Between the Lines—Mattot-Maseei

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu


Numbers Rabbah 23:4 

במדבר רבה (וילנא) פרשה כג ‏
ד ד"א אלה מסעי למה זכו ליכתב בתורה כל המסעות האלו על שקבלו את ישראל ועתיד הקדוש ברוך הוא ‏ליתן שכרן דכתיב (ישעיה לה) יששום מדבר וציה ותגל ערבה ותפרח כחבצלת פרח תפרח ותגל ערבה וגו' ‏ומה מדבר על שקבל ישראל כך המקבל תלמידי חכמים לתוך ביתו עאכ"ו, את מוצא עתיד המדבר להיות ‏ישוב והישוב עתיד להיות מדבר ומנין שעתיד הישוב להיות מדבר שנאמר (מלאכי א) ואת עשו שנאתי ‏ואשים את הריו שממה ומנין שהמדבר עתיד להיות ישוב שנאמר (ישעיה מא) אשים מדבר לאגם מים, ‏את מוצא עכשיו אין אילנות במדבר ועתיד להיות שם שנאמר (שם /ישעיהו מ"א/) אתן במדבר ארז שטה ‏והדס ועץ ועכשיו אין דרך במדבר שכולו חול ועתיד להיות שם דרך שנא' (שם /ישעיהו/ מג) אף אשים ‏במדבר דרך בישימון נהרות ואומר (שם /ישעיהו/ לה) והיה שם מסלול ודרך ודרך הקדש יקרא לה לא ‏יעברנו טמא והוא למו הולך דרך ואוילים לא יתעו. ‏


Why were all these stations privileged to be recorded in the Torah? In return for ‎their having received Israel, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will in the future give ‎them their reward, as it is written, "The wilderness and the parched land shall be ‎glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom ‎abundantly, and rejoice" (Isaiah 35:1) Now if the wilderness will be thus ‎rewarded for having received Israel, is it not certain that one who receives ‎scholars into his house will be rewarded all the more? You find that the ‎wilderness is destined to become an inhabited territory, while inhabited territory ‎is destined to become a wilderness. Whence the inference that inhabited ‎territory is destined to become a wilderness? From the text which says, "But ‎Esau I hated, and made his mountains a desolation" (Malachi 1:3). And whence ‎the inference that the wilderness is destined to become an inhabited territory? ‎From the text which says, "I will make the wilderness a pool of water" (Isaiah ‎‎41:18). You find that at present there are no trees in the wilderness, but in the ‎future there will be; as it says, "I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the ‎acacia-tree, and the myrtle, and the oil-tree (ib. 19). Nor is there, at the present ‎time, a road in the wilderness, for it is all sand, but in the future there will be a ‎road; as it says, "I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the ‎desert" (ib. 43:19), and it says, "A highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall ‎be called the way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be ‎for those; the wayfaring men, yea fools, shall not err therein." (ib. 35:8)‎ 

This is perhaps the original midrash that foretells land development: the acres of ‎farmland-turned-housing developments in the United States or Israel, the acres of ‎desert turned into habitable land. It points us to a deep truth: what is, will not always be; ‎what is not now, may one day come to pass.‎

That life is ever changing makes us curious, grateful, wary. How are we to navigate the ‎uncertainty in a way that makes us feel rewarded? "Is it not certain that one who ‎receives scholars into his house will be rewarded all the more?" By bringing scholars ‎into our homes—that is, by bringing Torah into our lives—and in opening our hearts, ‎our minds, ourselves to learning Torah, we find that we are open to seeing the ways in ‎which the wilderness of life is in fact a pool of holiness the waters of which we drink. ‎And our souls are nourished.‎