Mass’ei is the travel diary of Israel in the wilderness, introduced with the words,
“And Moses wrote down their goings forth on their journeys” (Num. 33:2).
The word for “their goings forth” is “motza’eihem”. Since the root is “yatza”, to go out, the word could possibly mean “their outgoings”, i.e. their expenses.
The sages say in Pir’kei Avot, “According to the effort is the reward”, which is the ruling principle of a person with the strange name of Ben Hey Hey (Avot 5:26). We can conclude that the level of one’s outgoings (not only financially but in other senses too) affects the level of their achievement.
Why is this doctrine attributed to Ben Hey Hey? The answer might have something to do with the fact that the previous teaching in Pir’kei Avot is attributed to another person with a strange name, Ben Bag Bag.
There is a theory that both were proselytes: “Bag” could be “ben Gerim” and “Hey” is the letter which denotes the Divine Name. Indeed they might even have been one and the same person. Their journey to Judaism entailed outgoings (personal, spiritual, intellectual, emotion and social effort). Because they believed in Judaism they exerted themselves for it.
Likewise in this week’s portion the Children of Israel invested immense effort and dedication to their trek through the wilderness, so that when they arrived in the Land of Israel they knew they had earned it.
THE LADDER CRASHED
This sidra which brings us to the end of B’midbar sees Moses contemplating the difficulties of leading the people through the wilderness. Despite their moments of tension, both realised that they were bound up with each other.
Their link is suggested by an analogy used by the Baal Shem Tov many centuries later. The Baal Shem took an inordinate time over his Musaf Amidah on Shabbat – three quarters of an hour as a general rule. It was a trial for his followers who were all finished with their prayer long before and were now itching to get home and eat. Someone had the bright idea that they could all creep out while the Baal Shem was still davening, go home for a meal, be back in the synagogue by the time the Baal Shem concluded, and he would never know a thing.
They tried it one week and lo and behold, the Baal Shem only took three minutes to pray, and when he looked around, his followers were nowhere to be seen. Eventually they came back and asked him what had happened. His answer was this:
“When I pray, my thoughts and feelings slowly ascend the rungs of the heavenly ladder – but today after a few minutes the whole ladder came crashing down and my reverie came to a sudden stop.
“You know, you, my community, are my ladder. Without you I cannot get anywhere!”
So it was with Moses and Israel – without the other, neither could achieve anything. Moses was Moses because of Israel: Israel was Israel because of Moses.
A LONELY GOD
It is all very well for the sidra to conclude, “I the Lord dwell in the midst of the Children of Israel” (Num. 35:34). If only it were completely true.
I think God must often feel lonely. It is not merely that He is “HaShem Echad”, the One, Unique God. It is not simply that by definition there is and must be an infinite distance between Creator and created, between King and subjects. It is quite likely that despite people knowing that in theory He “dwells in the midst of the Children of Israel”, they treat Him as if He didn’t exist.
He gives them a Torah and they don’t want it. He shows them how to live and they prefer to take no notice. He points the way to the heavens and they are more interested in the earth. He represents conscience but their choice is sensuality.
Forget the saying, “It’s hard to be Jewish”. It must be even harder to be God.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Blog: http://www.oztorah.com