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A Message from Rabbi Herzfeld | Matos-Masei 5780

07/17/2020 12:23:55 PM


July 17, 2020

Our Past, Present, and Future
Matos--Masei (5780)

There is a parcel of land on River Road in Bethesda where indisputably the bodies of kidnapped and enslaved Africans were once buried in a cemetery known as The Moses African Cemetery.   This week for the second week in a row I joined with others to raise a voice in public protest about the desecration of these bones by developers who are building more storage units.  I wrote about my experience here:

With all of the issues we have going on in our world in the present, why should we focus on the bones of previous generations?  Is it not more important to focus on the present and the future than the past?

The answer is that the way we remember our past informs who we are in the present and in the future.

This idea is contained in our Torah portion (Numbers, 33).  The Torah lists all of the places in which our ancestors stopped and camped on our journeys through the wilderness.  In total we stopped in 42 places.  It is a long list and the exact location of some of the places mentioned in the verses are indeterminable. 

Rashi (citing Tanchuma) explains why the Torah records all 42 places:

A parable! It may be compared to the case of a king whose son was ill and whom he took to a distant place to cure him. When they returned home the father began to enumerate all the stages, saying to him, “Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had the head-ache, etc.” 

Many interpret this commentary to mean that Hashem is reminding us of all the love we experienced from Gd in the wilderness.  It is almost like when we come back from a vacation, we stop and scroll through our photos and reminisce fondly of our most precious moments.

The Gerrer Rebbe points out that there is a reason why the Tanchuma specifically notes where we slept, where we caught cold, and where we had a headache.  These are actually not random examples of memories on our journey, but allusions to painful incidents that occurred in our history in the wildnerness (cited in Mayana Shel Torah, volume 4, 152).  

“Where we slept” refers to the fact that we overslept when Gd called us to receive the Torah at Sinai.  We sinned by sleeping through Sinai!

“Where we were cold” refers to the fact that Amalek “cooled” us down as we journeyed in the wilderness after the splitting of the sea.  How painful it must have been to recall that Amalek attack!

“Where we had a headache” refers to the colossal sin of the Golden Calf in which we asked “for a head” to lead us, after we feared that Moshe had died.  What greater sin has there ever been than the sin of the Golden Calf!

So in recalling all 42 steps of our journey, the Torah does not shy away from reminding us of our most painful steps along the way.  On the contrary the Torah reminds us that as we enter the land of Canaan we need to be aware of the totality of our journey—both the painful and the joyous moments. Awareness of our past is necessary for us to achieve redemption in the present and the future. 

Indeed, as part of our journeys the Torah states: 

“They set out from Etham and turned about toward Pi-hahiroth, which faces Baal-zephon, and they encamped before Migdol” (33:7).

Baal is a known idolatrous cult and so therefore Baal-zephon must refer to an idolatry.  So too, pi-hahiroth.  Here too, the reference is to an idolatry.  The words pi-hahiroth, can be broken down to mean “mouths of freedom.”   One commentator understands that the nature of this idolatry is a freedom to speak without care: “According to Sefer Gilai Zahav this was a form of idolatry that proclaimed total freedom of the mouth…that is, a person can say whatever he happens to feel like saying” (cited by R. Shalom Rosner,, Masei, 5774).

This idolatry proclaims that we can say whatever we want without reflection or limitation.  We can make up lies and half-truths. It is our right, claims the idolatry, to declare whatever we want.  Say the gods of pi-hahiroth, the mouth is free to say whatever history it wants to say.  Some sophists would like to claim that today also we have the right to live in a post-truth world.  

I disagree with this notion of a post-truth world.  Not believing in an objective truth is a form of idolatry.  

The message of our portion is that it is the idolatrous cult that does not believe in historical accuracy.  It is the idolatrous cult that feels it makes no difference how we tell the story of our past.  There are no truths only subjective retellings of the past.

In contrast, by listing all 42 places the Torah declares that there is an objective truth.  

It is so important according to the Torah that we learn the truth of our past, because it is from that truth that we know how to act in the future.  As the Torah states so often, “remember that you too were slaves in Egypt.”

To the extent possible, we must learn that truth.  It certainly does matter where we stayed, and where we slept.  If we want to enter The Promised Land then it is upon us to study as much as possible about that journey and remind ourselves in an accurate manner how we acted in those places.  Slowly and carefully we must revisit each place to determine how we behaved and to see if we acted properly.

In the wilderness we journeyed to 42 destinations.  The number 42 also occurs later on in our portion.  

There were certain cities, which were set up as cities of refuge (arei miklat).  These cities were overseen by Levites.  If a person killed someone with negligence then such a person was required to run for protection to one of these cities in order to be saved from reprisals from the relatives of the victim.  The Torah tells us about these cities:

“The towns that you assign to the Levites shall comprise the six cities of refuge that you are to designate for a manslayer to flee to, to which you shall add forty-two towns” (35:6).

In all total there were 48 cities to be administered by the Levites.  In addition to the 6 cities, specifically called arei miklat, there were also 42 additional cities given over to the tribe of the Levites.  

In actuality there was little difference between the 6 cities and the 42 cities.  Both types of cities were cities of refuge. In both categories of cities it was the job of the Levites to teach Torah and help rehabilitate the murderer.

But the number 42 is certainly significant.  The 42 cities of the Levites reminds us of the 42 encampments that the Benei Yisrael made in the wilderness.  We should look at each of those encampments as places of refuge for our ancestors as they travelled through the wilderness.  The more we study those places the more we remember our own mistakes in those wilderness years and the more we are reminded how to act in the future.  

We study the places we used as a refuge for our tremendous mistakes or setbacks in life like Amalek and the Golden Calf, and we are commanded to set up cities of refuge for others who make mistakes.  In the cities of refuge that we set up, the cities are intended to educate the people who made mistakes.  The Levites were teachers and counselors required to work with people and help them mend their ways.

This is the connection between our 42 stops in the wilderness and the 42 cities of refuge.  Learn from our past and help change our future.

This is an essential part of our faith.  How we lived in our past obligates us to how we must live in our future.

The way in which The Moses African Cemetery is currently being treated in Bethesda is an absolute outrage worthy of great condemnation. 

Our communal responsibility is to respect the souls and bodies of all who lived in our country and to protect them from desecration.  That responsibility is magnified exponentially when the souls and bodies that lived here were treated in the most revolting and inhumane manner.  The bodies buried in The Moses African Cemetery were given no refuge in their lifetime and their journey in death has been cruel and devoid of basic respect and human decency. 

Therefore it is our obligation to tell their story truthfully and to make sure that it is not erased from the world.  

The parcel of land where their remains rest must not be turned into storage units.  That would be a great sin!  Instead it should remain preserved and protected as a cemetery so their story can be truthfully told so all can hear.  

It is our spiritual responsibility to hear and learn about our past so that we can do better in the present and the future.

Shmuel Herzfeld

Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783