Words from the Rabbi: Matot-Masei 5779

This month I’m trying something new, writing to all the members of New Stoke Newington Shul to share some thoughts about the week and the Torah reading. I plan to send these out roughly once a month – let me know if you have any thoughts or suggestions.

“Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.”

― Joseph Campbell

For many of us, summer is a time for travel. This week, Shoshi and I managed to find a couple of days to ourselves to visit the town of Rye in Sussex, and went on a long walk around the nature reserve, following the coastal roads. Windswept, and somewhat sunburnt, we found our way back to town in time to enjoy a cup of tea, made all the more delicious by all the exertion. It was a far cry from my travel the week before.

I had had the pleasure of visiting Noam pre-Camp in Northumbria, an annual part of my job that I love, working with the amazingly passionate leaders and educators of Noam  Having had an inspiring couple of days, moved by the joy and vitality I saw all round me, I boarded the train to London. We were running a little late because of the hot weather, but with volunteers handing out water I wasn’t too worried, and thought I would be home in plenty of time. That is until we pulled to a halt about half a mile out of Peterborough, and all the electricity cut off turning off the air-conditioning. The power was down just south of us, we were informed, and we had to wait but they weren’t sure for how long. For the first hour they were handing out water and my fellow travellers were fairly relaxed, even as the temperatures rose higher and higher. Then they ran out of water. A short while later they opened some of the doors to try to let some air in but by this point we were all soaked through with sweat. One passenger near me was having a panic attack, another fainted.

Finally, two hours later, we were evacuated from the train by ladders and waited by the tracks, feeling grateful for the fresh air. An hour later the power came back on, and once the train had cooled down, we were all asked to reembark, and slowly pulled into Peterborough station. Eventually, 5 hours late, I arrived in Kings Cross station.

This week’s Torah reading of Matot-Masei finishes the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) with the record of the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness, and all the places they stopped along the way. For example, Num 33: 

“5] The Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. 6] They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. 7] They set out from Etham and turned about toward Pi-hahiroth, which faces Baal-zephon, and they encamped before Migdol…”

It makes one rather grateful that my desert-like journey was only delayed by 5 hours, and not by 40 years!

But why does the Torah give us this long list of trips and destinations? What does it mean? The midrash (Rabbinic interpretation) of Bamidbar Rabbah 23:4 says:

“Why were all these stops privileged to be recorded in the Torah? In return for their having received Israel, the Holy Blessed One, will in the future give them their reward, as it is written in Isaiah 35, “The wilderness and the parched land shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice” (Isaiah 35:1) Now if the wilderness will be thus rewarded for having received Israel, is it not certain that one who receives scholars into their house will be rewarded all the more?”

The places that the Israelites stopped in the desert are recorded because ultimately they will be rewarded for receiving those weary travellers. How much the more so will we be rewarded, says the midrash, if we open our houses to visiting scholars! You can, perhaps, see the vested interest here of the rabbi teaching this lesson.

My experiences last week reminded me of the some of the great pressures and struggles of our planet – as the planet continues to heat up, it seems to me that heat waves like the one last week will only become more common, with delays like mine becoming ever more frequent. The people on my train behaved civilly throughout, helping people to reach the air, sharing the water that became available, but you could feel some of the rising tension. What if we hadn’t been able to open the doors? What if we had been stuck there for longer? What if there had been more elderly people, or babies, on the train? What if? Climate change is a real credible threat to the world and we need to act now if we’re going to be able to save our way of life.

And I also thought of refugees, travelling from home in terrible conditions, looking for a better and brighter future for themselves and their families. Just as the wilderness will bloom for receiving the wandering Israelites, our society can only flourish if we help those in need, offering safety and security. That’s why I signed the letter to our new prime minister, urging him to accept more refugees, just as our ancestors found safety in the UK on the kindertransport.

The road is hard and long, the journey dangerous, but as we read in Pirkei Avot 2:13-14,

“Rabbi Tarfon used to say: the day is short, and the work is plentiful, and the workers are lazy, but the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent. And he also said: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Roni