What are we Doing Now?!
Over the course of forty years traveling through the desert, the Israelites stopped forty-two times along the way. The Torah in Parashat Mas'ei follows a repetitive formula to tell us about them: vayis'u and vayachanu, they traveled from here, and they settled there; they traveled from there, and they settled here. We have already encountered some of the places earlier in the Torah, and some of the places are mentioned here for the first time. Why does the Torah offer this list?
Rashi comments that this list serves to show us chasadav shel HaMakom, "the kindnesses of the Almighty." For most of their forty years in the wilderness, Rashi notes, the Israelites were not unduly burdened. In fact, not counting the first and last years, during the middle thirty-eight years, they only moved twenty times, as God did not wish to cause them excessive inconvenience through frequent, short encampments. Therefore, the Torah presents this list as a reflection of God's love for B'nei Yisrael. Even though He punished the people as a result of the sin of the spies and made them travel about the wilderness for forty years, He nevertheless showed them care and concern throughout this period.
But what Rashi doesn't acknowledge is that at every stop, at each station, no one had the slightest idea of how long the stop would last. Even Moses did not know where they would go next. Imagine the stress and uncertainty. Are we here for one year, or for one hour? Should we unpack and build a new tent, a new camp? Or is it advisable to just live out of our luggage and be ready for the next move? It's an exhausting state of dependence and of reliance. At any given point, Bnei Yisrael had no idea where they were going.
In a way, that’s how many of us felt over the past year and a half. Vayis’u vayachanu. For a year and a half, the numbers went up and down, restaurants opened and closed, the pandemic was under control and the pandemic was out of control. Were schools this week in person or virtual? Will we be able to travel again? Will we ever be able to go back to normal? It was draining, exhausting, and debilitating to go from day to day not knowing what each day will bring.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev quotes a tradition from the Kabbalists that each place the Israelites encamped offered them another opportunity to reveal an aspect of their holiness: מה שהיה צריך לברר הנצוצות שבמקום ההוא. They didn’t know what was going to happen next, where or when they would move, but they had a project at each location: to reveal another spark, another layer of holiness in the world. Each stop gave them another opportunity to refine their own character as individuals and as a fledgling community. How will they respond to new situations that arise? How will they interact with each other - with their parents, children, spouses, neighbors, friends? How will they interact with Moses, with Aaron, with the Kohanim, the Elders, with the Tabernacle, with God’s Torah that they had been given? On the other hand, How will the leadership lead? They may not have known where they were going next, but they had so much to do where they were at each point.
And so as we conclude the Book of Numbers on Shabbat, and usher in the nine day period of intense mourning for our Temples, which were destroyed in part because our ancestors neglected their responsibilities towards God and towards each other, we should focus on engaging with what we can do now, just as our ancestors did while traveling the wilderness. We too can reveal the hidden sparks of holiness that are within us. We can improve the way we interact with others, increase and deepen our empathy, repair relationships with people, with God, deepen our Tefilah (prayer) and our Torah study. We can do this as individuals and within families. And we can also do this communally. Over the coming months, the KJ team will be working on ways to bring our community closer together and closer to God, and to reveal our sparks of holiness during these times which are still full of uncertainty. Our ancestors didn’t waste one minute at each unknown point in the desert: we can’t afford to either.