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July 4, 2013

Where Ever You Go There You Are! - Dvar Torah Parashat Mattot-Masei

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Twenty years ago the physician and Zen Master, Jon Kabat-Zinn, wrote a book he called “Where Ever You Go There You Are.” The book’s title has stayed with me and it has helped me to focus not only on why I do what I do, but also on why others might behave as they do.

We are who we are where ever we are, and that means that we carry with us trunk loads of emotional baggage – fear, trauma, anger, resentment, disappointment, as well as our loves, passions, joys, dreams, and hopes. Consequently, for better and worse, we often respond to situations not based on who or what stands before us, but rather out of the “stuff” we carry in our emotional trunks that have nothing to do with present circumstances.

The idea that “Where ever you go, there you are” begs the question – Can people really change their orientation in the world, or are we fated because of our personal histories to think, feel and behave as we have always done? 

Judaism affirms that we can change and evolve, though slowly, incrementally and often with sacrifice and pain.

In this week’s double Torah portion Matot-Masei, our sages affirm this truth as they reflect upon Moses’ list of 42 places through which he and the Israelites passed during the 40 years of wandering (Numbers 33).

The book of Numbers as a whole (the 42 places act as chronological signposts) enumerates the people’s disillusionment and struggle, temptation, rebellion, and broken faith. If there is a common theme to Numbers, it’s that the people wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else than where they were.

Commentators asked why Moses enumerated these 42 places. The Malbim (1809-1879) suggested that because their experience in Egypt was so filled with suffering, it was necessary before they entered the Land of Canaan to exorcise, a little bit at a time in each of the 42 places, a measure of the pain, resentment, humiliation, and defilement that they bore. Then they would be able to meet God in a pure state in the land.

Their redemption from Egypt, therefore, was gradual and progressive spread out over 40 years. With this understanding of the Biblical narrative, the Talmud says that when we are brought before God for heavenly judgment, we’ll be asked Tzapita l’yeshua (“Did you anticipate redemption?") (Shabbat 31a).  In other words, did you undo wrongs you committed? Did you do restore your relationships with family and friends, colleagues, community, the Jewish people, and God? Did you forgive? Did you act from fear or faith? Did you restore justice and mercy? Did you live with high moral standards, with kindness and integrity?

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook taught 

“…we should feel that we are like a limb of a great organism….that we are part of a nation, which, in turn, is part of humanity. The betterment of each individual contributes to the life of the larger community, thus advancing the redemption of the nation and the universe.”

The end of Numbers finds Moses and the Israelites encamped on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan River near Jericho. They had not as yet entered the land, but, say the commentators, they did as individuals and as a community relieve themselves of the burdens and defilement, humiliation and degradation of Egypt, and so they could answer collectively “Yes” to the question, Tzapita l’yeshua – Did you anticipate redemption?

What about us? What fears, trauma, anger, resentment, and disappointment do carry with us that we need to release in order to encounter others as individuals and as a community appropriately? 

The good news is that we can make choices. We do not have to do things the same way we have always done them. Nor do we have to presume the same responses of others that we’ve experienced before. We have the capacity to be self-critical and, by an act of will, transform who we are and where we are in our lives.

“Where ever you go there you are?” This is a true statement, but the supplementary questions are as important to ask and answer - Where are we? Who are we? And do we need to remain where we are if fear, distrust, pain, and resentment keep us in Egypt far from the Promised Land.

This is what I believe our Torah portion is asking of us as individuals and as a people this week, to break from the chains that keep us far from redemption.

May our journeys transform and uplift us.

Shabbat Shalom.

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