Numbers “Where We Stopped Along the Way” (Parshat Matot/Masei, Numbers 30:2-36:13)
The John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor, NY was a refuge for me and for my mother before me―a refuge from this world as it is, and at the same time a portal to worlds beyond our own. My mother remembers that the librarian would give her a box of cards to bring up to the top floor and look at through the stereoscope. I remember the heavy wooden chairs: slightly uncomfortable, cushioned in a way that didn’t actually help, but a perch so solid that I felt like I could steer my life’s ship from there.
What set us to reminiscing about the library as a way station in each of our childhoods was the reopening of the library last month after being closed for five years of renovations. This reopening was marked by a simple but powerful ritual: 982 residents lined the half mile of sidewalk between the library’s temporary home and its renovated 1910 building and passed from hand to hand the last book to be moved back to its new-old home ― a history of Sag Harbor written by a local author. Cries of “Here comes the book!” arose from the crowd and the community band played ― the bright sun shining off the brass instruments ― as the library’s director received the book from the last person in line and brought it through the library doors.
Watching this book as it stopped briefly in each pair of hands, I was reminded of this week’s Torah portion, Matot/Masei. These last chapters of the Book of Numbers are set at the end of the people’s 40-year journey through the desert. In them, Moses records each of the 42 way stations where the Israelites camped on the way from slavery to the promised land. Whether they were encamped there for a long time or only briefly, whether something momentous happened there (like the death of Aaron) or nothing so remarkable, the place names are preserved in Moses’ litany. The stops along the way lend shape and significance to the journey itself.
The John Jermain Library was absolutely one of the way stations on my own life’s journey and my mother’s too, and it was very moving to be able to mark its importance along with her as well as the whole community. The book-passing ritual drew attention to the power of places in our lives, and the importance of noting and honoring them. Each of us has many places in our lives that have served as waypoints, even in passing―how might we find ways to recollect and honor them? How might we mark these stopping points and distinguish them from the blur that the past can often be?
Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, says that Moses’ litany of encampments is like a king who took his sick son on a journey to a far-away place in search of a cure. On their way home, the king pointed out all the places they had stopped along the way, saying, “Here is where we slept,” and “Here is where your head was bothering you.” Many who cite this midrash don’t mention that it goes on to say that God wanted Moses to do this work of recollecting the people’s way stations as a way of recounting “each of the places where they angered Me.” In Tanchuma’s view, they are recounted as places of struggle. Regardless of whether or not we believe in a God who is angered by us, instead of shying away from this reading we can expand our sense of which stops along our own journeys are worthy of recounting, to make sure we include those places where we faced challenges.
This summer is my first as a new mother, and (since we live in Israel) our first opportunity to introduce our five-month-old daughter to her grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, and some of our stateside friends. In our visits, I often find myself telling at least part of the story of our journey to becoming parents. Whichever version of the story I tell, I am very conscious that this journey too had both uplifting and difficult stops and stages along the way. My own sense of what it means for me to be a mother would feel incomplete without finding a way to recollect these more challenging times as well: the years of yearning for partnerhood and motherhood and consoling myself that my songs could be my children; the many months when I tried telling myself that at least I was still pregnant with possibility; the moment in the fertility doctor’s office when he expertly told us that my size made my body “incompatible with pregnancy”―and I painfully squelched the colorful language I had in mind in order to politely say that we’d like to try anyway.
I draw strength from recollecting these more painful places on the road to motherhood. I especially draw strength from them at 5:30 every morning when my tiny girl makes it perfectly clear that ― as shocked as her night-owl parents are to have produced such a creature – no matter how many times she’s been up at night, she is very much a morning person. And I know that these early mornings after sleepless nights will someday also be a refuge in my memory – a challenging, sweet, and all-too-brief stopover in this parenting journey.
Rabbi Minna Bromberg is a singer, songwriter, rabbi, and voice teacher who lives in Jerusalem with her husband, Rabbi Alan Abrams, and their daughter. Ordained in 2010 at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, she currently runs the school’s Year-in-Israel Program for rabbinical students.