Faith in the wilderness
Matot-Masei | Numbers 30:2-32:42
That’s the way Masei should have begun. It reviews the stages of the Israelites’ journey through the desert. But why bother? Haven’t we been reading it all along?
It is like parents with a sick child, says the midrash. On the way home from the hospital, the parents say, “Look, that’s where you had your headache,” and then, “That’s where you got really sick.” In Masei, God recollects what a pain in the neck Israel has been!
I like the analogy, but not the lesson. True, journeys get remembered subjectively, and if your child is sick, every place you see reminds you of the illness — but there are other ways to look at it.
Imagine diverse people on the same trip to Israel. An archaeologist remembers the digs. A Christian recalls where Jesus walked. Jews include kibbutzim and Coca-Cola bottles in Hebrew. A bird-watcher notes where rare birds nest near Eilat. Same journey, different diaries.
Very little gets remembered in Masei, really. Perhaps a full account would have been too painful. The list includes the wilderness of Marah, but not almost dying of thirst. It recalls Rephidim, but not the Amalekite attack there.
But it also omits the good things — like manna and Sinai — suggesting near-total amnesia caused by trauma. Life has periods of being “in the wilderness,” when we would rather forget it all and just move on.
So too with our own personal journeys, when some years are wonderful but some are nightmares. We lock onto the first, not the second.
Masei is a mnemonic, a collection of names to remind us of something or other. But of what? Could the midrash be right — that we are supposed to remember how we caused so much trouble in the desert?
I prefer a second midrash that connects the names to God’s miracles. “Though I led you into the wilderness,” God says, “I did not utterly abandon you. You did not die from poisonous spiders, for instance. I sustained you in life, and I preserved you in freedom.” Even in moments of utter wilderness, God is at least beside us.
Unfortunately, that truth may be hard to come by at the time. When Jacob dreams of angels on a ladder to heaven, he awakens to the conclusion, “Surely God is in this place.” But he was enjoying a good dream! God’s presence is not so patent when we wake up from nightmares. It took Israel to the very end of the wandering to be able to look back and see that God was present at each stage.
Nightmare periods of wilderness are inevitable. We can, however, take hope from this week’s sedra, where we find at the end that God was there all along.
“Dear Diary,” we may hope to write, “Though too painful to recall in full, I can at least compose an outline of where I have been, and what I’ve been through. That is because I see now what I couldn’t see then: I was not alone. God could not change the circumstances, so God just held my hand.”