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Making the Epic Personal

The Torah portion Mas’ey (Numbers 33:1 – 36:13), which concludes Sefer Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers), brings us to the end of our ancestors’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Forty years have passed since the Exodus. A new generation, born in freedom, has replaced the last generation to experience slavery. This generation has proven itself in battle. It is proud, self-assured, and ready to engage in the struggle to win and hold a new land. It will not be held back by the fears that constrained its parents. Although in the future the comforts of settled life will tempt their descendants and challenge the coming generations to rediscover their unique Israelite heritage, this generation is a generation born to action.

The opening chapter of Parashat Mas’ey (Numbers 33) is a tribute to the wilderness experience. In it Moses records the forty-two steps of Israel’s journey from Ramases in Egypt to Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from Canaan for posterity. Moses recalls each march and each encampment with often no more information than they left here and went there.

There is no need to elaborate on what happened at each step in the journey. Moses’ list comes at the end of a well-known story. The events of our people’s travels from Egypt to Canaan were part of the living folk-memory of our Israelite ancestors and should be well known to us since we read the Torah every year. The mere mention of each place should evoke the memory of Israel’s experiences in the Wilderness.

Once, however, in this long list, Moses does pause to recollect what happened along the way. In this pause Moses, for a brief moment, puts aside the mantle of prophetic leadership. He is no longer God’s faithful shepherd. Here, Moses exposes his humble humanity and gives us a glimpse at what it might feel like to be the last of a generation — the feelings of loss and of hope. By personalizing the journey, Moses transforms what might have been another list of God’s saving deeds into a moving recollection of his and his people’s real life experiences.

We might have expected Moses to pause to say something about the crossing of the Yam Suf, the Red Sea, or of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, or the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle — the great nation building experiences, the highlights of our national epic, the moments when God’s presence was most powerfully felt — but he does not. Rather, in his rehearsal of the Wilderness experience for the children of the people he brought out of Egypt, the generation he raised in freedom, the events surrounding the death of Aaron, his brother, capture Moses’ interest.

In the midst of a biblical passage marked by a lack of any superfluous information, Moses stops to present the details of Aaron’s death at the age one hundred and twenty-three on the first day of the fifth month while the Israelites were encamped near Mount Hor. He, then, adds that that right after Aaron’s death, the Canaanite king of Arad, the first Canaanite king to be conquered by the wilderness generation, heard of the Israelites arrival (Numbers 33:38-40). In three short verses, Moses shows us the pain and joy of watching one generation pass and another generation come to its own. With Aaron’s passing, everyone Moses knew from his younger days, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, the brash young men who cast their lot with Moses from the very beginning, has died. In the course of forty years, Moses watched his generation die off, and a new one arise. Moses is now an old man in a new world.

Here we can see that from Moses’ perspective, Aaron’s death and the first victories of the Israelites who will enter Canaan mark the most significant events in his life since the exodus from Egypt. The bittersweet, human experience of generational change seizes Moses’ heart. With Aaron’s death, Moses knows that his life-journey is also coming to an end. Yet, after witnessing his people repulse and defeat the king of Arad, Moses also knows that he has raised up a new Israel, with new leaders, ready to make Canaan their own.

By pausing to record his brother’s death, Moses has taken what could be a very theocentric story and made it human. No longer is this list Moses’ resume of the Israelites’ itinerary as God led them step-by-step to the Promised Land. By providing us with one small but significant personal memory, Moses has made the story, his story. He transformed the epic narrative of God and the Israelites into a very human story of Moses and his people, our people, that still touches our hearts and moves our souls.

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