Parshat Matot-Mas’ei: Meeting Community Members on Their Journeys
Rabbanit Aviya and Rabbi Amram Maccabi are former Straus-Amiel shlichim who served as Rabbi and Rabbanit of Stockholm, Sweden
“These are the journeys of the children of Israel, by which they went forth out of the land of Egypt by their hosts under the hand of Moshe and Aharon. And they journeyed from… and they camped in… and they journeyed from…and they camped in…” (Bamidbar 33)
The first half of the portion of Mas’ei focuses on the journeys of the Israelites en route to the Promised Land, with the repetition of the phrase “And they journeyed from… and they camped in… and they journeyed from…and they camped in…”.
Many of the exegetes ask why it was important to specify all the places through which the Israelites passed. For what purpose does the Torah give us a list of 49 places, from Egypt all the way to the eastern border of the Land of Israel, most of which we have never even heard of?
In answer to this, the Rambam explains that “there is a great need to mention all the different journeys, for the miracles that had transpired [in each place] were real for all to see. However, in future times all these happenings will turn into hearsay, and those who hear about them will no longer believe… and yet all these great wonders had indeed been visible to the eye. However, the Almighty who knows well that just as the years pass and are forgotten, these wonders, too, shall fade, such that those who hear of them will no longer believe they had really transpired… And for this purpose, He wished to engrave these miracles in the recollection of the journeys, so that all future generations will know of the great wonders that had taken place, and how the people had journeyed through all these places for 40 years.”
Simply put, the Rambam describes the natural course of life and how historical events become dim in our memory. Even significant events, which have impacted the hearts of many and have become engraved in social narrative, soon turn into an historical lesson, and later metamorphose into myth or science fiction.
My father, of blessed memory, used to tell us how during the Six Day War he and his friends witnessed open miracles. For example, how the young women of Nablus welcomed three buses, filled with our own soldiers, with shouts of glee, throwing rice and candy, only because my father had shouted out from the bus in Arabic that they were Tunisian soldiers… Or about the time their military jeep had run out of fuel, and so they filled it up with orange juice and it kept going. Or the time he had interrogated an officer of the Egyptian commando in order to understand what made the latter (and hundreds of Egyptian soldiers) throw down their weapons and run away from one single IDF section comprising 30 soldiers only. The Egyptian officer insisted that it was because they had seen “devilish spirits standing behind the Jewish soldiers”.
The general atmosphere following the war was one of great spiritual upliftment. The Six Day War had not only been a formative moment for the soldiers themselves, but an historic event for the entire nation. The morning after the victory, my father went on with his story, when he put on his tefillin, almost all of the “secular” soldiers asked to put on his tefillin. (He sent them to the other religious guy in the platoon, who had more of a “Lubavitch spirit”, saying to them: “Where have you been all this time?”)
I imagine that after a year or two, all the great miracles that had transpired, could be explained logically. For example: The radio broadcasts in Arabic kept transmitting that Israel had been cleansed of its Jewish inhabitants and that any soldiers remaining were Iraqi. Or, that the orange juice poured into the fuel tank caused the little fuel that was there to float to the surface, and so the jeep’s engine was able to keep running (please don’t try this at home). As to the devilish sprits which were spotted, the columns of dust created by the Israeli military vehicles, seemed from afar (at least through Arab eyes) to be supernatural beings.
Of course, the miraculous Israeli victory was explained in numerous ways: Jewish wisdom, precise intelligence; the Air Force’s outstanding capability; the improvements made to the Israeli jeeps and tanks gave the IDF an advantage in the battlefield… Today, less than 60 years later, the traditional Flag March has become a political event, and there is still an ongoing debate as to whether the Hallel prayer and the blessing of Shehechiyanu should be recited on the day marking the victory…
Rashi on our parsha quotes a midrash which really echoes, at least for me, the rabbinical work my family and I were engaged in when we served communities abroad.
“This can be likened to a king whose son was sick, and so he journeyed with him [the son] to a far-off place to be cured. After they had returned, the king would recall all the places they had journeyed and say [to his son]: Here we slept; here we suffered cold; here your head hurt…”.
The portion of Mas’ei, which recounts the journeys of the Israelites, teaches the shaliach to remove the dust, as it were, from the forgotten journeys of his own community members, and to listen attentively to the stories of any wandering Jew who should chance upon his sermons or his prayers services or even eat upon his table. And a little tip on how we, the shlichim, can better engage our “clients” and enter their hearts: instead of inviting ‘our Jews’ to our Shabbat table, better still to go to them and eat in their homes!
Let’s set aside the halachic technicalities and constraints for a moment, or even the awkwardness entailed in the rabbi and rebbetzin leaving their comfort zone and place of authority, as those who are expected to be the host who open their home to others. When done with humility and in the proper fashion, there is no tool more powerful in the toolkit of any shaliach than the rabbi and rebbetzin going to the home of a community member.
Such an encounter, which takes place in the home and haven of the Jew, has the potential not only to remove the dust from things long forgotten, but to dig up real gold, gold lying hidden under layers of dirt. We, the shlichim, have heard a myriad of stories from our community members: of parents and grandparents; of educational dilemmas and the turbulent journey of marriage. And what about those Jews who are far removed from Torah and mitzvot? What will become of their stories, which are packed away in a little box in the attic because they are too heavy to carry? “And they journeyed from… and they camped in… and they journeyed from…and they camped in…”.
In one such encounter, a member of my community told me of his grandmother, who had exposed her arm to him for the first time when she was very old. Upon it was tattooed a number, burned into her flesh by the Nazis at Auschwitz. (She had not told her offspring of this to protect them from the horror of it.) Today, this very man – whose wife and children have meanwhile converted and learned Hebrew – learns the Daf Yomi every single day.
Another story: A journalist who was an accomplice to the malicious and unobjective coverage of the Marmara [the Turkish ship which attempted to reach the shores of Gaza] with the aim of defaming Israel, told me of his father who had asked his son to say Kaddish for him (I listened with some disgust, I do confess). Today, however, this journalist frequents our small minyan and regularly takes part in shiurim.
A Buddhist monk, currently married to a Jewish woman, is raising two children all because he had heard of King Solomon after finding a Bible in his grandfather’s house. His son was circumcised two years ago.
A Russian woman who had left Israel now has a mezuza on her front door and runs a bakery with kosher foodstuffs only – and all because of a conversation we had evolving around the menorah that adorned her living room.
Stories of Shabbat songs sung on people’s deathbeds which evoked Jewish tears and ultimately led to a Jewish burial instead of a cremation.
“And they journeyed from… and they camped in… and they journeyed from…and they camped in…”.
Every Jew we chance to meet, wherever it happened to be, carries with him family stories (which may have already evolved into myth), traditional melodies, the taste of childhood dishes and a myriad of experiences that make up his and his family’s private-miraculous timeline.
It is the role of every Jew, with a little help from an attentive shaliach on occasion, to stop for a moment and set up camp, in order to recollect and refine his personal Jewish journey.
The Jewish community of Stockholm is the central community of Scandinavia. The number of Jews living in Sweden is 1500 – 2000, most of whom feel a part of general Swedish society. The community is characterized by its openness and comprises a broad spectrum of religious, Zionist and social worldviews, although, generally speaking, it fosters values that are considered to belong to the political Left. From this community have emerged persons of great fortitude.