Torah from around the world #74
Journeys: The Essence of Progress / on Parashat Masei (Numbers 33:1–36:13)
by Rabbi Haim Shalom, Jerusalem Campus Director of Outreach and Recruitment, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
This week’s parashah, Masei, meaning “The Journeys of” [the children of Israel] is an apt one to finish the book of Numbers: throughout the book, the children of Israel have been on a journey – traversing the desert, running into many an obstacle and usually complaining about it. But, after forty years, a generational change, a number of revolts, tragedies, miracles, plagues and the occasional fight with a rock, the Children of Israel near the end of their journey. As they do, the Torah takes a moment to remind us the reader of where they have been. Or rather, takes forty-two moments. The journeys of the Israelites are described in minute detail. Today, many of the place names mean nothing to us – they have been lost in history. We cannot accurately delineate the exact places where they were – yet, every year we will repeat this travelogue, listing each and every place that the Children of Israel travelled. Why? What is so special about this travel experience?
It could be argued that this first great trek was a harbinger of things to come for the Jewish people. In a history that can be said to span 3800 years, relatively very little of that time has been spent “at home”, in our own homeland. The term, “The Wandering Jew” was coined because, remarkably, we are a people that has existed in exile for larger parts of our history than we have had a home of our own in our homeland. Journeying, it could be claimed, defines the Jewish existence. As an ardent Zionist, I might claim that only Israel is our true home, but there is no denying that the Diaspora has a longer history. The journey – something which we often think of as being a time between two other more permanent states of being – is in fact the one permanent in Jewish History. Jews are always on a journey.
In fact the Jewish tradition itself starts with a Journey – Abraham is called to “Go (to yourself) … to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). At the high-points of our calendar – Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Seder Night, Shavuot, we read stories of journeys. On Rosh Hashannah, the exile of Hagar and the eventful family hike of Abraham and Isaac; on Yom Kippur, perhaps Judaism’s most famous travelogue – the story of Jonah; on Sukkot, we embody the concept of journeying by living in a temporary shelter; on Seder night, we read of our greatest trek – out of slavery and towards freedom; and on Shavuot we read of the journey of one woman, from Moab to Israel, from outside the Jewish community to be the mother of its Messiah. Journeying punctuates the entire Jewish narrative. Why?
The Journey is a metaphor for the central call of the Jewish Mission. When Abraham was called on his journey, when the Israelite travelled “from Ramses on the fifteenth day of the first month” (Numbers 33:1), on all our journeys, we are being called not just to move physically, but spiritually. The nature of a journey is that it takes one away from home – puts one in a fragile place, where one is insecure. Educational psychologists and sociologists call this place, “liminal” – from the Latin word “limen” meaning a threshold. Travel takes us through many physical thresholds but it also places us into an emotional and spiritual threshold – allowing us to leave behind the absolute truths with which we viewed the world “at home”, and be open to new truths – or at the very least to be able to ask questions of the old truths. The vulnerability, to which the Journey exposes us, allows us to grow – to progress. Without progress we wither and die. Without Journeying – we retreat inside ourselves. We are shown many examples of the progress inherent in the Jewish tradition in our own Parashah. We recall the necessity for new leadership, we are shown the possibility of change in the most basic elements of Jewish law – with the addition of land holdings for the Levites and, also in the Legal sphere we are shown the progress of a piece of law based on precedent. In parashat Pinhas which was read two weeks ago, we heard of the case of the daughters of Zelophehad – and we were reminded of the Jewish traditions belief in progress (in this case in the realm of women’s rights) when they were awarded inheritance rights which were subsequently granted to all women. The tradition – though part of a patriarchal society at the time, could not deny the justice of their plea, and it was granted. In this week’s Parashah, a claim is made by leaders of the tribe to which the daughters of Zelophehad belong, asking for the land to stay within that tribe’s holding. This claim is also seen as just, and is granted. One could argue that it is a step back for women’s rights – but we are told that the daughters of Zelophehad agreed and women would still be allowed to marry a wide range of men. Moreover, our tradition tells us (Yalkut Me’am Loez, B’midbar, p. 409) that the restriction on marrying outside of the tribe was later rescinded.
This week’s parashah tells us that the Jewish tradition has always been one of spiritual journey. It has always been a tradition of progress. Sometimes, if we stay too much at home – we will forget that progress is inevitable. Sometimes – only those outside of our home can help us see what we are unable to see. Perhaps, in these weeks, it is only the Jews of the Diaspora, those still in a place of liminality, always on a journey, who can help the leadership of Israel remember the necessity of openness – of being not completely sure of oneself.