By: Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild, Rabbi of ‘
‘ Liberal Jewish Community, Vienna, Austria
”These are the commandments and the ordinances which the Lord commanded Moses to the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.” With these words the Book of Numbers ends – Bamidbar, the Time in the Wilderness, in the Desert. And with it the Torah’s account of the journey. But why? The journey is not yet over!
It has been a long time – forty years – since the Israelites streamed out of Egypt during a night of terror, expelled by an enraged and mourning Pharaoh, then pursued, then rescued through a sea that opened for them and swallowed their enemies but left them stranded in Sinai and compelled to move forward or – since they lacked faith – to stay static until enough of the seniors had died and the next generation could finally pick up and fulfil the mission. And what was the mission? To move into and conquer the Land of Israel that God had promised Abraham for his descendants back in Genesis 12:7.
The history since that verse had been complex and not very happy. First comes the issue of Abraham’s descendants – the story of how long it took him to become a father is well known and need not be repeated here. Then the story of Isaac and HIS problems, then the story of Jacob and HIS adventures which eventually led to a family reunification in Egypt. Not Canaan. Until now the story has been one of family strife and jealousy, with an undercurrent of violence.
In Egypt the history gets worse – as we read in the early chapters of Exodus – until the moment when several hundred years later the Israelites are freed. THIS becomes the defining moment, the moment referred to by God in the first of the Commands – ”I am God who brought you out of slavery, out of oppression, out of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2) – and this is the moment which is referred to again and again in our liturgy. The rest of Exodus is occupied mainly with instructions for a takeaway altar, much of Leviticus is occupied with instructions for how to use it, and the main account of the journey through the desert, issues of water and food and attacks and counter-attacks and rebellions – fills the Book of Numbers. And ends here in Chapter 36.
BUT – the people are still in Moab! Still at the Jordan! What will follow is a book composed almost entirely of farewell speeches and a brief obituary. And this confronts us with a basic question: Why does the Torah end where it does? Why do we mark the date of the departure from Egypt every year at Pesach yet totally ignore the ‘closing bracket’, so to say, the entry into the land? (Check out Joshua 4:19 – it was the 10th of Nisan) Why do we make a fuss about when the Israelites cross the Yam Suf on dry land (Exodus 14:23) but not when they cross the Jordan likewise (Joshua 3:16)? Four days later they celebrated Pesach (Joshua 5:10) and the day after that the Manna stopped – leaving them with no Matzah either!
Almost no-one reads the Book of Joshua, but it is actually the climax of the story. The Rabbis who established the Canon and the regular Torah readings deliberately left it out – we are left with a Pentateuch, a Chumash, the ‘Five Books’ – whereas it could well have been six, a Hexateuch! (Let us not forget – Moses is not mentioned in Genesis so its place in the ‘Five Books of Moses’ is also an honorary one.) The tale of Rahab in Chapter 2 is read as the Haftarah for ‘Shelach lecha’, and the celebration of the first Pesach in the land in Chapter 5 is read on the 1st day of Pesach – and in some places Chapter 1 is read as the Haftarah for ‘V’zot HaBracha’ on Simchat Torah – but otherwise the book is ignored in the liturgical calendar. It ends in Chapter 24 almost like Deuteronomy ends – with deaths and burials and obituaries. Joshua dies (24:29) aged 110, and is survived by his associates, the Elders, who carry on his work, and then – very importantly – the bones of Joseph, who had been mummified in Egypt and whose coffin had been carried all that way through the desert and into the land (Exodus 13:19) is buried in the plot of ground at Shechem that his father Jacob had bought when he too re-entered the land from Haran. Elazar the priest, Moses’ nephew, also dies at last. Such a symbolic ‘closure’! The death of Moses is a semi-colon, the death of Joshua the full stop.
So why is it not read? We recall year after year, week after week, how we were victims, how we were oppressed, how we were freed, how we wandered, homeless; but we omit the time when we took our fate into our own hands and set out to conquer our homeland – to drive out the existing inhabitants, or to kill them, or to make treaties with them. We think of ourselves as eternally freed slaves, not as proud inhabitants of our own country. Are we ashamed? Are we embarrassed that this is ‘politically incorrect’? Could it be that the rabbis chose to end the story of our journeying in Mass’ey because they worked at a time when the Israelites were once more in exile, wandering in the wildernesses of the Galut, needing hope, something to look forward to? Is that why an ‘open-ended story’ was more appropriate?
Sidrat Mass’ey may be the end of Bamidbar, but it is not the end of the story. Indeed, the story has not ended – even now. Let us hope it never does.