Mattot-Masei: The long and winding road
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Mattot-Masei: The long and winding road

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck and chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at SAR High School in New York City.

This week’s double parsha of Mattot-Masei concludes the richly crafted book of Numbers. The first half of the book describes the experiences, the highs and ultimate lows, of the generation that left Egypt. It then shifts in its second half to the challenges, battles, and experiences of the second generation, the one that would entered the Promised land. We emerge then with a portrait of the transition between two eras, two generations, and their similarities and differences.

The second parsha, Masei, records the forty-two different stations that the Israelites stopped at along the way on their journey to the Land of Israel. It tells us the name and location of each and every stop, though it does not indicate how long each stop was for. Many commentators throughout history have struggled with the question as to why the Torah spends so much ink in recounting to us these details of the journey. Maimonides in a famous comment in the Guide for The Perplexed suggests that the Torah is trying to highlight the historical fact of God’s great munificence to the Israelites. The names of all these locales highlight that the people took a route through desert territory and not in settled land. They did not traverse close to cities or oases or towns that had ready access to food and drink. And yet God lovingly sustained them through their sojourn in the “desert, a land not cultivated” (Jeremiah 2:2) as we reference in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy of the Zichronot passage.

In addition to this insight, other ideas emerge from this presentation of the experience. Highlighting each and every stop along the way is an important message for each and every person in their hectic lives on a personal level and for us on a communal and a national level. Often we are driven to reach a goal and achieve an outcome whether in business or in our educational attainments, or even in our spiritual and familial life. In the process, we often do not appreciate the stops along the way and do not live in the present, appreciating the small moments and the value of the here and now. It is important to luxuriate in the experience at hand and fully invest in it. To take two examples, it is a great achievement to complete the study of the entire Talmud in seven and half years of daily study, but it should not only be this goal that animates one’s study. It is the study of each and every folio, each and every topic of our complex and rich legal texts containing that great amalgam of law, narrative, and guidance that should be the focus of one’s learning of Torah. A second example from our daily life. In raising our children we sometimes focus so much on them achieving certain goals and benchmarks that we do not give sufficient weight to the moment and experience at hand and simply appreciate it on its own terms.

On the national level the same appreciation should be central to our outlook. My revered teacher, the recently deceased Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of blessed memory, often noted that the Ashkenazic custom (in contrast to other halachic traditions) is to recite a blessing on each and every one of the four cups of wine at the Seder. The four cups traditionally are understood to correspond to the four phrases of redemption in the Exodus: “and I will take you out of Egypt”, “and I will save you”, “and I will redeem”, “and I will take you to me as a people”. In making a blessing on each and every stage, even one which is only partial in the overall scheme of redemption, we affirm the fact that even partial salvation and success is worthy of recognition. In applying that to the contemporary scene he went on to note that even though the State of Israel is not perfect and we are still a ways off from our vision of a complete redeemed society, there is much to give praise and thanksgiving to God and we should never lose sight of that fact.

It is that balance between keeping our eyes on the big goals and the end game of our journeys and appreciating the here and now and the majesty of each moment and experience that is our charge.

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