The pandemic kept me away from Philadelphia for over a year and a half, the longest I had ever been away from my hometown. As the plane descended out of the clouds, I gazed down on the city and was overcome with emotion. So much of my life had happened down there: celebration and mourning, love and heartbreak, triumph and failure.
I had returned home to reset after two of the hardest years of my life. As I drove from the airport to my childhood home, I cried as the streets came alive with memories. There, in that parking lot stood a stadium with a courthouse and a jail in the basement (yes, you read that right), where I caught my first foul ball. Over there, on that stretch of highway, I cut someone off and got honked at for the first time. And there, in that sanctuary, I became a bar mitzvah and later said a final goodbye to my grandfather. And here, well, here is the home where I scraped my knee and yelled too much and learned to love.
As linear time collapsed, I looked around and saw the memories that shaped me. I realized the grounding force of memory was as important in this homecoming experience as making my habitual pilgrimages for hoagies and hugs. In Parshat Matot-Mas-ei, we find a list of places along the Israelites’ journey from Egyptian bondage toward their promised homeland. The itinerary lists the stops but leaves out the memories, and our commentators try to fill in the story for the reader by referencing other parts of Tanach.
The 13th-century rabbi, Nachmanides, unpacks Numbers 33:14, which tells us the Israelites camped at Rephidim and had no water. He reminds us that at Rephidim the people were thirsty and quarreled with Moses and God, calling that place Massah (trying) and M’ribah (strife) before miraculously getting water out of a rock. It was there too that the Israelites were attacked by the Amalekites. Numbers 33:18 tells us that the Israelites camped at a place called Rithmah. Rashi explains that it was here that the spies shared their pessimistic view on conquering the land of Israel. Numbers 33:44 lists a place called Iye Haavarim, a name, according to Rashi (1040-1105) “denotes waste places and heaps of rubbish.” All in all, there are forty-two stages in their journey. Midrash Tanhuma explains this long list with “the parable of a king whose son was ill and whom he took to a distant place to cure him. When they returned home, the father began to enumerate all the stages, saying to him, “Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had the head-ache, etc.” (4:10:3).
It is easy to downplay all the little moments that make us who we are. We like to act as if life is linear, predictably moving toward a given destination along a predetermined path. Yet the Israelite journey from slavery to the Land of Israel reminds us that there are many chapters that shape who we become. The Baal Shem Tov, the great Hasidic master, teaches that the many stages of the Israelite journey not only apply to the Israelites as a whole but to each and every one of us. “All the forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel will occur to each individual between the time they are born and the time they die.” These forty-two stages remind us that life often leads us down an unpredictable and often circuitous path. Sometimes we fail in ways that inflict moral injury and pull us to an unimaginable low. In other moments we reach heights that soar past our wildest imagination. Most of the time, we forget to find holiness in the mundane steps of our journey or offer gratitude for whichever stage we find ourselves in.
Towards the end of Matot-Mas-ei, the Israelites are instructed: “You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I, Adonai, abide among the Israelite people” (Numbers 35:34). No matter where the Israelites found themselves in their journey, God remained. The midrash Sifrei Bamidbar teaches that “even when the Israelites were unclean, God’s presence remained amongst them” (160:15). In other words, God’s holy presence remained amongst the Israelites during their basest behavior and their best.
As I wandered through formative places of my city, memories flooded in – memories of failures and triumphs, memories of great joy and loss. Most of all, I rejoiced in walking into my childhood home and embracing my father after what felt like an eternity. Holiness, I realized, abounds in every tangible and intangible step of our journey.
Parshat Matot-Mas-ei simply reminds us to look for it.