Life is a sacred journey.

Parashat Matot-Masei 5781 / פרשת מַּטּוֹת־מַסְעֵי
Torah Portion: Numbers 30:2-36:13

This week has been one of those “cradle-to-grave” weeks that rabbi’s sometimes have, one of those weeks that take you on an emotional roller coaster and remind you, as the song title goes, “Life is a Highway.” (Tom Chochrane, 1991). At the beginning of the week, I had the privilege to officiate at a beautiful garden wedding. The next day, I witnessed the conversion of a newly adopted baby to Judaism, and this Shabbat our community will welcome her and hear the Hebrew name by which she will be known each time she is called to the Torah and at sacred rites of passage. Throughout the week, I also worked with two congregants in preparing for memorial services for their loved ones and on Wednesday I led an afternoon service for a man marking the 10th anniversary of his mother’s passing when she was 90 years old. Yes, life is a highway, and we’d best treasure every moment on this sacred journey from cradle to grave.

The Torah, in its most expansive sense, tells the story of the Jewish people from the very beginning of time to the end of days. The Five Books of Moses that constitute the Torah scrolls themselves conclude just before the Israelites enter the land that Adonai had promised to bequeath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendents, i.e. us. The books of the prophets, beginning with the book of Joshua, take us from the conquest of the land of Canaan to the establishment of the monarchy and the division of the territory into two kingdoms and ultimately to exile. The Oral Torah, the books of law and lore that were the brainchild of the rabbis in the early centuries of the first millenia teach us how to navigate the journey until the time when the Messiah will come and the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem. Throughout the journey, the Land of Israel has been the destination, but to focus on the destination is to miss the real point of the Torah, which is that life itself is a sacred journey — one with twists and turns, one leading to where, we do not know for sure, but one that brings us closer to God and forges us into the human being that God wanted each of us to become.

This point is driven home in the opening verses of the second half of this week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Mas’ei (Tribes-Journeys). Parashat Mas’ei begins: These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 33:1) What follows is a mostly dry list of 20 place names where the Israelites stopped on their 40-year march from Egypt toward Canaan. 

At the steppes of Moab, on the east bank of the Jordan River, Moses records these place names knowing full well that he will not be among the Israelites who will enter the land that he just spent 40 years leading them to. Why would he do this? 

One reason is to remind the Israelites how faithful and resilient they are. God led them blindly on this trek. They had no idea what was around the corner or, for that matter, where they were going. The ones who lacked faith didn’t complete the journey. Those who did are invited to look back and to recall all they had endured. If they were focused only on the future, they would forget how great they are. They would forget how they had grown from a motley crew of slaves to a nation bound by a covenant with God. When we forget that life is really about the journey, we fail to internalize our own sense of greatness.

But another reason why Moses recorded the place names was to remind the people of all that God had done for them during their journey, miracles great and small. Even though God became incensed with them on more than one occasion, God never gave up on them. As the Israelites prepare for their greatest adventure — conquering and entering the land — they must recall how God has always been there for them and will be there for them now. 

Throughout the journey of our lives, we experience all kinds of things that show us what we are capable of and how much we are loved by God and those around us. At each step of the way, we grow stronger, we learn. We emerge from our darkest moments into the light, from our lowest moments to the heights. And, yes, we go from light to darkness and from exultation to despair, too. At the end of the day, it’s the highs and the lows, the mystery and the discovery, that make us who we are.

This week has been one of those “cradle-to-grave” weeks that rabbi’s sometimes have, one of those weeks that take you on an emotional roller coaster and remind you, as the song title goes, “Life is a Highway.” (Tom Chochrane, 1991). At the beginning of the week, I had the privilege to officiate at a beautiful garden wedding. The next day, I witnessed the conversion of a newly adopted baby to Judaism, and this Shabbat our community will welcome her and hear the Hebrew name by which she will be known each time she is called to the Torah and at sacred rites of passage. Throughout the week, I also worked with two congregants in preparing for memorial services for their loved ones and on Wednesday I led an afternoon service for a man marking the 10th anniversary of his mother’s passing when she was 90 years old. Yes, life is a highway, and we’d best treasure every moment on this sacred journey from cradle to grave.

