Running away or growing away?

By Rabbi Mordechai Harris
Parashat Matot-Masei

Throughout the book of Devarim we will frequently encounter Moses’ retelling of prior events, learning important lessons from the differences between Moshe’s recounting and the original Divine depiction. There are lots of valuable insights to look forward to, but we do not have to wait for Devarim next week. As we conclude the Book of Bamidbar this week, we already get a small taste of educational contrast.

“These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt in their legions, under the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded their points of departure for their journeys (motza’aihem l’masa’eihem) according to the word of the Lord, and these were their journeys for their points of departure (masa’eihem l’motza’aihem).” (Numbers 33:1-2)

We are familiar with the adage that we must learn from history, so it comes as no surprise that, on the verge of completing the 40-year journey and entering the promised land of Israel, effort is expended to recall the various encampments along the way. But what are we to learn from this history?

Rav Hirsch explains that the change in order between the words “points of departure” and “journeys” above carries great significance. The initial formulation “their points of departure for their journeys” is attributed to God’s words, which Moshe records faithfully. The latter formulation, “their journeys for their points of departure,” is then from the remaining perspective of the people who were the travelers.

The Israelites weren’t in control of their itinerary; they traveled only upon God’s command and direction. Often we find that the people were dissatisfied with wherever they found themselves. (The stiff-necked people and their endless complaints are a significant theme of the wilderness experience.) For these fledgling people, leaving their place was the goal, the journey simply a byproduct to sweep them to a destination whose best feature was that it wasn’t where they had just been. To the humans who wandered 40 years in the wilderness, their perspective in life was one of “running away,” over and over again. Their journeying was for the sake of their departure, with no active role in setting their own destination.

But, from the Divine perspective, whenever God ordered them to break camp, God’s intention was for their next area of growth. People who had plateaued now needed to encounter the catalyst of a new environment, empowering them to strive toward new goals. Each journey they set out on brought progress, and in order to begin that process of progress, they first had to decamp. From this Divine perspective, the departure was only for the sake of their next journey. To a people about to establish themselves physically and, ideally, permanently in a particular promised land, they would need to internalize this process and transform it into a guiding metaphor.

When we discover ourselves to be listless, when we feel stagnated or frustrated with our physical or metaphoric place, then we must ask: Is our impulse to move on driven by our animalistic instinct to run from ourselves and our circumstances? Or will we seek to raise ourselves to a place where we acknowledge that we are “growing away” and challenge ourselves to capitalize on that knowledge by emulating God through the setting of goals for continuous personal improvement? Whether we require a shift in place or simply a shift in perspective, may we all find our way toward growth.

Rabbi Mordechai Harris is interim chief operating officer and rabbi in residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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