Sermon: Mattot-Masai

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 28 July 2023

Way back in the last century, Dee and I were on holiday, driving through Switzerland on our way to one of the Italian lakes. It was boiling hot. We were dying of thirst. We bought water and drank but it didn’t satisfy. Stupidly we then bought Coca Cola which – surprise, surprise – did even less to slake our thirst. Then in the countryside near Lucerne, we saw a dairy. We stopped and bought some milk. We must have drunk the best part of a litre each, there and then, by the side of the road. None of your skimmed or semi-skimmed rubbish! This was cold, creamy, luscious, delicious. Just talking about it now is still something….. And sometimes, when I drink some cold, creamy – whole milk, naturally! – I say to Dee, “Ah, ‘Lucerne milk.’” Just two words – but enough to bring a smile of recognition, of memory, to her face. Had I started this sermon by saying merely, “Lucerne milk” you might have been forgiven for wondering “has he finally lost it?”

Nor would it have been fair to blame if you had fallen asleep during the Torah reading “The Israelites set out from Rameses,” we read, “and encamped at Succot. They set out from Succot and encamped at Eitam… they set out from Eitam, turned towards Pi Hachirot and encamped before Migdol” (Numbers 33: 5-7.) And so on and so on. 49 of the 56 verses of our chapter give us the itinerary of the 40-year wandering of the Israelites between Egypt and the Promised Land. Not exactly “keep you on the edge of your seat with excitement” material. Indeed, I suspect most of my colleagues will have chosen to read other chapters from this last sidra of the book of Numbers.

Some years ago, one of the students at Leo Baeck wrote a d’var torah about this chapter:

It isn’t the most fascinating section of the Torah, looked at as a work of literature. It’s not really a work of literature, at all. It’s more like an Oyster Card journey history……………….

It gives us an insight into the tedium of the lives of those whose only role in the history of the Jewish people was to trudge through the desert, eating the same food every day and sleeping in arbitrary wadis.

It’s boring because their lives were boring.

Now – hard as I know this might be for you to believe –I can admit that as a rabbinic student I was also young and callow. (My friends are probably muttering, “nu, so what’s changed? Now he’s just old and callow.”)

I don’t know if I agree with that rabbinic student about it being boring because their lives were boring. But he’s by no means wrong in suggesting that it isn’t “the most fascinating section of the Torah.”

In his commentary, Rashi agrees with us and asks “what’s the point of listing all these journeys?” He answers his question by saying “to make known the kindness of God.” How is that an answer to the question? For 38 years of their 40 years in the desert, he says, the Israelites only moved 20 times. In other words, on average they stayed in most places a couple of years. For Rashi, then, God was loving enough not to make them be constantly on the move for 40 years.

But the more interesting bit of his commentary is the midrash he brings as support. (Tanchuma) A king has a son who is very ill. The king takes him on a long journey to a place where he can be healed. On the journey back home, as they pass this and that place, the king says to his son, “Do you remember this place? It’s where we met that man who was so helpful?” or “that’s where you nearly died” and so on.

The king and his son are on some kind of therapeutic journey. You review the journey, you remind yourself of the stages of that journey – the difficult as well as the good ones – but the ones that are important for your particular journey.

After 40 years, the people are on the threshold of the Promised Land. Next week we begin Deuteronomy, essentially Moses’s farewell speech to the people, knowing this is where they will have to part company.

When you’re at the end of a journey, you can look with a more-benevolent eye, maybe, on the negative associations with each place. It was bad at the time: there you argued to go back to Egypt; that’s where you built the Golden Calf; there Korach led his rebellion and so on. But like the king and his son, you can now see how each stage on the journey was a step back towards health.

Place names become a bit like a code. “Lucerne milk.” They tell you something about who and what you are. I guess we all have our “Lucerne milk” moments. Now in the grand scheme of things, “Lucerne milk” is no big deal. But there are stages on our journeys which are much more of a big deal.

The journeys which brought all of us here: from Cape Town and Berlin; Vienna and Cairo; the East End and Sydney. Each of those journeys will have their own stopping places on the way. Just to name them acts like a memory trigger, a coded reference to our past, our history.

Yesterday afternoon I called one of my colleagues, a psychotherapist. “What happens,” I asked him, “when a client comes to the end of therapy? Is it like that king and his son on their way back or like Moses spelling out the itinerary?” That didn’t happen very often, he said and he’d only do it if the client asked to do so. Reflecting more generally, however, he thought that significant moments on the journey often happened unexpectedly. That resonated with me. I don’t imagine my journey is particularly different from any of yours in this respect; but I see that significant moments often only become significant in retrospect. Only in looking back, do we realise that we were at a fork in the road and choose to go in this direction, rather than that.

What is needed then in order to see significance in a meaningless list? It’s the associations which give meaning. “Lucerne milk” again!

Being able to name the places on our journey is to get a sense of the grandeur of our particular existence, of its uniqueness. It is one of the ways in which we can see our lives as being neither humdrum nor everyday, but possessing something of the heroic.

I think that’s why I disagree with what that rabbinic student wrote about the list of places in our sidra being boring because their lives were boring.

For we are all heroes on a journey, having to deal with tests, trials, difficulties and temptations. Being a rabbi gives the chance to encounter people at a level where you see how courageous, brave, resourceful, unselfish, heroic they really are; how they cope with what life throws at them and that can be how to live with success as much as, maybe even more, than failure.

Looking back on our journey, we see the places we’ve passed through, and then we get a sense of how we have grown, changed, learned something for our lives. In the end, that’s the Torah we write of our own lives, each stopping place being the beginning of another chapter in our personal story.

When Jacob wakes up from his dream of the ladder with the angels, he exclaims mah norah ha-makom hazeh “How awesome is this place?” (Genesis 28:17) In the Bible makom means simply a place, a geographical place. By rabbinic times, however, makom had come to be one of the rabbinic names for God. We use it, for example, when we offer comfort to mourners: hamakom yenachem etchem “may hamakom, may God comfort you….”

1000 years later, when Rashi was writing his commentary to our chapter, he cannot have been unaware of how makom was used. So when he suggests that the purpose of this long list of place names is to show the kindness of God, of all the names of God he could have used, he chose, interestingly, makom. It’s not clear in the translation but is explicit in the Hebrew: l’hodiah chasidav shel hamakom

When we use the word ‘place’ it’s not only a geographical term. Place also means where we are in life – in our thinking, our relationship with God, with our Jewish lives. The adjectives we use are geographical: we talk of feeling near or far, close or distant to God, Jewish life, Jewish teaching. But they are also adjectives of relationship. And so those place names in our sidra describe the relationship of the people with God.

But in whatever sense we use the word ‘places,’ it is in the act of spelling them out, vocalising them, giving them and what we experienced there a voice that enables us to better take in what we learned through being in that place, at that moment in time, on that journey. For in giving it a voice, we make it our own.