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The Israelites' Journey: From Matter to Spirit
MASEI, Numbers 33:1-36:13
Masei, the final portion in the book of Numbers, opens by recounting the itinerary of the Israelites in an increasingly repetitive rhythm: "They set out from Elim and encamped by the Sea of Reeds. They set out from the Sea of Reeds and encamped in the wilderness of Sin. They set out from the wilderness of Sin and encamped at Dophkah."
The rhythm breaks occasionally to describe a significant event, such as Aaron's death, but for the most part, we are lulled into their journey through the rhythm of its recounting, as if we, too, were moving step by step through the wilderness. The book of Numbers gave us the details of the journey -- the rough parts and the highlights. Now, through this rhythm, we're given a sense of how far they've come and how steady their progress has been.
Sefat Emet, a Chasidic commentator, notes that in the second verse of the portion there's a pattern of reversal to the words. Rabbi Art Green translates the verse: "Moses wrote down their comings forth and their goings forward according to the Lord; these are their goings forward and their comings forth."
Sefat Emet understands this to mean that in order to "go forward" they first needed to "come forth" from Egypt, which he compares to the need for humans to turn away from the material, physical world in order to go forward toward the spiritual world.
This is the nature of any journey. We must leave some of the physical behind. The Israelites leave what was comforting about Egypt -- a steady, familiar food and water supply, a routine life -- along with the hardship and slavery they experienced there -- in order to make the long journey to the Promised Land.
Even when we go on summer vacation, we leave behind the vast portion of our possessions, packing only what we need for a couple of weeks of a "lighter" existence, away from the routines and possessions that help us but can also weigh us down.
The reversal of "coming forth" with "going forward" also reminds us of how slow and often temporary the process of moving forward in our spiritual journeys is. The journey of the spirit is one step forward and two steps back. One day, we are able to let go of our worries about the physical world and connect to something more spiritual, and the very next day, we may find this progress reversed and we are again consumed with material concerns.
'Why Did We Leave?'
The Israelites ultimately do make progress out of Egypt and toward the Holy Land, but not without slipping into complaining and worry about where they will find food and water, wondering why they left at all.
The slow steady rhythm that describes this journey in Masei shows us the longer view of their progress. When we look back over what has happened since Numbers began, we see that, oh so slowly, the people have arrived at the Jordan, ready to cross. Place by place, step by step, they moved forward, despite the interruptions and doubts.
So it is with our own journeys. We leave behind what we don't need in order to move forward. We slip back. But over time we gain in wisdom, slowly, as we progress toward the spiritual.
Masei reminds us not to rush. There is a pattern and a rhythm. We may not be able to discern the whole thing until we arrive at a crossing point, but sure enough, when we look back, we were journeying forward all along.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected].