Shabbat candles: 8:12 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 30:2-36:13
Havdalah: 9:20 p.m.
That’s the way Matot-Masei, the final sedra in Numbers should have begun. It reviews the stages of the Israelites’ journey through the desert. But why bother? Haven’t we been reading it all along? Weren’t we paying attention?
It is like parents with a sick child, says the Midrash. On the way home from the hospital, the parents say, “Look, that’s where you had your headache;” and then later, “That’s where you got really sick.” In Matot-Masei, God recollects what a pain in the neck Israel has been!
I like the analogy, but not the lesson. True, journeys get remembered subjectively, and if your child is sick, every place you see recollects the illness, but there are other ways to look at it.
Imagine diverse people on the same trip to Israel. An archeologist remembers the digs. A Christian recalls where Jesus walked. Jews mention kibbutzim and Coca Cola bottles in Hebrew, signs of modern-day statehood. A bird watcher didn’t notice Jerusalem, but can tell you where rare birds nest near Eilat. Same journey; different diaries.
It is actually amazing how little gets remembered in Matot-Masei altogether. Perhaps a full account would have been too painful. Most of the journey, after all, was filled with punishment for the sin of the spies. The list includes the wilderness of Marah, but not almost dying of thirst. It recalls Rephidim, but not the Amalekite attack there.
But it also omits the good things — like manna and Sinai — suggesting near-total amnesia caused by trauma. Open your mind to the one or two good things, and you risk opening a floodgate to the bad ones as well. The Hebrew for “Numbers” is Bamidbar (“In The Wilderness”), after all. Life has periods of being “in the wilderness,” when we would rather forget it all and just move on.
So, too, with our own personal journeys, when some years are wonderful but some are nightmares. We lock onto the first, not the second. Our walls display family photos of weddings, not funerals. Someone who collects Broadway Playbills threw one out because when the play was over, she got a call that her father had died. She’d rather lose the Playbill than remember the phone call afterward.
Matot-Masei is a mnemonic, a collection of names (like Playbills) to remind us of something or other. But of what? Could the Midrash be right — that like a sick child, we are supposed to remember how we caused so much trouble in the desert? “Here you gave God a headache.” “Here you outright rebelled.” If not that, then what?
I prefer a second Midrash that connects the names to God’s miracles. Though I led you into the wilderness, God says, I did not utterly abandon you. You did not die from poisonous spiders, for instance. I sustained you in life, and I preserved you in freedom.
Even in moments of utter wilderness, God is at least with us.
Unfortunately, that truth may be hard to come by at the time. When Jacob dreams of angels on the ladder to heaven, he awakens immediately to the conclusion, “Surely God is in this place.” But he was enjoying a good dream! God’s presence is not so patent when we wake up from nightmares. It took Israel to the very end of its wandering to be able to look back and see that God was present at each stage. Only with enough distance from the nightmare are we able to conclude that perhaps we were not utterly alone. Something kept us going, after all; and here we are — somehow.
Nightmare periods of wilderness are inevitable in life. We can, however, take hope from this week’s sedra, where we find at the end that God was there all along. If we are in the wilderness now, and it doesn’t seem that way, we may just have to wait the wilderness out some more. But even in the middle of it, we should try to sustain the faith that our own personal sedra of Matot-Masei will some day arrive.
“Dear Diary,” we may hope to write, “Though too painful to recall in full, I can at least compose an outline of where I have been, and what I’ve been through. That is because I see now what I couldn’t see then: I was not alone. God could not change the circumstances, so God just held my hand.”
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College in New York. He is the author of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing).