Do you like mysteries?
Have a look at the Hebrew below from the start of Numbers chapter 33 and notice the order of the underlined words in the second verse. This is from the start of the second of this week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Massei:
אֵ֜לֶּה מַסְעֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָצְא֛וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְצִבְאֹתָ֑ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃
וַיִּכְתֹּ֨ב מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־מוֹצָאֵיהֶ֛ם לְמַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־פִּ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וְאֵ֥לֶּה מַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם לְמוֹצָאֵיהֶֽם׃
With no need even to translate, did you notice that the order of the words has been reversed? There is nothing accidental in Torah. So we can ask “Why has the order been reversed? What is it trying to teach us?”
[It is a different discussion whether: a.) there are no accidents in Torah because the Torah mirrors life in which nothing is accidental, or instead b.) because life is in fact so full of accidents that Torah’s great success is in having overcome the randomness of reality to make every nuanced letter, word, blank space, word order, letter decoration, and every experience of study a way to connect to ultimate purpose and meaning…]
The situation in which this verse occurs is that the children of Israel are camped alongside the Jordan River, ready to enter the land of Israel, the Promised Land. They have arrived after their nearly 40 years of wandering in the desert during which all their parents who had been slaves and left Egypt for freedom have by now died off in the wilderness. It will take this new generation raised in freedom – rather than their parents – to go in and possess the land and establish the utopian society that the Torah describes and demands from them.
Before they go in, Moses reminds them in the verses above of the last 40 years:
“These were the journeys of the Israelites who departed from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.
Moses recorded the points of departure– מוֹצָאֵיהֶ֛ם – of their various journeys – מַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם – as directed by God. These are their journeys – מַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם – by points of departure – מוֹצָאֵיהֶ֛ם -, as follows…”
Just to deepen the mystery here of why, perhaps, there seems to be this back-and-forth between settling down in a place that one can be said to depart from, and the destination-seeking experience of journeying onward: Think back to the story of Abraham who is told to “Lech-Lecha”, to ‘get up and go for yourself’, or “go to yourself”, or just simply “Go…to the Land that I will show you”. This departing and journeying towards an often indistinct “Promised Land” is the foundation of the Jewish People. You might say that the epic journey in search of a home or a Promised Land or a land of milk and honey, and all the interim journeys along the way, is the “archetype” of our experience. We hear of it first with Abraham, then during the 40 years in the desert, then the last 2,000 years and still today if we give thought to whether the modern state of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish People at last in continuum of this grand story of our family.
But this is not just a Jewish archetype, it is a universal archetype – think of Adam and Eve as representing all humankind who leave the Garden of Eden and journey into the wider world. We have been seeking a return to paradise (whether in this life or the next) ever since. The Odyssey of old, Into the Wild more recently. Mircea Eliade famously called this “The myth of the eternal return”, the basis of the idea of “karma”.
More specifically, though, we can hear a series of questions about our own lives being asked from this mystery of why we are presented with the 42 “points of departure” for our “journeys”, then reversing the order of these words explain it is listing these “journeys” by their “points of departure.” The question is asked within the context of our own story, our own journey, the context that is part of what the prayerbook describes as ‘Birth is a beginning and death a destination; but life is a journey’.
Where have you stayed along your way and to where did you move forward to from there? What were your catalysts for getting up to go and leaving and for settling down to stay again? What do you remember from the way in between? Do you have a “Promised Land” of your own that you are striving to get to? How are you preparing, even if you are unsure you will ever make it?
How about journeying to Devereux Beach tonight? Join the Temple Sinai community for live jazz music, drinks, and dessert starting at 6:00pm [bring a picnic dinner!] and experience our greeting Shabbat and one another at the beach…