Rabbi Moshe Kempinski
Rabbi Moshe Kempinski Courtesy

The original Hebrew name for the Book of Numbers is the book of Bamidbar ( In the Wilderness) On this past Shabbat we read the last Torah portion of this book.

The whole Book of Bamidbar describes the experience of the newly emerging people of Israel. It describes the beginning of their voyage into a destiny marked by challenges and great successes. It serves as an eternal guide for the generations that will follow imparting the lessons and expectations of the voyages in our own lives .

First lesson: It will not be an easy journey.

The prophet Hoshea when describing his people depicts a battered and confused people seeking solace with other suitors following the waves of hatred and persecution in their own exile experiences.

Second lesson: G-d never loses faith in His people, in spite of the fact that many of them may have lost faith in Him. The prophet describes how G-d entices His people again into the wilderness in order to rekindle their relationship and to redirect their journey.

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly unto her. …. And I will betroth you unto Me for ever; yea, I will betroth you unto Me in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth you unto Me in faithfulness; and you will know HaShem.” (Hoshea 2;18-22).

Jeremiah reinforces that concept with his words;

“Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says Hashem, “I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth, The love of your betrothals, Your following after Me in the wilderness, Through a land not sown.”(Jeremiah 2:2)

Each generation with their own unique story and journey can reflect on the experience of the Israelites in order to learn how to grow and learn from that wilderness experience.

The process of spiritual repair and constant redirecting would involve a long and arduous journey. That journey would involve many instances of oppression and challenges , both spiritual and physical.

Yet it is in the midst of that journey that purpose and fulfillment would be found .

The Torah portion of “Maasei“ can provide insight into that journey.

In the last portion of the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) we read of the 42 stations in the wandering of the people of Israel in the wilderness until their arrival at the gates of the land of Israel.

“These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt in their legions, under the charge of Moshe and Aaron. Moshe recorded from their starting points for their journeys (motza-eyhem lemasa-eyem) according to the word of Hashem, and these were their journeys to their starting points. (masa-eyem lemotza-eyhem)” (Numbers 33:-21)

First we read “from their starting points for their journeys and then the verse says “their journeys to their starting points“.

Why the repetition of the idea and why the reverse order?

Third lesson: The words “motza-eyhem lemasa-eyem” teach us that we need to remember where we came from and what we have experienced. Our past is our guide. As the Baal Shem Tov taught “Forgetfulness leads to exile. Memory is the source of redemption”. Yet at the same time we cannot lose sight of the goal that set us upon our journey in the first place, ”masa-eyem lemotza-eyhem.”

With those two compass points we can endure, survive and grow in the long voyage that we have set upon.

A nation that forgets its roots and how much they have grown will lose the courage to grow further.

But a nation that forgets its intended destination and why the journey was begun,will flounder in the "Here and Now" without a sense of purpose .

That is the difficult test for the people of Israel that began their voyage with the words

"With Your loving kindness You led the people You redeemed; You led [them] with Your might to Your holy abode....You shall bring them and plant them on the mount of Your heritage, directed toward Your habitation, which You made, Hashem; the sanctuary, Hashem which Your hands founded." (Exodus 15: 13,17)

We are currently in the midst of the “three weeks of longing”. We are in the midst of mourning for and yearning for the absent House of G-d. The House of G-d is the place of the palpable experience of Hashem's Presence in this world. While it is true that Hashem can be experienced anywhere, it is Hashem Who calls this land His land, this city His abode, and the Temple His home.

He does not need a home. We need to have a land, city and house we can arrive at to experience the awesome sense of being invited into and entering our Father’s house .

The placement of a Torah reading in this specific time in the calendar year is never happenstance. The tools of our journey are laid out right before our eyes

May we understand and embrace that yearning.

LeIlui Nishmat Yehudit bat Sinai veGolda Yocheved