The Torah, in its most expansive sense, tells the story of the Jewish people from the very beginning of time to the end of days. The Five Books of Moses that constitute the Torah scrolls themselves conclude just before the Israelites enter the land that Adonai had promised to bequeath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendents, i.e. us. The books of the prophets, beginning with the book of Joshua, take us from the conquest of the land of Canaan to the establishment of the monarchy and the division of the territory into two kingdoms and ultimately to exile. The Oral Torah, the books of law and lore that were the brainchild of the rabbis in the early centuries of the first millenia teach us how to navigate the journey until the time when the Messiah will come and the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem. Throughout the journey, the Land of Israel has been the destination, but to focus on the destination is to miss the real point of the Torah, which is that life itself is a sacred journey — one with twists and turns, one leading to where, we do not know for sure, but one that brings us closer to God and forges us into the human being that God wanted each of us to become.

This point is driven home in the opening verses of the second half of this week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Mas’ei (Tribes-Journeys). Parashat Mas’ei begins: These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 33:1) What follows is a mostly dry list of 20 place names where the Israelites stopped on their 40-year march from Egypt toward Canaan. 

At the steppes of Moab, on the east bank of the Jordan River, Moses records these place names knowing full well that he will not be among the Israelites who will enter the land that he just spent 40 years leading them to. Why would he do this? 

One reason is to remind the Israelites how faithful and resilient they are. God led them blindly on this trek. They had no idea what was around the corner or, for that matter, where they were going. The ones who lacked faith didn’t complete the journey. Those who did are invited to look back and to recall all they had endured. If they were focused only on the future, they would forget how great they are. They would forget how they had grown from a motley crew of slaves to a nation bound by a covenant with God. When we forget that life is really about the journey, we fail to internalize our own sense of greatness.

But another reason why Moses recorded the place names was to remind the people of all that God had done for them during their journey, miracles great and small. Even though God became incensed with them on more than one occasion, God never gave up on them. As the Israelites prepare for their greatest adventure — conquering and entering the land — they must recall how God has always been there for them and will be there for them now. 

Throughout the journey of our lives, we experience all kinds of things that show us what we are capable of and how much we are loved by God and those around us. At each step of the way, we grow stronger, we learn. We emerge from our darkest moments into the light, from our lowest moments to the heights. And, yes, we go from light to darkness and from exultation to despair, too. At the end of the day, it’s the highs and the lows, the mystery and the discovery, that make us who we are.

When we come together at the end of someone’s life, we remember where they have been so we can celebrate who they eventually became. We celebrate their journey along life’s highway. If we were lucky, we were on that journey with them. 

And having traveled much of life’s highway ourselves, how can we not be excited about welcoming new life into the world? While we know the world can be a cruel place and the highway isn’t always well maintained, we also know that this new life has the potential to change the world, to repair the highway. We pray that this new life will fall gently from the high places when it will inevitably fall. We pray that this new life will rise to great heights and from there see what is possible. We pray that new life will experience awe, as did our ancestors on their journey through the wilderness, and we pray that life will present them with an unfolding bouquet of discovery. 

When we come together at the end of someone’s life, we remember where they have been so we can celebrate who they eventually became. We celebrate their journey along life’s highway. If we were lucky, we were on that journey with them. 

And having traveled much of life’s highway ourselves, how can we not be excited about welcoming new life into the world? While we know the world can be a cruel place and the highway isn’t always well maintained, we also know that this new life has the potential to change the world, to repair the highway. We pray that this new life will fall gently from the high places when it will inevitably fall. We pray that this new life will rise to great heights and from there see what is possible. We pray that new life will experience awe, as did our ancestors on their journey through the wilderness, and we pray that life will present them with an unfolding bouquet of discovery.