically and mentally vibrant, we inevitably reach a station when we are no longer drawing upon their strength, but they need to draw upon our own. This is when the promise — and the burden — to look after the needs of the other shifts from parent to child. In a moment of unguarded thought, it’s been known to happen that we wish we could just move on to the next, less-draining station already. But we understand where God’s cloud is residing, and so we remain in place doing what He needs us to do.
As the passage concludes, “At the commandment of the Lord they encamped, and at the commandment of the Lord they journeyed; they kept the charge of the Lord” (Numbers 9:23).
There are also times when the cloud remains in place for what seems the blink of an eye, even though we so desperately wish that it could linger a little longer. However, we have no choice but to pack up and move on to the next encampment. We are blessed with children, so small and cute, spontaneously affectionate and supremely cuddly. But invariably that day comes when we wake up at a different encampment, where our child’s main activity is now that of differentiation, of creating distance from us so that she can figure out her own identity. And it’s a waste of time and effort to pine for the encampment that was just yesterday, the one that seems like it was unreasonably short. For regardless of our desire, the cloud of God has moved on. And, in accordance with God’s plan, we must follow, and there, in the new place with the new rules, do what God needs of us now. “At the commandment of the Lord they encamped, and at the commandment of the Lord they journeyed; they kept the charge of the Lord.”
And sometimes we move from one encampment to the next when we least see it coming, and when we are least prepared. In a day, we can suddenly move from being physically vigorous to being physically limited. From being financially secure to being in financial crisis. From being responsible only for ourselves to being thrust into responsibility for a broader community. The call to travel to this new station can come when we are least expecting it. But at these times, too, at the commandment of God we journey, to keep the charge of the Lord.
The only constant in life is change. Change can be disorienting or even depressing. What helps a lot is to understand that we are often journeying to the places where God needs us to be.
Rav Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox congregation.