“Parsha and Purpose” – Mattot-Masei 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Learning From Our Mistakes; Defeating a Pandemic”

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“Learning From Our Mistakes; Defeating a Pandemic”

We really thought we had done it. In Israel at least, we thought we had gotten control over the coronavirus, as the government announced a relaxation of restrictions. 

We had just begun to deal with the economic and psychological impacts of the lockdown, only to find ourselves now being thrust backwards.

Given the feelings of uncertainty, confusion, fear and even anger that have come to dominate our consciousness, wherever we may be, our parsha, Matot-Mas’ei, contains an insight that speaks to our lives in a very meaningful way:

אלה מסעי בני ישראל…

“These are journeys of the Jewish people”

ויכתב משה…  

“and Moshe wrote them down…”

על פי ה׳ 

“according to the command of God.” Numbers 33:1-2

The painstaking recording of all of these journeys, 42 in all, seems to be superfluous. 

Why do we need this exhaustive list of every single encampment of the Jewish People in the desert?

I’d like to share with you an insight based on halakhic rulings of the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch that will shed a light on a possible answer that truly speaks to us. 

The Shulchan Aruch rules that the number of lines in each parchment of a Torah scroll should be 42, equal to the number of the Jewish People’s journeys. Based on Soferim 2:11

After all, if the Torah is to be our roadmap for life, it should celebrate the idea that life is about the journeys that we take, and therefore each piece of parchment should correspond to the number of journeys we took.

In contrast, the Rambam rules that each parchment should be no less than 48 lines. Mishneh Torah, Tefillin, Mezuzah and the Torah Scroll 7:10


His view is that each parchment must highlight not only the 42 stops going forward, but also the six occasions on which they retreated in their desert travels. Toward the end of the desert journey, they actually revisit six of their previous encampments, and confront the  mistakes they made there.

While we usually think that life is all about moving forward, often, we need to retreat from the progress that we’ve made: to take a step back, and have the humility to learn from our mistakes and re-evaluate our decisions. 

It is through this process that we grow and truly move forward.

As millions of people across the globe are experiencing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic – or an intensification of the first wave – we have had to retreat to previous stops on this surreal journey. 

Maybe we have to return because we have still not internalized the lesson from the first wave. 

We forgot about our responsibility to each other. 

We stopped wearing masks and we made them into chin guards, or we wore masks but they didn’t cover our noses.

We became “so religious” that we still felt mandated to go to shul even when not feeling well, though it meant potentially infecting others.

We figured out clever ways to get around the law … we called gyms “shuls” so we could have 19 people, and counted 50 couples at a wedding as 50 people…  instead of abiding by the health regulations out of an understanding that they exist in order to protect others – as much as ourselves.

Our actions have now brought us to the point of retreat. 

As we enter this phase of the pandemic, we must remember the lesson of the Rambam: learning from our retreats and our mistakes is an integral part of humanity’s zig-zagging journey forward. 

Shabbat Shalom.


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