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July 23, 2014 By:
A Story and Journey Without an End
This week’s Torah portion, Massei — “Journeys” — concludes the narrative of the Torah by detailing the entire journey that the Israelites have made, from leaving Egypt to arriving at the steppes of Moab, just about to enter the Promised Land. Each place that they camped is mentioned, each incident recalled.
There have been high points and low, times when God, Moses, and the Israelites struggled with each other and times when they worked in harmony. The ancient rabbis draw an analogy between the long list of place names given in this Torah portion and the words of a king whose son is sick and who takes him on a long journey to seek healing.
Upon their return, the king details every place where the son took ill and every place where he found relief. The Israelites, too, have both suffered and found comfort on their journey. In this Torah portion, God recalls all of the difficult moments as well as the moments of grace, learning and peace that the people have found throughout their travels.
Massei draws the Torah’s story to a conclusion just as the Book of Numbers draws to a close. As a result, many have argued that we should really speak of the Torah as having four books rather than five, a “Tetrateuch” rather than a “Pentateuch.” The first four books — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers — tell the Israelites’ story, from their origins to the point at which they are just about to complete their journey and settle in the land of Canaan.
The fifth book — Deuteronomy — adds nothing new to the arc of that story. That is why the ancient rabbis called it Mishneh Torah — “a repetition of Torah.” It is a retrospective, a re-telling of the story that certainly interprets it and adds to its meaning but does not provide new incidents that move the narrative forward.
If the narrative of the Torah ends here in the Book of Numbers, where does it leave us? The Israelites have learned and rebelled, triumphed and mourned, but the story does not end with their long-awaited entry into the land. That moment only arrives in the Book of Joshua, which we rarely read in the synagogue.
Instead, the Torah ends its story b’emtza ha-derech — in the midst of the journey, rather than at its end. We read the Torah again and again each year, but no matter how many times we read it, in its pages, the Israelites never reach the Promised Land. They — and we — are always on the journey.
We are the ever-journeying people, wanderers who have moved across the pages of history in wide arcs. We have known tragedy and triumph.
We have had great scholars and great martyrs. We have lived in peace and tranquility, and we have known horrible war and tragic destruction. Sometimes, we surely longed for the journey to end, either in despair that we would ever find the Promised Land or in hope that it was at last within our reach. But the journey still continues.
This Torah reading teaches us to hope. If our journey is not over, there is still a chance for redemption. If we see tragedy around us, the next stage of the journey may bring happiness. If we experience war, the next twist in the path may bring peace. Our task is to continue the journey and to embrace its gifts. May it always bring us blessing.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected].