Clear Out Your Junk – Parashat Mas’ei 2011

One summer at Camp Ramah in New England, I took woodworking.  Over the course of the summer I designed and built a cabinet.  It wasn’t much to look at – just a big rectangular cabinet made of unfinished and unstained wood – and it was a little lopsided.  But it had a door with hinges and a shelf and it held stuff.  It was a cabinet.

I finished this cabinet three days before the end of camp, and as I started to pack my duffel bags, the painful question hit me: “Oh no, what am I going to do with this thing?!”  It was about two feet tall by a foot wide and probably weighed about 25 pounds, so it was way too big to pack.

Now, the obvious answer, I think, should have been “leave it behind at camp or throw it away…”  But I have a hard time throwing things away, and I can also be very…persistent…so my Mom – bless her heart – paid 100 bucks for my crummy little cabinet to be shipped back to Atlanta.  And since that summer, my Mom has moved four times.  And each time she has moved, the question has resurfaced: what should I do with this cabinet?  And each time, I have picked up this useless, falling-apart piece of junk that I made when I was 10, and schlepped it with me to my Mom’s new house.

I thought about that cabinet – about schlepping it around with me all this time – when I read this week’s parashah, parashat Mas’ei.

The parashah – which is the last portion of the book of Numbers – essentially recaps the story that came before it, beginning with the Exodus from Egypt. The opening verses read:

Eleh mas’ei b’nei yisrael asher yatzu m’eretz mitzrayim l’tzivotam b’yad Moshe v’Aharon va-yikhtov moshe et motza’eihem l’masa’eihem al pi Hashem v’eleh mas’eihem l’motza’eihem.

These were the journeys of the Israelites who fled the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their journeys as directed by God. Their journeys, by starting points, were as follows.

The Torah then proceeds to list place after place: Where the Israelites left from, and where they camped, where they left from, and where they camped.

This section is very weird.  For one, summaries usually summarize events. Instead, the Torah gives us a litany of places where the Israelites sojourned as they travelled from Egypt to Canaan.

And as if that weren’t confounding enough, one wonders whether there is some kind of significance to the number of places the Israelites camped.  The Torah lists forty-two such places.  Why?

Furthermore, why does the Torah need to restate the fact that the Israelites journeyed according to God’s directive?  The Torah has already taught several times that the Israelites only picked up and moved and settled down by God’s command.  So long as God’s cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Israelites knew they were to stay put; and only when the cloud lifted, would they know to journey on.  And we know, in this sense, that when the Israelites would camp in a particular spot, they never knew how long they would be there.  Sometimes, it would be a matter of days or weeks.  At other times, it would be several years.  The length of their stay was entirely dependent on God’s command, and so they had to be prepared at any moment, without warning, to get up and move on.

So we are presented in our parashah with these three pieces of information: first, that the essence of the Israelites’ story involves where they got up and where they settled down; second, that the Israelites moved forty-two times in forty years, an average of once every 11 months or so; and third, that they had to be ready on a moment’s notice to pick up and move again.

How do we make sense of this puzzle?  Why does the Torah stress these points?

At their core, only one who travels light is suited to move around all the time.  To never stay in one place for too long, to pick up at a moment’s notice and just move on, one must be able to look at all his or her stuff and say – this is important, this I must keep with me; and that, that is unimportant, perhaps even detrimental.  If I keep that, it will only weigh me down, and prohibit me from moving on to my next destination.

This might sound familiar to those of us who have ever moved to a new home: over time, we accumulate all sorts of stuff that we don’t need, stuff that weighs us down; sometimes, even stuff that harms us.  And when we move, we are forced to actually sit down and sift through all this junk and decide what we throw away, and what we will take with us to our new home.  Some of us are better at cleaning house than others, but the fact remains that moving to a new place usually forces us to clean out our old one.

But there is, I think, more.  The Israelites knew that they might have to get up and go at a moment’s notice, whether they had lived in a place for two days or two years.  So if moving requires cleaning house, then someone who might have to move at any moment must perpetually – on a daily basis, even – look through the stuff he or she has accumulated, sift through it, and decide what is necessary to hold on to, and what ought to be thrown away.

During forty years of moving around like this in the wilderness, the Israelites were probably experts at looking at all the things that filled up their homes and knowing what to keep, and what to throw away.  And not only that, but they were probably pretty good at doing this each and every day.  I can picture them looking at their knick-knacks and saying, “Do I really need this?  Or if God were to command me to move tomorrow, would this just weigh me down?”

I think we are much like our ancient ancestors, you and I.  Sure, most of us do not physically move every year.  And most of us have months to plan when we do move.  But chronologically, we are constantly moving.  No new stage of our lives is the same as the last, no new year is indistinguishable from the one that came before it.  Indeed, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “There are no two hours alike.  Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.”  So each of us is asked by today’s parashah: Who are you now and who will you be an hour from now?  And what parts of you will end up where you go next?  What will you leave behind, and what will you bring along with you?

Will we carry along the deceptive part of ourselves, which urges us to mislead others in word and deed?

Will we carry along the stubborn part of ourselves, which urges us to persist in foolish habits?

