This week we are confronted with a double portion that takes us all the way to the end of the 4th book of the Torah, the book of Numbers. Though the entirety of these two portions seem rather boring, there are some very intriguing lessons hidden away in the very middle of a seemingly long, dry, dusty desert story we read of which launches the portion of Massei in Numbers 33. Numbers 33 goes through an entire list of 40 years worth of map locations telling us where the Nation of Israel camped and journeyed during their time in the wilderness. It records the period the nation of Israel left Egypt until the moment they camped at the border of the Promised Land for a second time. And with a whole chapter dedicated to the journeys of the Israelites, we must ask ourselves, what’s the point? And, what are we to learn?
First, I want to make us all aware of the season of time we are currently in. This time in Judaism is known as the “Three weeks.” The three weeks begin on the 17th of Tammuz and end on the 9th of Av. The 17th of Tammuz is remembered in Jewish History as a day of tragic events; e.g. Moses destroying the Tablets at Mount Sinai during the sin of the Golden Calf. There are 4 other events through history, which also happened on this day. This day (17th of Tammuz) leads up 3 weeks later with the 9th of Av, a day that has become sealed in history as a day of tragedy for the Jewish people. On this day (9th of Av), the Spies brought back a bad report about the land of Israel, both the 1st and 2nd Temples were destroyed, the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and Heinrich Himmler in 1941 received approval from the Nazi party for the “Final Solution” leading to the death of 6 million Jews. Unfortunately, this is only scratching the surface of all the terrible events associated with this day, but as you can imagine, just from my short list, this day of tragedy has become a day of deep mourning and grief for the Jewish people. These Torah portions Mattot & Massei always fall during the time period of the 3 weeks, between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. This tells us that there is something in these portions that connects to this time period of the 3 weeks.
In Numbers 33 we read of 42 journeys that the Israelites experienced during their time in the desert. 42 times the nation of Israel camped in different locations during their travels. Compare this to the time we are currently in, known as the “Three Weeks.” 3 weeks are equal to 21 days. Separate the days from the nights and you end up with the number 42! We find that the three weeks correspond to the journeys of the Israelites in their state of exile. The Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi and Founder of the Chassidic movement) taught that these 42 journeys correspond to the 42 spiritual journeys that we each make throughout our lives. From birth in a worldly system = Egypt, to the final journey toward the spiritual Promised Land; our individual lives are echoes and reflections of the journey of the forefathers. As it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “Ma Shehayah Hu Sheyiyeh, Uma-Shena’asah Hu Sheye’aseh—That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done…”
“Israel’s Escape from Egypt”
We all must learn the same lessons as those who have gone before us. Technology, Science, Music, Art; all these can be passed down and built upon from generation to generation. But the journey with God is one from which we all start at the same place. We can learn the lessons of life from other people’s journeys, and this may determine if the road we take is more or less smooth…but the journey must still be taken. Remember, even if the Israelites had entered into the Promised Land the first time, they still would have needed to journey through the wilderness for a season. You cannot get to the Promised Land without first traveling through the wilderness. There are no shortcuts. The painful history of the Jewish people is remembered during these 3 weeks, not to recount the horrors of the past, but to instead look forward to a time when the exile in this world’s wilderness is past and the redemption comes. We look forward to a time when the Galut (Exile) is over and the Geulah (Redemption) is at hand!
The three weeks between these two days (17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av) are known in Hebrew as “Bein ha-Metzarim” which is translated as “Between the Straits.” These 3 weeks get the name “Bein ha-Metzarim” from the verse in Lamentations 1:3 where it says, “…all her persecutors overtake her in dire straits.” The word “strait” can also be read as “predicament” or “dilemma.” So, the time between these two days are the days “between the predicaments.” However, we could also translate this phrase as “Bein ha-Mitzrayim—Between the Egypts.” These three weeks remind us of the hard tragedies that have afflicted God’s people through the centuries, but they also remind us of the difficult journey we all must pursue in order to leave Egypt = the way of the world, behind. Every year during Passover the Jewish people say “Avadim Hayinu, Ata Benei Chorin—We were slaves, now we are free!” Passover isn’t just about remembering what has happened in the past, it’s about seeing our own personal story reflected in the past as we look towards a brighter future!
Right now the whole world is “between the straits/Egypts.” We’re in exile from God, from the Garden, and from each other. Even though it only took one day for God to bring Israel out of Egypt, it took 40 years to get Egypt out of the Israelites. We are in the same place. Our individual and collective journey through this wilderness world is to purify and prepare us for the coming future. Our journey “between the straits/Egypts” is to prepare us for a time when our exile is over and we are truly ready to enter God’s House = The Promised Land.
“Moses viewing the promised land”
When the Israelites finally arrived and prepared to enter into the Promised Land, their first stop was Jericho. Why was it Jericho? Well, if the wilderness years and the 42 journeys of Israel correspond to our own exile, then the entrance to the Promised Land and the conquering of Jericho correspond to the arrival of the redemption. Though the origin of the word Jericho is dubious, you can derive the word “Re’ach—Smell” from the word “Yericho—Jericho.” What does Jericho have to do with smell? In the Talmud (Yoma 39b) it says, “Furthermore, goats that were in Jericho would sneeze from smelling the fragrance of the incense that burned in the Temple; the women that were in Jericho did not need to perfume themselves, since they were perfumed by the fragrance of the incense, which reached there; a bride that was in Jerusalem did not need to adorn herself with perfumes, since she was perfumed by the fragrance of the incense, which filled the air of Jerusalem.” The smell of the Temple incense that was daily offered in the Temple was so strong that one could smell its fragrance far beyond the city walls of Jerusalem. Jericho is the entrance to the Promised Land from at whose point; the scent of redemption can already be smelled.
In today’s world we do not see the Temple restored as a “House of prayer for all nations” nor are we at the end of our exile in this worldly wilderness journey. However, God’s redemption is drawing near! You can’t see it with your eyes, but the scent of restoration is growing stronger every day! In Genesis 2 we read, “God…breathed into [the man’s] nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”  Where does the breath of life enter? Through our nostrils…you can’t really sin with your nose, your sense of smell just tells you whether you’re headed in a pleasant or putrid direction.
Some people have gone, as the Febreze commercials put it: Noseblind. They have become so used to the foul odor of life around them that they are content to stay where they are. Don’t become Noseblind! Learn to not only smell the fragrance of the coming redemption, but become that fragrance as well! And as we bring the fragrance of the restoration into this world, we will all begin to smell, as Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu puts it “the fragrance of Messiah” that is already “in the air!” May we soon see the beauty of the redemption, whose scent is already rising and wafting over these desert sands of exile, as we continue the journey of generations, back to God’s heart and the Promised Land of Eden!
 Grace and peace from God’s bondservant,
Shabbat Shalom,

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