Itineraries of the Past Give Structure to Life


The book of Numbers opened with a list of the heads of the tribes of Israel and with the preparations for the journey toward the land of Israel. Here it ends with the portion Masei, recounting the journeys or marches that the Israelites have just completed. This is a more narrative list than the first.

The starting point of each stage of the journey is simply recorded, but occasionally these stages are embellished with small and large details: "They set out from Alush and encamped at Rephidim; it was there that the people had no water to drink." Or later on: "They set out from Kadesh and encamped at Mount Hor, on the edge of the land of Edom. Aaron the priest ascended Mount Hor at the command of the Lord and died there."

We often speak about our own spatial and temporal journeys this way. When we look back at the itinerary of a trip, details jump out at us to make our memories — the taste of a particularly ripe tomato in one town, the memory of losing our favorite shirt in another. We do the same thing with time as with place, remembering that a relative passed away right before Rosh Hashanah, or that we met a special friend around the time that the trees were losing their leaves. These itineraries of our past provide structure for our lives — slots in which to file important memories, feelings, tastes, textures and experiences. They are part of how we order our lives.

Rashi, the great medieval Torah commentator, cites the midrash Numbers Rabbah 23:3 in one answer to the question of why the Torah lists all these journeys: they are "analogous to a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a far away place to have him healed. On the way back, the father began citing all the stages of their journey, saying to him, 'This is where we sat, here we were cold, here you had a headache, etc.' "

Indeed, the recounting of the stops on the journey and what happened at them are themselves part of the healing process. As the king and his son retrace their steps, the father reminding his son of how they felt at each spot affirms for the son that things are really different; he is better now than he was before the journey.

So it is for the people of Israel. By going back over how many stops there were, how far they have come, the hardships that they have borne, the portion affirms that they have arrived to a new and different stage — the end of the journey that has taken 40 years. We can also experience the healing of recounting in our own lives, as the Torah portion prompts us to begin looking over the past year.

We have just entered the month of Av, and as Rabbi Alan Lew z"l, teaches us in his book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Tisha B'Av is the true beginning of the High Holiday cycle. "Tisha B'Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they manifest in our own lives — in our alienation and estrangement from God, in our alienation from ourselves and from others."

When we list each stop along the way — season by season, month by month, week by week, we may be surprised by the details that emerge with certain stops. What do we remember? What is noteworthy and what is forgotten? What can we learn about how far we have come? How will we turn from denial toward truth?

Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]


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