Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Matot-Masei (Numbers 30-36)

Finding Meaning in the Journey

Why does the Torah contain a detailed travelog of the journeys of the Jews in the desert? Beginning with the exodus from Egypt, it lists the name of each destination along the way as well as some recollections. Being as the Land of Israel was their ultimate and final destination, what purpose is there in mentioning these reminiscences? Indeed, two-thirds of these stops weren’t even in the original plan but occurred due to the tragedy caused by the cynical report of the spies. If these stops were never even meant to happen, what benefit is there in reviewing them all?

These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt in their legions, under the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points for their journeys according to the word of the G-d, and these were their journeys with their starting points. (Numbers 33:1-2)

Did G-d ask Moses to write this list or was Moses merely documenting a list of G-d’s preordained stops along the way? The answer is likely that both implications are meant. G-d wanted Moshe to write down these stops because these were the stops that G-d had wanted them to make.

There is a significant lesson being shared here. We tend to look toward what is next. When we are young, we look towards high school and college, and then the establishment of a career and family. Later, we look towards career advancement, our children’s milestones and perhaps those of our grandchildren. We look forward to a vacation or a construction project to be completed, but what of today? We find excitement in new things, but it does not take long to get bored and once again we look toward what’s next.

When it comes to our personal growth, the “what’s next” attitude is great. Complacency is the enemy but as we live through our lives, we might occasionally over-emphasize the future and sacrifice our present.

There was a famous Yeshiva in pre-WWII Lithuania named Telz. The student body, Rabbis, and people of the town were murdered by the Nazi’s in 1941. Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch, one of the Yeshiva deans, was in America at the time raising money for the yeshiva—he couldn’t return home. He saw this tragedy as part of a larger Divinely orchestrated plan and decided to rebuild the Yeshiva in Cleveland. He supported his plan by explaining an enigmatic incident in the book of Samuel. The first Jewish King was Saul, whose son Yonatan was best friends with David. (I Samuel 20), Yonatan warns David, Saul’s son in law, that Saul’s jealousy might create trouble for David. He instructs David not to attend the monthly feast because his life might be in danger. He tells David that he will send a signal if there is danger; he will shoot arrows in his direction with a coded message—if there is a threat, then, escape, because G-d is sending you away.” Why didn’t he simply say, “Run, because Saul wants to kill you!” Instead, Yonatan explains that the events – whatever they are – are caused by G-d. Rabbi Bloch explained that we see from here that at every stop on our respective journeys, we are meant to realize that it is G-d Who has placed us there and Rabbi Bloch also realizes that the fact that he happened to be in America when the war broke out was because G-d sent him here.

 By emphasizing the destination, one can sometimes undervalue the journey. The three jobs we had before we finally found our dream position weren’t the obstacle in the way of success but were steppingstones towards it. The time spent researching and planning a big trip or event was not a necessary evil to get where we needed to be but was part of the full experience of the event itself. Our lives aren’t just a collection of shiny moments but are made up of the experiences in between that don’t have the same luster but are as equally purposeful in G-d’s plan for us. Long before we reach our final goal or destination, we have also arrived at those locations leading us there because G-d is sending you.

Our parsha, which lists encampments, is still called Maasei, “journeys.” The story of the Jewish people arriving at the threshold of Israel is told through the places they stopped and the journeys that got them there. When we think of where we have arrived in our own lives, we are more likely to think of these stops in retrospect for their contribution to our personal growth but it is a challenge to do so when we are not quite there yet. As we contemplate these steps along the way, are we frustrated with the time and energy expended? Are we focused on what we do not yet have, or do we appreciate that anything worthwhile will require a process–journey–to achieve it?

Before we can begin the Torah’s next and final book, Deuteronomy, G-d wants us to remember the stops we made along the way because all of them were part of His carefully guided plan. Then and now, each of our stops is purposeful with the potential to teach us about ourselves and our lives, if we are willing to be teachable.

May we all have the courage to pay attention and realize how much meaning the stops along the way are and have been.

Good Shabbos.