Will we carry along the jealous part of ourselves, which prevents us from being mindful of the blessings we have?

Will we carry along our selfishness, our apathy, our vanity, or our arrogance with us as we move from stage to stage?

Let us each challenge ourselves to undertake a spiritual house-cleaning, to look inward in order to discover those parts of ourselves that we’d like to take with us on the next step of our journeys, and to identify those parts of ourselves that we’d rather leave in the junk pile.

The Jewish tradition has a word for this kind of spiritual cleansing.  It is called Teshuvah.  Teshuvah means to return, as in, to return into the recesses, into the dark back corners of our spiritual homes, the places where we don’t always like to go because we are afraid of what we might find, and identify those parts of ourselves that cause us to act in ways that we know we shouldn’t; to return to a more pure version of ourselves, less weighed down by the spiritual gunk that we’ve accumulated over the years.  This is why one of the great rituals of teshuvah is the tashlikh ceremony, where we stand at rivers’ edge and symbolically cast off into the water those parts of ourselves that we hope to leave in our past.

And the time for our teshuvah is today.  For we know that, chronologically speaking, we are always on the move, always transitioning from one moment of our lives to the next, perpetually marching forward to the next stage of our journey.  This means that we rarely have warning or time to prepare when life catapults us to an entirely new step.  This is why the rabbis of the Mishnah teach, v’shuv yom ehad lifnei mitatekha, that one should do teshuvah, do spiritual house-cleaning, one day before his death.  And Maimonides clarifies that since few of us know exactly when we will die, we should devote time each and every day to clean out the junk from our spiritual homes…just in case.

So I urge us all to do the same.  Not because we might die tomorrow – God forbid – but because we may not be in the same place tomorrow.  So I urge us all to take a little time each day to give ourselves a spiritual inventory, to ask ourselves, “What are the qualities I have that I want to take with me on my journey, and what do I want to get rid of?”

Allow me to share a story from the Talmud, as told by Rabbi Ed Feinstein in his book, Capture the Moon: 

Once upon a time, in the land of Israel, two men met on a narrow bridge that crossed a rushing stream.  One was named Simon.  Simon was born Jewish, but kidnapped by the Romans and raised to be a gladiator.  Simon grew to be a mountain of a man.  He was the most powerful gladiator in the Roman Empire.  No one could withstand his might and his rage.

Simon was in a hurry to get to his next contest.  He rushed across the bridge, wearing his armor and weapons.  But his way was blocked by another man, a different kind of champion.

Rabbi Yohanan was a small man with gentle eyes.  He was renowned for his deep learning and love of Torah.  The rabbi wore no armor and carried no weapons.  He carried only a scroll of ancient wisdom.

The two men met at the center of the bridge.  Simon demanded that the rabbi move aside and let him pass.  But the rabbi would not budge.  Simon shouted, “Move aside!” But still the rabbi would not move.  So Simon reached for his sword and threatened: “If you will not move on your own, I will move you myself!” But the rabbi held his place.

The gladiator raised his sword.  But just as he was about to bring it down on the rabbi, the men’s eyes met.  And something amazing happened.  Simon saw something in the eyes of the rabbi he had never seen before.  He saw absolutely no fear.  He saw in the eyes of the rabbi a man who had cleared his soul of all negativity.  He saw in the rabbi’s eyes a strength he had never seen in all the arenas of Rome.  The power of the rabbi’s eyes shook Simon to his soul.  He stood for a long time staring, and then he dropped his sword and let go of all his rage.

For his part, the rabbi saw something remarkable in the gladiator’s eyes.  There was much more to this gladiator than his fury.  Beyond all the bluster and rage and violence, the rabbi saw in the gladiator’s eyes a ferocious power to love and a deep longing to be loved.  Behind the armor was a heart, a soft human heart.

The rabbi spoke softly to the gladiator: “My brother, where are you going in such a hurry?  To kill or be killed in service of Roman glory? My brother, let me show you a different way, a way to a greater glory.”

“There is no glory greater than Rome! Rome is eternal!”

The rabbi responded. “One day soon Rome will be gone, and all its arenas reduced to rubble.  But the glory of God is forever.  And you, my brother, are created in God’s image.  You carry God’s light.  That is the word of God’s Torah.  Come and join a greater cause, my brother. Come and master God’s Torah!”

“I know only the arts of battle,” said the gladiator.  “How can I sit with a scholar like you?”

The rabbi answered: “Your heart is stronger than your sword.  Come, my brother.”

Whatever the reason, the rabbi’s words broke through Simon’s armor and reached his heart.  For the first time in his life, the gladiator began to cry.  He dropped his weapons into the stream.  He unbuckled and cast away his armor.  He turned and followed the rabbi.

Simon became Rabbi Yohanan’s most devoted student, and in time, the gladiator, too, became a rabbi: the great Reish Lakish.

And as Reish Lakish dropped his armor and weapons into the stream in order to embark on a new stage in his life’s journey, so too may we, each of us, uncover those parts of ourselves that we need to cast off, and put them aside so that we may become who we are meant to be.  Shabbat Shalom.

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