This Shabbat we finish reading the book of Numbers. It’s a double parashah reading, Matot and Masei, and by finishing the book of Numbers, we finish our time in the wilderness. Next week we start the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ reflections on his journey with Israel. But how do we learn to move goals from one generation to the next? How can our time in the wilderness be over, and the next generation be prepared to encounter new horizons?
Part of the challenge is in the transition of identity. The Israelite slaves left Egypt and were led, commanded, taught, persuaded, and threatened, in order to become free thinkers. It didn’t work. God decreed that their lives would be spent in the wilderness. At least the constraints of Egypt were gone, and the openness of the desert could soothe them.
However, their children, the ones who don’t have an Egypt experience, will enter the land, and build something new. How can a generation that doesn’t understand freedom raise a generation that does? How can a parent or a grandparent prepare their child for a new world that the grandparent won’t see?
The answer lies in the names of this week’s Torah readings: Matot, which means tribes, and Masei, which means journeys. The first name refers to the reality of the previous generation, Masei, Tribes. When the Israelite slaves left Egypt, they were tribal, separate clans. Their journey in the desert was toward peoplehood, an understanding of collective responsibility and shared destiny. The second name, Masei, Journeys, is the message to the next generation that they must journey away from their parents’ realities to forge something new. But we connect these two readings so that we understand it is not one generation disconnecting from the other, it is the process of taking touchstones from their parents without taking on their parents’ challenges. Torah, covenant, its morals and values are the tools the next generation needs to forge their own Jewish journey forward. If they do not travel forward, Torah becomes a prison and will anchor them in the wilderness.
As we leave the desert, the last lesson of the book of Numbers is to understand that every aspect of Judaism is an invitation for our free thought. The Jewish debate never has constraints, it never takes Egypt with it. Once we enter those layers, we encounter the changing world around us with the inheritance and legacy of Torah, Covenant, and the treasures every previous generation bequeathed us.
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.