Jewish learning In Praise of Unrealized Dreams
Parashat Mattot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13)
With our double portion this week, Mattot-Masei, we find ourselves at the end of Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. For all intents and purposes, it is also the narrative end of the Torah. Sefer Dvarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, is mainly a retelling of the previous four books, punctuated by Moses’s long goodbye. Here, as we conclude Parashat Mattot-Masei, the Israelites are poised to enter the land of Israel. This is the promised culmination of forty years of wandering and bickering and searching and giving up and starting again. This is the fulfillment of a vision, the anticipation of which spurred the harrowing journey out of enslavement. Here we are, witnessing the Israelites, our ancestors, ready at last to attain what they have been yearning for, what their parents toiled for, what their grandparents could only dream about.
I have a dear friend, a brilliant writer and composer, more extravagantly talented than most of us could ever hope to be. When he was in his early thirties, he wrote a show that was produced on Broadway, starring people you and I have heard of. It was nominated for a Tony Award. It was a big deal. He and I only became friends some years later and when we were reflecting together about that early success, he said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: “Don’t climb the mountain too soon. Because you think that when you climb the mountain everything is going to be perfect. But actually, when you climb the mountain, what you find at the top is a bigger, gnarlier, higher mountain.”
There’s something to be said for unrealized dreams, for having something more to hope for and work toward. Our Torah, of course, taught us the same thing, long before Jeffrey wrote his luminous show.
At the end of the Book of Numbers, at the functional end of the Torah’s narrative—famously, the Israelites do not enter the Promised Land. They do all the anticipatory work, establishing laws and societal norms and planning how to divide the territory. But they don’t actually cross the Jordan.
What comes next is the realization that even when we come to the end, it’s not over. There is always another mountain to climb, another challenge to face, another sorrow, another question, another curiosity, another momentary triumph.
This is a blessing and a curse. It’s a great blessing to always have something to look forward to, to hold in our hearts the possibility of something new. And yet, it can also be hard to be satisfied with the imperfect present when we are teased by the desire for whatever’s next.
The second part of our double parashah, Masei, speaks of the comings and goings of our people over the preceding forty years of wanderings. Each of the stops on the journey is recounted by name: where we picked up from and where we went next. It is repetitive: it’s sometimes puzzling to me why the Torah goes to the trouble of this kind of detail. Yet each of these stops along the way represents a moment in the life of our people, an episode that is part of what made us who we are. Midrash Tanchuma suggests that each of these stops is full of memories: memories of lessons learned, often the hard way. Memories of loved ones who are no longer near to share in the present moment. There is a mercy in hearing these steps recounted. The list tells us that our history is real, that our memories count for something. That God was paying attention.
When we link ourselves to our ancestors every time we say the Amidah, invoking the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Rachel and Leah, we are doing much the same thing: saying, in effect, we are part of this sacred line. Their story is our story, too. Locating ourselves inside our people’s history gives us a sense of solidity and comfort.
Traditionally when we read the end of a book of Torah in the synagogue, we chant the words:
חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזֵּק
Be strong! Be strong! And let us strengthen one another!
These transitional words teach us how to live in times of change and uncertainty.
חֲזַק חֲזַק (Be strong! Be strong!) refers to a strength that comes unearned and unbidden, a strength that comes from the Divine Presence. This is a strength we gain not by working out in the gym but by working out our connection to God in all the ways we know.
And then there’s that last part: וְנִתְחַזֵּק. Let us strengthen one another! We strengthen each other when we celebrate each other’s victories, support each other in times of loss and loneliness, when we show up steadily for each other, even when it’s difficult or unpleasant. Talking about everything or sitting in companionable silence. It’s the celebratory l’chaim when things are going great and the chicken soup when you’re not feeling well.
In their simple meaning, the root letters of the words in that transitional phrase חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזֵּק—chet-zayin-kuf—denote strength. They also, when conjugated differently, indicate “to hold on tight.” You can hear this meaning in
עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ
It is a Tree of Life to those who hold on tightly to it.
Holding onto what matters most is a source of strength.
As we head into the emotionally complicated month of Menachem Av, with the deep sorrow of Tishaa b’Av and the consolation of the weeks that follow, may each of us hold tight to what is most important to us, and be strengthened by one another’s devotion and companionship.
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Naomi Gurt Lind is a Shanah Dalet student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, and serves as rabbinic intern with Congregation Shirat Hayam, 2Life Communities, and Congregation Betenu. Naomi sings with the Zamir Chorale of Boston and edits the 70 Faces of Torah blog. Also a sought-after educator, Naomi cultivates a lively classroom with plenty of space for questioning, discovery, and connection. This past summer, she moved her classroom outdoors with a much-praised Pop-up Mishnah Group. Check out her upcoming Open Circle Jewish Learning class here. When she has a free moment, she enjoys solving crossword puzzles (in pencil!), writing divrei Torah on her blog, Jewish Themes, and playing Bananagrams with her spouse and their two genius children.