Parshat Matot-Masei

Bamidbar 33:1-2 (Robert Alter)

These are the journeyings of the Israelites who came out of the land of Egypt by their battalions, in the hand of Moses and Aaron. And Moses wrote down their departure points for their journeyings by the word of the LORD, and these are their journeyings by their departure points.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

[the journey was] not a straight line that proceeds in a clear route. This is true in life as well: A person’s path is never smooth and straight … Their path is full of twists and turns, the route is unclear, and the direction is unknown.

All the journeys that appear in the parasha, like all of the Torah’s narratives, tell the story of the inner life of both the People  of Israel as a nation and of each individual Jew.

In the last chapter of Avivah Zornberg’s book Bewilderments, she considers the transition to the next book of the Torah, Devarim. In Devarim we see Moses’ last days, as he provides his final sermons to his people. Moses finally speaks in his own words, describing his understanding of what the journey was about. Moses, too, has grown through the Wilderness. Before we look at the key midrash that Avivah Zornberg discusses about what Moses learned, we’ll consider what we learned during the journey.

If the fundamental problem of Bamidbar is what counts — what is truly meaningful and real — in human life, what do you think is the answer? Does the answer work for you?

What is the relationship between certainty and faith that is discovered in the Wilderness, according to Avivah Zornberg?

What does it mean to find our voice? Why might that be central in our journey to God?

What is the meaning of the Hebrew root aleph-mem-nun? How is it connected to trust and faith? 

How is Moses the omen, the masculine wet-nurse of his people? Why is that an impossible role?

Why is it hard for the generation of the Wilderness to trust God? What needs to happen for them to develop trust?

The Sin of the Spies is a failure of imagination. What is the failure?

The rebellion of Korach concerns who speaks for God. What blocks someone from speaking for God?

A the Waters of Meribah, Moses and Aaron fail to represent God to the people. What are the causes of their failure?

The daughters of Tzelophad “speak rightly.” How so? What do we learn about the meaning of faith and trust? What replaces the direct revelation and miracles of Moses?

Midrash Tanchuma Devarim 2 (Avivah Zornberg trans.)

“These are the words that Moses spoke to the children of Israel” (Devarim 1:1): Israel said: Just yesterday you said, “I am not a man of words,” and now you have so much to say! R. Yitzhak said: If you have a speech impediment, learn Torah and you will be healed! Moses had learned the whole Torah “in the wilderness on the plains facing the Red Sea.” That is why it is written, “Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute shall exult” (Isaiah 35: 6).

Come and see:  When God told Moses, “Go on my mission to Pharaoh,” Moses replied, “You do me wrong! I am not a man of words! Seventy languages are spoken in Pharaoh’s palace, so that wherever a visitor comes from he is addressed in his own language. Now, If I go on Your mission, they will interrogate me, and when they find that I claim to be Your emissary and yet I am unable to speak freely with them, will they not mock me: ‘Look at God’s emissary who does not  know how to discourse in all the seventy languages of the world!’ You do me wrong! I am not a man of words! I am of uncircumcised lips!” Then God answered him: “But how did Adam, who had no teacher, learn seventy languages?–as it is said, ‘He called them names’ (Bereshit 2:19)–not one name for each animal but names [seventy names]! And yet you say, ‘I am not a man of words!'”

Forty years after leaving Egypt, Moses began to interpret the Torah in seventy languages — “He explained [ba’er] this Torah” (Devarim 1:5).  The mouth that had said, “I am not a man of words,” now spoke “these [are the] words.” And the prophet cried out: “Then shall the lame leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute shall sing aloud!” (Isaiah 35:6). Why? “For waters shall burst forth in the desert, streams in the wilderness.” So, “These are the words that Moses spoke ….”