From the Bamat: Parashat Matot-Massei

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The book of Bamidbar (Numbers) is a book of journey and rebellion. The people of Israel move through the wilderness, sinning, fighting, repenting and then repeating.  By the book’s end (which we reach this week) the entire lot of freed slaves will be condemned to die in the wilderness, along with all of their leaders. (The sole exceptions are Joshua and Caleb, spared the curse of desert-death by their heroic willingness to see the land of Canaan for what it could be rather than for what it was self-evidently was.)  A war against the nefarious Midianites has helped bring some much-needed unity to the fractious people of Israel, but as the people finally arrive on the cusp of the Promised Land, one imagines that everyone involved must have noticed that things had not really gone according to plan.  Even at this late date, as the journey through the wilderness comes to its whimper of an end, things continue to go wrong.  Two tribes, seemingly happy to stop before even entering the land of Canaan, try to opt-out of their responsibilities to assist in the conquest of the land, earning a stern rebuke from Moses.  The thorny issue of succession within the family Zelophad (the man with only sons–his daughters were allowed to inherit) rears its head again, as the agreed upon solution unravels when reality sets in.  And even the war that was supposed to bring the people together ends up leading to yet more sin when the people fail to follow the (somewhat bloody) rules of engagement Moses had instituted.  The high point of the Sinai revelation must have seemed far away to the exhausted proto-nation that found itself on the plains of Moab.

But as difficult as the journey has been, the Torah is insistent that we remember ever step.  The beginning of parashat Mase’ei (the second of our double-portion Shabbat) is a recap of the Israelite journey thus far, beginning from Ramses in Egypt and ending with the people camped by the Jordan.  The retelling is almost entirely bloodless: it is list rather than a travelogue.  Only the death of Aaron is recorded as a narrative addition, the rest of the journey is recounted merely as a series of locations, as if the people of Israel simply moved from place to place without friction or drama.  But of course we know that not to be the case.  According to a midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah, God commands Moses to remind the people of all the places they provoked the wrath of the Divine.  RASHI has a different take, arguing that this list is a reminder of God’s kindness: the litany of stops is meant to  tell us that although God had decreed that the people must wander for years in the wilderness, he did not make them walk unceasingly.  There was rest for the weary.  The commentator Sforno has yet a third idea, positing that the list highlights the people’s willingness to follow God into what the prophet Jeremiah calls a “land unsown” (2:2) in his peon to the Exodus generation.  In this version, the list of stages is neither a litany of Israel’s shameful rebellions nor a reminder of God’s mercy, but instead an opportunity to recount the great courage exhibited by a community of people who stepped boldly into the welter and wastes of the desert wilderness.

Perhaps it is inevitable that the recounting of the Israel’s past should be a subject of debate in our tradition.  The telling of history is always freighted with the concerns of the present.  The author of the Midrash read the book of Numbers and saw a people steeped in sin and thus imagined the Torah’s recitation of the people’s journey as a summary of failure.  RASHI, on the other hand, read the book of Numbers and saw an ever-patient God allowing the rebellious people to continue onward to the Promised Land.  His version of the list of stops thus expresses that version of the story being told.  And finally, Sforno, taking the view of Jeremiah, saw a people following a God they barely knew into a nowhere they could not predict.  This people is deserving of praise; and thus for Sforno praise is what the journey’s history is meant to be.  None of these readings is wrong and each can exist beside the other without forcing us to choose.  The people are sinful.  God is merciful.  The people are brave.  Sometimes we need to tell one story, and sometimes the other.  No story is the only story.  History is never just a list of names and places and dates. History is also the memory that fills the spaces around the fixed objects of the when and the where, the who and the what.  History is also the why.

On Sunday, many visitors will come to our camp and hear the story of the summer so far from campers and staff.  The stories they tell will be far more than a list of places, programs and events.  Those places matter, as do the programs we plan and the events we create.  But what happens in the spaces between those concrete items are what really tell the history of a summer at Camp.  The relationships we form, the acts of kindness and compassion that we do for each other, the way a community comes together.  More than that: the private jokes, the “you had to be there” moments” the “only at Camp” feelings and experiences, these too are part of the stories we try (and sometimes fail) to tell of the time we spend at Camp.  These are the stories our visitors will hear on Sunday.  This the history of our summer so far at Camp.  We are thrilled to have you join us here, to walk this ground, to see the places and the buildings and the people.  We cannot wait for you to hear our story.