The critically-acclaimed TV show of the late 1990s and early 2000s portrayed a president and his staff who were both passionate idealists and realistic politicians. Though the show was on the air through much of the turmoil of the previous decade, its spirit was informed by the optimism of the time with its booming economy, demise of the Cold War, and prospect of peace in the Middle East. The West Wing leaned into the imagination of the possible while containing a sufficient measure of the probable.
But since those hopeful and seemingly halcyon days, we have experienced 9/11, intractable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the worst economic collapse in this country since the Great Depression. One could add any number of other tragedies from the Middle East, Africa or elsewhere to this depressing list. I often wonder if we can draw a line between our experience of these events and the rise in popularity of shows like Scandal, House of Cards, Game of Thrones and others with their extreme cynicism of the motivations of people in power and hyper-representation of power politics. Though of course there are trends to the contrary, these shows capture the fear and despair that is a significant part of the contemporary zeitgeist.
Hope and despair. We swing between these poles as we seek to create a better world. Though we know there is no grand march of history in which human society inexorably moves towards progress, it is often hard not to be seduced by, and swept up in, this fantasy and then fall into despair at its (surprising) collapse. The enthusiasm President Obama engendered in his first presidential campaign, the way many were uplifted by his soaring rhetoric, by the possibility of change, and what electing our first African American president represented in terms of our growth as a nation, followed by the disappointment of the ensuing six years of continued gridlock and unfulfilled promise, captures this dynamic.
How can we traverse the path of tikun olam, of mending and bettering the world, without being blinded by hope and defeated by despair?
The terse recapitulation of the Israelites 40-year journey through the wilderness that opens this week’s parasha, Masei, offers wisdom on this dilemma. In this final section of the Book of Numbers, the Children of Israel are camped on the West Plain of Moab, just outside the Promised Land, already engaging in military battles on the far side of the Jordan River and leadership transitions nearly completed. They are on the verge of completing the long trek through the wilderness and entering the Promised Land.
And at this moment, the Torah turns our attention to the past before moving on to Moses’ instructions to the people about the conquest and division of the land. The Torah offers a retelling of the journey, mentioning all 42 stops the Israelites made since leaving Egypt four decades earlier.
But what are we to make of this list of encampments?
Biblical scholars teach us that the literary chain style this passage is written in is similar to a style used in the ancient Near East for recording military campaigns: “They left Elim and camped near the Red Sea. They left the Red Sea and camped in the Sin Desert. They left the Sin Desert and camped in Dofkah” (Numbers 33:10-12). Its rhythmic pattern has a march-like quality to it, evocative of grand and noble quests.
That the journey took 40 years, includes just over 40 stops and is retold in 49 verses — all numbers of completion in the Torah — reinforces the sense of an inevitable march to success. We hear in their footsteps the majesty of the marches throughout the millennia of people pursuing a better world. We hear faith in Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspiring vision of history and destiny, the long arc of the moral universe bending towards justice.
But as the stops mount on this journey and the verses flow by in this seemingly endless section of text, we can’t help but feel the tediousness of the journey. The monotonous literary form counters the romantic enticement of the immanent arrival in the Land of Canaan, forcing us to pay attention to the plodding nature of the journey. In addition to the hope, we hear the despair.
In this summary version of what it is to be on a march to freedom and fulfillment, the Torah is inviting us to explore the tension between travel and arrival, anxiety and confidence, longing and satisfaction.
Acknowledging the presence of both of these elements is a necessary response to dealing with the polarity of hope and despair. In our work for tikkun, we must not be wild-eyed dreamers. In our dedication to the causes and values we hold dear, we must be aware that obstacles will be in our path and not be overly discouraged by them. This might sound like a cliché, but it is an important teaching about how to engage with a complex reality. It is a strategy that encourages us to endure and to fight through for the sake of our future.
I wish to add one final thought about the many stops we make on our life journeys inspired by a mystical commentary on our text. In contemplating the meaning of this litany of encampments, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev teaches that everywhere the Israelites traveled in the wilderness, they were responsible for bringing forth “holy sparks,” for fulfilling a spiritual task specific to that place. The duration of their stay in a particular location reflected the manner and extent of work necessary in each place. And it was only through doing this work that they could properly prepare to enter the Holy Land.
This interpretation reminds us of the importance of the journey itself, of the uniqueness of particular times, places, and people, and the holiness of these “encampments” along the way to achieving some other goal. This is a stance towards the present that views each moment as valuable and essential. It is an approach that says if one is ever going to get to the Promised Land, it is only going to happen by honoring and fully engaging the present and its blessings and challenges, and not by just getting through it.
In a seemingly simple, but profound manner, the Torah portion of Masei challenges us to live between hope and despair, paying careful attention to the possibilities of the present moment, while laying the foundation for the future.