With this week’s pair of Torah portions, Matot-Masei, we conclude the Book of Numbers. As we end this piece of our Torah, we recount the many stations of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness as they prepare to approach Israel.
Eileh mas’ei v’nei-Yisrael asher yatz’u meieretz Mitzrayim l’ziv’otam b’yad Moshe v’Aharon
“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).” So very much attention is given to the Israelites’ travel, and it seems on a plain reading to be just that: a recollection of where the Israelites have been.
There is another message here if we look beyond the surface understanding. The Israelites’ exodus from the narrow places of Egypt and servitude to Pharaoh, a false god, serve as the precursor to their sacred service to God in the wideness of the wilderness. Matot-Masei is not simply a record of where the Israelites have been; it is an important review of how their relationship with God has developed and evolved. It is a reminder of how they have come together as a people through their experiences of God.
Throughout the book of Numbers the Israelites have become more aware of and closely connected to the divine presence for whom they constructed the Tabernacle. The presence of God has been their traveling companion, accompanying them as they prepare to arrive at the land promised to their ancestors.
Travel and journeys are of great value in the book of Numbers. The community of Israelites arrive transformed on the boundary of Israel, no longer the group of redeemed slaves that had left Egypt. In these days of social distancing, our ability to travel physically is restricted. Our ability to journey, though, is as available as ever, if we shift our perspective, looking to the ancient Israelites’ wandering through the wilderness and building relationships with each other and God as our model.
For the past several months, humanity has been on a journey through an unprecedented wilderness, as we struggle to navigate through this global pandemic. But this journey has led many of us to a deeper understanding of relationships. Now, perhaps more than ever before, we have come to realize how interconnected we truly are. The spread of COVID-19 has illuminated the impact we each have on humanity, and we are reminded that we travel through life with our fellow human beings, each one created in the divine image. May we carry that knowledge with responsibility, may our journeys together be safe, and may we see in each station of our journey an opportunity for closeness with God.
Rabbi Elle Muhlbaum is the lower school director at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood.