July 19, 2001
On the Road Again
Parashat Mattot-Maaseh (Numbers 30:2-36:13)
It's summer -- when long, golden-edged days yield to cool California evenings. A time when people travel to distant or nearer spots, seeking new or sweetly familiar experiences, touching base with the people and places that matter to them. A time when a good many families move from one home, city or country to another, trying to be settled in time for the new school year. Of course, many people around the world and in our own city rarely venture beyond their immediate area. But for most readers of The Journal, as it is for me, to recount the story of their lives inevitably involves a litany of place names.
Such recounting is generally bittersweet. For all partings and endings carry the flavor of death, and even less favorable environments become home to us after a while. Still, if we are fortunate enough to arrive at a happy, fulfilled "place" in our lives, then all the journeying will have been justified and we can revisit the way-stations -- both physical and emotional -- with more pleasure than pain.
So it is also with the Jewish people, who spent 40 years journeying from place to place in the desert. Seared into our ancestral memory are the place we left, the chuppah-like mountain where we covenanted ourselves to the Holy One, and the long-promised land where we finally settled down. But what about the places in the middle, the places where we quarreled and protested and even wished we were back in Egypt?
"These are the journeys of the children of Israel who went out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, by the charge of Moses and Aaron. And Moses recorded the stops of their travels, following Adonai's word. These are their travels and their stops." (Numbers 33:1-2) Thus begins the second of this week's paired Torah portions, giving the portion its name of Maaseh (Journeys). The book of Numbers, which ends with this parasha, can seem loosely connected; but Richard Friedman's new "Commentary on the Torah" makes a good case that "the list of Israel's itinerary in Numbers 33 formally shows the sequence of the journey to be the unifying line of the book."
Nonetheless, when we sit in shul or open the Bible at home and encounter a passage with 42 place names, we may well join Rashi and other commentators in searching out the religious relevance. One explanation establishes a chronology within which the Israelites rested approximately two years at most stops, thus demonstrating the compassion with which God's edict for their 40-year wanderings was put into force. Maimonides emphasizes God's miraculous providing of manna and water in the wilderness, which later generations will see more clearly within a detailed geographic context.
Like Rashi, I am drawn to a parable from Midrash Tanhuma which summons a human parallel to God commanding Moses to record the journey's stages: a king who took his critically ill son to a distant land in search of a cure. After the son had been cured and they were returning home, the father began enumerating their trip's stages, along with the difficult things that had happened at each. So the Holy One, blessed be God, instructed Moses to enumerate all the places where the Israelites had stopped, even with -- or is it because of? -- their having provoked God to become angry at many of them.
If a difficult journey -- either physical or spiritual -- reaches a positive conclusion, stages along the way transmute into steps leading upward. If someone has been at our side during dark times, emerging into the light with them will bind us together forever. When people love each other, even and sometimes especially the tough times wind up being the most memorable and binding. So with the Jewish people and the universal, eternal power we call Adonai. We're in it for the long haul, and that makes all the difference.