Mattot-Mas’ei: Reaching the goal of the journey

BY RABBI JOSEF DAVIDSON

The book of Bemidbar (Numbers) concludes with this week’s double portion, Mattot/Mas`ei (tribes/journeys).  Thirty-eight years have transpired, during which the slave generation has given way to a generation born in freedom in the wilderness.  It is this generation that is now encamped near the east bank of the Jordan River, ready to cross over into the Promised Land.  

There have been many censuses, many adventures and many opportunities for the Children of Israel to grow and mature over the years and miles that have passed.  They have had all of their needs provided:  food, water, shelter.  

ADVERTISEMENT
Volunteer with CASA ad

They have been led by Moses and by God through this God-forsaken area. It has been 40 years since they left Egypt. Moses has given a third of his life in the valiant effort to turn this group of slaves into a people.

In these final two chapters of the Torah’s fourth book, many items of business are covered.  

Laws regarding vows made by women, the distribution of the spoils of war with the Midianites, the request of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Menashe to live on land east of the Jordan River, details of the Israelites’ journey in the Wilderness of Sinai, the commandment to root out all idolatry from the Promised Land, the division of the Land between the nine-and-a-half other tribes, a list of the tribal heads, the 48 cities set aside for the Levites, laws regarding the setting aside of cities of refuge for the unintentional homicide, judicial procedures and a reiteration of the decision regarding the daughters of Tzelofehad and the inheritance of their father’s estate – these are all covered in the double portion.

Most of these topics cover more the settling of the Promised Land than the journey in the Wilderness.  

As the people are encamped on the Jordan River, their eyes are towards Jericho, the first city which they will encounter once they have entered the Promised Land.  It will be the first test of their readiness to reclaim the land which God swore to their ancestors and to them.  How they treat women, how they view the spoils of war, the removal of all traces of idolatry, the equitable division of the land, the provision of homes for the Levites (who have no portion in the land as a tribe per se), the provision of cities of refuge for the person who accidentally takes another’s life – all of these topics are important to people who are in covenant with God, in control of their own destiny and live on their own land.  Much of the fifth book of the Torah will be concerned with these topics in greater detail, as Moses focuses their attention on the rules by which a landed people, as opposed to a wandering one, should live.

The Book of Bemidbar begins with a detailed census of the Children of Israel as they face 38 more years of wandering in the wilderness.  It ends with the anticipation of coming back home to the Promised Land, of reaching the goal towards which they had wandered for so long.  As the wilderness experience taught them how to live free, the experience of conquering the land and settling it will teach them how to create a permanent society.

In our own individual lives, it is often only after we have wandered in the wilderness that we reach our goals.  However, there is one important difference.  The Israelites’ wandering was to end with the settlement of the Promised Land.  Their journey was a means to that end.  In our individual lives, the journey is the goal, and we hope to have the strength to wander for many years.  

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson is Adjunct Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Amoona and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.