Finally, the indefatigable Israelites find themselves on the cusp of homecoming. They have survived 40 years of wandering towards a pledged and elusive future. Not quite lost, but lacking a fixed and known trajectory. They have endured innumerable deaths. Countless births. Love burst into life again and again, and hearts were torn to pieces. Alliances formed, shattered and were mended a thousand times over. Pacts were sealed and celebrations savored. There was indeed much rejoicing, dancing in the dust and voices lifted in lilting harmony. War and disease took heavy tolls, too. Sorrow and grief guested frequently.
In Parsha Mas’ei, the Israelites prepare to enter Canaan, their promised homeland and sacred objective of their journey. But before they can unload their beleaguered animals and settle into building a world of their own, they must remember where they’ve been.
As directed by HaShem, Moses recounts, step-by-step, the sojourn of his people. It is a detailed accounting and long, including all 42 of the camps they have made. He provides a few identifying features like drought and palm trees, to jog foggy memories. But what’s the point? Undoubtedly, the Israelites are restless. A collective sense of excited accomplishment must have been felt, as well as some anxiety about the immediate future. The lure of a settled life, a true home, must surely have pulsated fiercely within the hearts of every person present. Why wait just to hear the story they’ve all lived?
“The Israelites set out from Ramses and encamped at Succoth,” Moses begins. “They set out at Succoth and encamped at Etham which is on the edge of the wilderness” (Numbers 33:5-7).
The edge of the wilderness is a phrase raw and lonely. It is an incantation evoking deeply rooted memory. When heard by the Israelites, those who braved that edge must have recalled immediately their own experience. In that moment, they felt again the unwieldy sense of trepidation, the exhilaration of newly claimed freedom and the cautious hope in an uncertain future that fueled those early years of rambling.
As Moses continues through every encampment, each of the Israelites would have been seized by lucid recollection. “Ah,” one must have thought, “that was where my daughter was born, her face towards the sun and her cry like salvation.” Or, much sadness. “My brother, so young, died and was buried there. I still ache to think of him.” Another may have recalled glimpsing her love for the first time, or the argument that ended a friendship. Still others may have thought of secrets shared, promises kept, vows which endured and those that did not.
What Moses gives his people is not simply a list of notable points on a map. He is calling forth an array of individual lives to weave together one story of Bnei Yisrael. It is an opportunity for each present to reflect, reminisce, grieve, and let go. Moses empowers new insight, perceptive understanding, and an enormous appreciation for the journey and the tribe. It is a means of entering Canaan fully prepared for the arduous work of building a homeland sustainable for generations.
So it is with us, too. In all the years of our lives, where have we been? What have we known? How have we loved? Who have we lost? What supernova sized passions ignited our souls? We are the stories we tell. We are also the stories we refuse to speak. Much like the Israelites, we cannot know where we must go, what we are seeking, or who we can be, if we don’t fully understand where we have been.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.