Shabbat Matot-Masei: Neither Here Nor There

“Not all who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

We’ve left the place we knew, the good and the bad of it, and now we don’t know where we are. That is as true of us as it was of our ancestors, who, having left Egypt, wandered in a wilderness for an entire generation of uncertainty.

In parashat Matot-Masei, the double parashah for this Shabbat, the Israelites look back and remember where they started:

וַיִּסְע֤וּ מֵֽרַעְמְסֵס֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן בַּחֲמִשָּׁ֥ה עָשָׂ֛ר י֖וֹם לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָרִאשׁ֑וֹן מִֽמׇּחֳרַ֣ת הַפֶּ֗סַח יָצְא֤וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּיָ֣ד רָמָ֔ה לְעֵינֵ֖י כׇּל־מִצְרָֽיִם׃

They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month. It was on the morrow of the Pesakh offering that the Israelites started out defiantly, in plain view of all the Egyptians. (Numbers 33.3)

Over a year ago, at Purim 5780, we began our COVID-19 journey together, optimistic about our ability to weather the pandemic with Jewish-inflected use of the gifts of common sense, kindness, and Zoom. After all, what choice did we have? Having suffered the myriad plagues of the 45th federal government administration, of which the pandemic was partially one, we knew that a journey through fundamental change had been imposed upon us.

Now, we just want to be there. Yet our tradition teaches that if we do not learn the lessons of the journey, we will not succeed in arriving whole.

We remember: in the incident of the scouts in parashat Shelakh-L’kha, the Israelites tried to overcome their fear of moving forward at the cost of cohesion of their community. We learned that it was not their fear, finally, but their dysfunctional response to it, that sealed their fate as wanderers. All that was left was to study that fate.

When the universe sends you a message, how do you learn to perceive it? The Israelites look back now on their journey, and every stop is recorded in this parashah. Our tradition seeks the meaning of our journey in the journey – every day, every move. There is no boredom of repetitiveness here; each place has its own memories and its own teachings. 

This, perhaps, is the lesson of our wandering as well. We may or may not be close to getting there, wherever “there” is. But we will not arrive whole unless we learn the meaning of these days of uncertainty.

Whole does not mean healed; that may be more than we can hope for. But it does mean that we know who we are, what we mean, and where we stand. As a Jewish people, our route to wholeness is by remembering each step of the way, and learning it.

“Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair.” Theologian Walter Brueggeman

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