BS”D Parashat Matot- Masei 5778
Here we are, nearing the end of Sefer Bamidbar. The two last parashiot are combined this week and with this we close this year’s round of the Book of Bamidbar, the recounting of our forefather’s journey through the desert.
As usual, there are many varied topics discussed in the parasha. It begins with the complicated rules governing the making of vows. And the keeping of them. Our word is very precious and must be guarded accordingly. Then Bnei Yisrael goes out to war against the nation of Midian to exact revenge for all the damage they caused. And the first portion ends with the request of the tribes of Reuven and Gad to not settle in the Land of Israel. They were dazzled by the wonderful land that they saw on the other side of the Jordan river and how suitable it was for grazing their livestock. And they ask to be able to settle there. They were so overcome by its beauty that they even lost sight of their priorities, briefly. They tell Moshe Rabeinu what a perfect place it is to cultivate their livelihood and to build cities for their children: “build flock-enclosures for our possessions here, and cities for our small children,” [32:16] OOPS! We really ought never to mention our livelihood before our children. The Torah told us about this slip of the tongue to give us an enormous lesson in priorities. It was Moshe Rabeinu, who, when agreeing with their decision later on, gently reminds them of the truth by saying that here they will build cities for their children and graze their livestock! “Build for yourselves cities for your small children, and enclosures for your flocks, and that which comes from your mouths, you shall do.”[32:24] Stupendous lesson in the most unlikely place.
And then then in the 2nd portion, the Torah reviews the 42 places of encampment that Bnei Yisrael camped in in the desert. Journeys, friends. Life and its journey, odessy. Our lives are reflected from within the pages of the parasha every week anew. There was significance to each one of those encampments. None of them random or coincidental. There are 42 letters in God’s name. So in fact, their journeys mirror our own in life, a quest for more spiritual awareness. More connection to God. At every new encampment, there was something to be learned, a new way to grow and new measures to progress. Thus the entire desert experience was one of growth and spiritual advancement.
The idea of these journeys mirroring our lives is actually fascinating. And we can take it one step further. The commentator, the Degel Machane Efraim, tells us that these wanderings and varied encampments really tell the story of life and more specifically the transience in life. What our fathers did in the desert is what we do. We just pass through. This existence and all that it contains is temporary, not permanent.
Let’s go back, for a moment to the Act of Creation. The second verse in Bereishit says: “And the earth was EMPTINESS and VOID, and DARKNESS was on the face of the DEPTHS, and THE SPIRIT OF God hovered over the face of the waters.” These words are of enormous significance of course. Each one of the descriptions of the state of the world refers to a different exile that the Jews were meant to suffer through! EMPTINESS symbolizes the Babylonian exile; VOID refers to the Persian-Medea exile; DARKNESS represents the Syrian-Greek exile; and the DEPTHS refers to the current Roman exile. THE SPIRIT OF God alludes to the spirit of the Messiah, who will ultimately redeem the Jewish people from exile. The interesting thing though, is that the world was barely born, there were no people yet and certainly no Jews!! So why build the concept of exile into the laws of nature? The punishment before the crime???
Mostly because the exiles are not a punishment. They are a reminder. Of the passing nature of our trip in this world!! All those upheavals and expulsions and exiles have only served to remind us that we really are not here for the long run. We are here today and gone tomorrow. This idea actually appears in the first verse of this week’s parasha. ” Eleh Masei Bnei Yisrael.” The first letter of every word stands for the first letter of the 4 main exiles we have had: Edom, Madai-Persia, Bavel and Yavan- Greece!! How do you like that for amazing?! And they are hinted to here precisely because they teach us the same lesson as our transit through the desert. Namely that we are not permanent fixtures.
Rabbi Wagensberg gives a lovely example of this idea. Let’s say you were taking an elevator to the top floor of the Empire State Building and you noticed the mirrors were dirty. Would you start polishing them? Would you? Of course not, you know you are getting off any minute!! Why spend time on inconsequential matters!? Hopefully, we too are on an upward journey. And there is really no need to sweat the small stuff, we are here to take our orders from THE BOSS Himself!! We are here on a Divine mission, a Divine calling.
You have all undoubtedly heard the beautiful story of a man passing through Europe. When travelling through the small town of Radin, he was anxious to meet the extraordinary giant among men known as the Chafetz Chaim. When shown into his home, he was taken aback by the utter simplicity. In all innocence he asked the venerable sage where his furniture was. He probably even thought they were in the middle of redecorating!! The Sage did not lose his equanimity and asked his visitor right back where his furniture was? The gentleman thought the question absurd: “I’m visiting”, he answered. The saintly Kohen Gadol, Rav Yisroel Meir Hakohen Kagan , the Chafetz Chaim, looked at him with all the warmth and compassion in his soul and taught our poor friend a lesson he would never forget: “So am I,” said the Tzadik! And so are we all.
Rabbi Wagensberg gives one more example and it is a fine one: Imagine that you’ve won the grand prize on a game show: a shopping spree at Macy’s. For 15 minutes, you will have the entire store to yourself, during which time whatever merchandise you collect will be yours for the rest of your life. Try to picture what you would look like during those 15 minutes.
Now, imagine how you would react if, in the course of your frenzied shopping, a friend were to tap you on the shoulder and say, “I’d love to chat with you, just for two minutes. Can we go get a cup of coffee?” Most likely, you wouldn’t even take the time to respond – or perhaps you’d just shout, “No time – I’ll explain later,” as you dashed off to the next department.
This imaginary shopping spree is comparable to our experience in this world. We each have an individual expiration date, but until that date arrives, we are in a candy store of Torah and mitzvot, and whatever we collect is ours for eternity. If we truly lived with this awareness, we would have to be reminded to eat, drink and sleep. Our physical considerations would pale in comparison to the importance of stashing away goods for eternity, and we would be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to accumulate more spiritual “merchandise.” I have yet to hear anyone on their deathbed say, “If only I’d spent a few more hours at the office…”
The take away for us, in this day and age of disposable, expendable and conspicuous consumption is what? Simplicity. In our homes and in our possessions. True, Madison Avenue would like us to believe that life would be drastically better, faster, finer if we had this, that and the other. But paring back, downsizing the number of things that take over our lives, rule our existence, may be a more worthwhile way to go… we all appreciate nice things. But need we put such an emphasis on them. Must we embrace the philosophy of more, bigger, better? I agree that for a woman it is harder. A woman sets the tone in the home. Her home is a reflection of her whole being and more importantly, of her vision. And women appreciate the frills and the flair. But at some point we need to ask ourselves whether we want to make money or memories. And whether the shine of our brand-new furnishing or purse is more important than the shine in our children’s eyes. Maybe it means doing with less, but investing in more. Never leting things define our existence. Never losing sight of our real destination.
Safe journeys, friends,