By Rabbi Ebn Leader
Parashat Matot Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13)
With Parashat Masei—The Journeys—the Torah concludes the story of the Israelite people. While the Torah includes one more book, dedicated almost entirely to the parting words and death of Moshe, the story of the people ends here, in the plains of Moav.
The vision of a promised land is central to the biblical story beginning with the narratives of the ancestors in Bereshit. Still, this “allotted haven” (Devarim 12:9) is never reached. (This is true of the Torah. The book of Joshua, which is included among the prophets but not in the Torah per se, does tell a story of entering the promised land.) Rather than ending the story with the fulfillment of this long-held aspiration and hope, the narrative ends in the desert; this parasha summarizes the people’s story as an ongoing journey, always shifting, always subject to change.
“When they were thrown by one place/state of being
(translating from the Hebrew root סעה [so’ah] rather than נסע [nasa])
An ongoing journey–
Always with God, and never with stability.
Always with longing, never with fulfillment.
Always shifting and moving, with no guarantees regarding the next stop or the next upheaval.
As the Torah often reminds us, at every stop along the road, these wanderers had to reconstruct God’s home in their camp. This was done even as some of these places—at least based on the names the Israelites gave them (Bitterness, Desire’s Graves, Terror, Shadow Land and others) —were not comfortable stays… The book of Bamidbar thus teaches us the challenging practice of creating a place for God at every stop of the journey, cultivating the trust that—“Wherever you call out my name, I will come to you with blessing” (Shemot 20:20).
This last parasha of the book of Bamidbar is always read on one of the shabbatot of the three weeks between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av. These three weeks are known as the “time in straits” (Yemei Bein HaMetzarim) and are designated as a time of mourning. Liturgically, this mourning is oriented towards the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples in antiquity. Yet already the earliest Rabbinic description of the practices of these weeks includes longer lists of historical tragedies attributed to these dates (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6) and these lists got longer and longer throughout the generations. These growing lists of tragedies reflect the understanding that this spiritual practice of mourning is oriented towards suffering in general rather than towards one specific historical tragedy.
The Maggid of Kozhnitz (R Yisrael Hapstein, 1737-1814) in articulating a practice for these weeks, focuses on the challenge of being present with God in a reality that shifts and changes, and particularly in the difficult and painful stops along the road. The three weeks “in the straits” become the practice ground on which we train for this challenge whenever it appears in our lives. During this time, through memory and ritual, we focus on our experience of loss and suffering, striving to create a communal setting for engaging with the presence of God even in the midst of suffering.
“During these days, holiness is covered and disguised within transformation. Therefore, during this time you should dedicate more effort than you usually do to engaging with the holiness of the Creator. You should put all your strength into extracting light from darkness, transforming the transformation, and discovering the holiness hidden within it” (Avodat Yirael, Pirkei Avot 4:7).
All of being is God’s presence, though the form of that presence which we experience is constantly transforming and changing. The forms of presence that we find difficult may feel like God’s absence or rejection, but they are divine no less than the forms we find inspiring. We do not always get to choose if we will encounter God as an experience of beauty or an experience of pain. But we can always choose our response to God’s presence, our response to every moment of life. Will I see in this moment a gateway to deeper connection with God, an opportunity to expand my awareness and sense of interdependence, or will I shut down in facing this moment, and retreat into my feelings of pain, despair and alienation? For different people, different experiences offer easier access to the divine. While difficult experiences might make it feel impossible for one person to connect to God, for another person those are the moments that a feeling of real connection opens up. But whether I am capable of acknowledging it or not, every moment is an invitation. As the Kozhnitz says elsewhere – “What I really don’t understand is—how is it possible to disconnect from the blessed Creator? Most people seem to think the opposite. They find the possibility of connecting to God confusing…” (Avodat Yisrael, Pirkei Avot, 4:5). Learning to recognize and respond to these invitations is a spiritual practice that requires great effort and dedication. According to the Maggid of Kozhnitz, this is the spiritual practice of these three weeks. During these weeks we set our experience of destruction and devastation at the center in order to practice living in the straits, living into the shifting forms that divinity takes as we go through our lives, and particularly living into those forms that we find painful and distressing.
We live in a time of radical changes. Over the next few decades the very balance of nature that we once took for granted will shift in dramatic ways for the worst. Our future actions may still have some impact, but our past and current treatment of the environment have already set some processes in place that will not be reversed. Such a global crisis may bring the best out of some people, but it also brings the worst out of others, as we are already witnessing. For our generation, could there be any spiritual practice more necessary than learning to recognize and be with God in the straits?
Rabbi Ebn Leader is a faculty member in the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.