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Filling in the Blanks

July 17, 2020

This week’s d’var Torah on Parashat Matot-Maasei


As we transition from Numbers to Deuteronomy, things start to get repetitive. The Israelites stand poised to enter the Promised Land, while Moses prepares for his death. As he bids farewell to the Israelites, Moses tells, and retells, the story of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom, which, in this parasha, includes listing all of the stops the Israelites made along the way.

“These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Eternal” (Numbers 33:1-2).

The next 46 verses list the 42 stops the Israelites made during their 40 years in the wilderness. A few significant events are mentioned: the tenth plague in Egypt, where they found water and what they did when they couldn’t find water, and the death of Aaron. But for the most part, it’s just an itinerary.

Since nothing is “just” anything in the Torah, rabbis ancient and modern have asked, “What is the significance of this list? These travels have already been recorded in previous chapters of the Torah? Why list them again?”

R. Ovadiah Sforno (16th century) says that this was a reminder of Israel’s merit, because they had remained loyal to God on this winding journey to the Promised Land. R. Isaac Abravanel (15th century) suggests that this is a reminder of all the miracles that God did for the Israelites on their journey, so that they might remain hopeful about their future” (Held 186).

The Baal Shem Tov (18th century) has a more individualist take: “Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the forty-two journeys of the children of Israel will occur to each person between the time they are born and they time they die” (Gold 170). Rabbi Shai Held adds that, “The text serves to remind us that even seemingly inconsequential stops on our journey can be powerful opportunities for serving God” (Held 186).

This feels like an important lesson for this moment. Not only because we might find ourselves making (at least) 42 “stops” on our life’s journey, but because it feels like we are making 42 stops every week. But even now, it is important to recall and recount our steps, as well as our sidesteps, missteps, and backsteps, so that we might seek wisdom in their retelling.

I am not a proponent of the “everything happens for a reason” philosophy. At this moment of individual and collective suffering and anxiety, it would be harmful and cruel to even suggest that suffering is purposefully inflicted on us to teach a lesson. But I do believe that there might be hope and even healing in examining those rough patches and seeing what we might have, or might still, learn from them.

We are (very) roughly halfway through 2020, and it’s been a bear. Many of us have lost friends and loved ones. All of us have lost whatever sense of security and normalcy we might have had prior to Purim (when there was plenty of messiness in our lives already). I lost the chance to hold my niece the day she was born, and for most of her delicious baby-hood I will only be able to interact with her from behind a mask. So much of this year has looked, and will continue to look, different from how we might have planned. The world suddenly feels more dangerous and out of control than it has ever been.

This morning, one of our lay leaders wished for a time machine to go back to when things were normal. Similarly, Rabbi Shefa Gold speaks of wishing she could “skip” a year that she knew would be full of grief and sorrow but would that ultimately end in healing and joy.

But time-travel is not an option. we can neither rewind or fast-forward. Our only choice is to go through. And if our only choice is to make all 42 stops on this year’s journey (because it absolutely feels like it’s going to be at least that many), we might take a moment to consider, not how we might “make the best” of this detour, but how might we already be drawing wisdom and strength from these difficult times.

A friend and former co-worker of mine, Daniel Stellini, recently posted that, as a commercial airline pilot, he is expecting to be furloughed in the fall, and is taking on work as a flight instructor, something that brings him joy. Of this transition he writes: “My hope for all is that we may realize our potential and surprise ourselves with our own capabilities; coming out on the other side saying, “Had it not been for 2020, I would have never done _________, never learned________, never tried _______, never got back into_____, never knew I could _______, never become ______.”

So I wanted us to take a moment to answer this question. You should know that this will likely not be the last time I ask you this question this year. What would you never have done/learned/tried/rediscovered/accomplished/become if not for the maasim of this year?

Rabbi Shefa Gold writes: “We learn from Massei that every stage is essential to the journey. There are no short-cuts; no way to skip over the challenges. Even what seem like mistakes or dead-ends or wrong turns along the way can provide us with the necessary raw ingredients for wisdom. Those ingredients must be prepared with self-compassion and unwavering attention, cooked with patience and humility, and served up with a sense of humor” (Gold 171).

My friend ended his post with the blessing, “May the blanks be filled with only wonderful things.” But we know that’s not possible. So let us amend it: may we take what fills in our blanks and use it to grow in strength, wisdom, kindness, and courage. May we take what fills in our blanks and use it to transform ourselves and our world.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz