A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Parashat Mattot-Mas'ei 5764
July 17, 2004 28 Tammuz 5764
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matt Berkowitz, JTS Rabbinic Fellow
In these concluding parshiyot of Sefer B'midbar (Numbers), the Israelites are full of anticipation. They camp near Jericho on the plains of Moab looking forward to their entry into the Promised Land. Yet, even at this future-oriented juncture, as it does so often, the Torah takes stock of the past: "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" (Numbers 33:1). We are reminded explicitly of the Exodus from Egypt. We hear of every stop the Israelites made on their journey. Only then can God give Moses instructions about moving on to Israel (33:50).
Nahum Sarna lists seven ways in which the Exodus theme is used in the Torah: affirming God's sovereignty over nature, demonstrating that humans cannot successfully defy God's will, teaching that history has meaning and purpose, foreshadowing future redemption, identifying God as redeemer from oppression, grounding the festivals, and demanding compassion to others from a people who were themselves, slaves (Sarna, Exploring Exodus, 2-5).
To this list, I would add: revisiting our past, acknowledging its formative impact on us and learning what we wish to pass on and what we wish to leave behind. Only then can we exit our periods of dependency and enslavement, as mature people and prepare to engage our dreams — our own lands of milk and honey. And so the commentary of the Sfat Emet is instructive. Commenting on Numbers 33:1-2 ("These are the journeys of the children of Israel who came out of Egypt.") Moses wrote down their comings forth and their goings forward according to the word of the Lord; ''These are their goings forward and their comings forth," he writes. Notice that the order is reversed from the beginning to the end of the verse. Scripture is telling us that all this going forward depends upon coming forth from Egypt. Only after all those journeys is the Exodus from Egypt complete; with each 'going forward' they got farther from Egypt, until they reached the Land of Israel."
In changing and expanding our interests, skills, and creative selves, we must also leave some aspects behind. Old friends, homes, loves, and habits cede their places to new adventures. This parashah teaches us not to ignore the past — even when it is as painful as slavery in Egypt. Instead, we learn to take stock of the past, indeed of every station along the way, every town, every encounter, every experience. Only then, after reliving and re-evaluating our personal and collective past, can we turn our sights with courage and clarity toward the future.
With Wishes for a Good Week and Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Matt Berkowitz