This week we close out the book of Bamidbar with a double parshah, Matot, meaning “Tribes”, and Masei, meaning “Travels” or “Trips” – this is the same word found in the name of our congregational religious school that we call Masa B’Yachad, or “Journey Together”.
This is a pretty technical parsha, and while there are some action scenes, there’s also a lot of material that doesn’t really support the narrative structure. Matot opens with some legal discussion about vows (specifically by women, and when they do and don’t count); and it proceeds to a Netflix-worthy scene of the Israelites’ slaughter of their enemies. But then it goes into this extremely detailed accounting of the spoils of the battle, how much was allocated to each tribe, and exactly what percentage was levied off to support the Levi’im. This is the parsha that makes you ask, “what would 675,000 sheep actually look like, and how would you possibly go about counting them all??” …lest we forget that we are, after all, nearing the end of the book of Numbers.
And a lot of Masei, as you might expect, is literally a long list of all the places the Israelites encamped in their sojourn in the desert. But one of the things that was interesting to me about this reading is that it’s full of callbacks to other recent parshiyot. We hear about the death of the prophet Bilaam, who gets put to the sword during that slaughter of Israel’s enemies. It turns out that his blessing of Israel in Parshat Balak two weeks ago was not enough to excuse him for helping corrupt the Israelites at Ba’al Peor a few pages later. We hear about Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, the priestly zealot and the hero of Ba’al Peor, who had the cliffhanger ending at the end of Balak and then got his own parsha last week. And we get the wrap-up to the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad, whose inheritance was discussed last week at the end of Parshat Pinchas. So there’s a complicated intertwining of all of these stories that behaves almost like that Netflix drama you’re going to sit down and binge-watch. (In case you can’t tell, I watched all of Stranger Things 4 this week.)
And even within today’s double parsha, we get this self-referential quality, because once we get through the list of the Travels, Parshat Masei is even more occupied with the tribes and their concerns than the parsha actually called Matot. The middle of Masei explains all the chieftainships assigned to the different tribes. And the final chapter of Masei, that we’ll read today, uses the word Matot or Mateh, “tribes” or “tribe”, 15 times within 10 verses, because the case of the daughters of Tzelofchad is highly significant to the interests of the tribes and the tribal system. So it’s like Matot is the kernel, the heart, of the book of Masei, and Masei is a kind of tribal scrapbook of their journeys along the way.
Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman* offers a teaching about Masei in the name of Rabbi Art Green, that the long list of locations is the shorthand for a lot of stories: some that are pleasant to recall, and some not so pleasant. “But at the end of the journey, there is a certain value to remembering all the trips, to knowing that they all, however misguided and stupid they may seem in retrospect, went into one’s life, and together constitute a source for a certain kind of wisdom.” Personally, I know I find this in my own life; there are certainly episodes that I wouldn’t do the same way again, but at the same time I can’t exactly regret them because every step is part of the journey that brought me to this time and this place.
Life really is about the journey, for good or ill, and that is why we have to remember where we’ve been. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek – may we all be strengthened by the memories of our steps along the way. And may we all make it to the Promised Land, even if it takes us til next season to get there. Shabbat shalom!