Home > Divrei Torah > Parshyiot Mattot-Masei 5783

Parshyiot Mattot-Masei 5783

Owning Our Journey is the Bravest Thing We Will Ever Do

July 10, 2023
by Rabbi Mitchell Blank ('21)

In this week’s parashah, Moses recounts the starting points of each of the places visited by the Israelites during their 40 year trek on the way to the Promised Land. “Moses recorded the starting points as directed by the Lord (al pi Adonai )”. (Num. 33:2) For what purpose is God’s command for Moses to catalogue each station encountered as the journey nears completion and why davka by their starting points?

Moses has been intimately involved in the entire journey, especially from the moment the Israelites broke camp on the 20th day of the 2nd year. (Num. 10:11) It’s not as if he needs to record the stations to remember the journey. All the treks from that point on were conducted in an intimate partnership between Moses and the Divine: “On a sign from the Lord (al pi Adonai) they made camp and on a sign from the Lord they broke camp; they observed the Lord’s mandate at the Lord’s bidding through Moses.” (b’yad Moshe) (Num. 9:23) In other words, God was thoroughly in charge of when the Israelites would start each journey. After the command to march, what happened in between the stops was Moses’ responsibility. God’s “mouth” starts the action but all that occurs on the way is in Moses’ “hands”. Owning these journeys will take Moses a lifetime of work.

A life review indicates that Moses’ core identity is as a shepherd, and he views his leadership as refracted through this prism. After learning that God will replace him as leader, a one-off expression appears in the Bible. “Moses spoke to the Lord” (Num. 27:15) And what prompted Moses to entreat God? He begs for a fitting successor “so that the Lord’s community may not be like a sheep that have no shepherd.” (Num. 27:17) Now in year 40 of the journey, Moses must know that leading a grumbling nation of newly freed slaves is not equivalent to herding a flock of compliant sheep. The journey is nearing its conclusion but Moses still has an important lesson to learn.

Truth is, Moses has shown time and again that he is most comfortable when God alone is responsible for the journey. This attitude was first expressed while crossing the Sea of Reeds. There, Moses was merely the shepherd guiding the people to dry land. “In Your love You lead (nahita) the people You redeemed; In Your strength you guide them to Your holy abode” (Ex. 15:13). In other words, God alone will be guiding the people throughout the desert journey all the way to Eretz Yisrael. In Moses’ eyes, his job is to merely shepherd.

Only three days into the journey, Moses is faced with many complaints and the difficulties of leadership quickly become apparent.  As it turns out, there were many hardships for Moses throughout his leadership tenure. As soon as the camp broke “at the Lord’s bidding (pi) through (b’yad) Moses” (Num. 9:23) Moses is already begging off the commission: “Why have You dealt ill with your servant…that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant’…I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me…kill me rather, I beg You and let me see no more of my wretchedness.” (Num. 11:11-12,14-15) This is not a job for a shepherd; Moses is overwhelmed. As for leadership over the next 38 years, he encounters rebellion after rebellion and things go from bad to worse.

It is only when Moses recounts the starting points of each station that he finally owns up to his responsibility for the journey. The pasuk immediately prior to God’s command to record the stations includes another rare phrase in the Bible that will help us to draw this conclusion. “These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge (b’yad) of Moses and Aaron.” (Num. 33:1) The only other citation of this phrase is in Psalm 77:21. The psalm refers to God’s splitting of the Sea of Reeds and then concludes: “You led (nahita) Your people like a flock in the care of Moses and Aaron” (b’yad Moshe v’Aharon) (Ps. 77:21). Clarifying this verse, R. David Kimhi (Radak) comments: “After exiting the sea they were led (nahita) in the wilderness in the care of Moses and Aaron just as a shepherd leads his sheep and guards them.” The phrase “b’yad Moshe v’Aharon” clarifies nahita, leadership. It’s God’s flock but Moses and Aaron are responsible for all once the Israelites begin to move from each station.

When crossing the Sea of Reeds, Moses attributes the entire responsibility of the journey to God. Reading Numbers 33:1 and Psalm 77:21 in tandem leads to a different conclusion. From the very beginning of the 40 year journey, both Moses and Aaron are responsible for the facts on the ground. God started the march from each station. Moses now records the starting points because that’s where God passes the baton to him and Aaron. He’s owning up to his responsibility for all that occurred along the way.

Bemidbar Rabbah 23:2 (commenting on Ps 77:21) asks “What is the meaning of nahita? (you led) And just like a flock follows to anywhere that the shepherd leads them, so too Israel journeyed to any place that Moshe and Aaron took them (my emphasis) as it is stated “These are the journeys of the children of Israel” (Num. 33:1) – in order to fulfill that which is stated- You led Your people like a flock through Moses and Aaron.” (Ibid)

By recording the stops along the journey, Moses understands that true leadership requires owning his contribution to the difficulties along the way. In a lifetime that included standing up to Pharoah, the earthly king, as well as many consultations with the Heavenly King, owning up to his own responsibility may be the bravest thing he’s ever done. Despite occasional failures, great communal leaders understand they can’t effectively lead without the clarity of owning their journey. For Moses. it’s an act of bravery after years of denial and a final lesson in leadership to all of us from the greatest of all time.
Rabbi Mitchell Blank was ordained by AJR in April 2021 and is the spiritual leader of the Conservative Synagogue of 5th Avenue in New York City.