Each week’s Torah portion has an uncanny way of being precisely relevant to something going on in the world or in one’s personal life that particular week. With my family and I preparing to depart next week for Israel, one of the main themes of our double portion this week, Mattot-Masei, resonates on a personal level.
This portion concludes the book of Numbers, and in so doing brings us to the end of the first great narrative of our people. What began with Creation, then became the story of Abraham and Sarah’s family, through slavery in Egypt and the Exodus, and finally telling about the 40 years of wandering in the desert as we became a nation, concludes this week with the Israelites poised to enter the Promised Land at long last.
The second great narrative of our people – life in the land of Israel – is about to begin. (Can we say yet another is being written by our generation still today?)
Mottot-Masei summarizes our journeys through the desert, noting all 42 stops along the way.
Our family trip will include a couple of stops along the way, but even if you include bathroom breaks we’ll not have so many as 42 stops!
Nevertheless, the 42 respites from the journey connect in a philosophical way. For long trips, we have a family tradition of listening to the original BBC version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For those unfamiliar, the premise of the book is that the Earth with its humans was made as an organic supercomputer running a program to fathom: What is the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything? The answer to the question is already well-known: 42. Our purpose, according to the book, is to figure out the question.
How very Torah-like to provide answers that challenge us to ask the right questions! How very poignant to consider whether the journey of our ancestors through the desert was its own reward or whether it was only the means to an end – the arrival of the people in the Promised Land. Or both at the same time?
Will this upcoming family trip be of deep value just because we are out in the world, journeying and experiencing together? Or, do we really need to arrive at scenic places and feel back at home in Israel again in order to make this journey meaningful? The cliché “life is the journey” will echo redundantly through our consciousness as we do the schlepping part of our travel. Is it about our destinations or can it also be about the way itself, or both at once?
When we look back on our individual lives – tracing our life journey like reviewing our route on a roadmap – it all seems to make sense, doesn’t it? We started there and made it to here…everything somehow connects, yet so much did not go according to plan exactly, did it?
So, we wonder whether God had planned those 42 stops during the Israelite’s 40-year journey ahead of time, or whether it only made sense in retrospect.
How do we experience our lives after all? We plan our route, but our planning never quite accounts for the detours, an impromptu break for a spectacular afternoon ice cream, the backtracking to a missed turn or the longer-than-intended layover…
…None of us had the last years of the pandemic in our plans for our life journey, did we? Waze never even hinted this was coming!
At whatever stage of life you are in right now, are you still ‘journeying’ onward? Onward toward the same destination? Or onward to wherever the road now may lead?
What was the greatest regret or injury caused by an unexpected journey? What was the greatest reward you never dared to expect?
What new wonders have you discovered in the last few years? In the last few months?
What have you achieved along a path you never fully planned to take, that otherwise you would likely not have achieved?
How are you wiser for having made a journey you did plan to take?
What other questions does this [perhaps trite, but always useful] metaphor raise for you?
Rabbi Michael Schwartz