By the best estimates, it seems that more than two million Israelites made their way from Egypt through the Wilderness to the border of Eretz Yisrael. If more than two million people came upon an area with twelve springs and seventy palm trees, would this count as a desert oasis? After all, that would mean at least 166,666 people per spring and 28,571 people per palm tree–hardly an abundance of water or shade for our ancestors. Why, then, would the Torah bother mentioning such seemingly insignificant details as the reason for Israelite encampment?
We read this week from the last Torah portion of the Book of Numbers, Parashat Mas’ei. The Israelites are nearing the end of their journey through the Wilderness. Moses is preparing to die, and as such is recounting the numerous stops along the way to a new generation of Israelites. Aside from the above reference to a sojourn at a place called Elim, very few other places receive such a description of the area of settlement or what happened there. It seems that these springs and palm trees were somehow significant to them. Rabbi Abraham Twerski teaches that a brief look at the previous encampments reveals numerous places where the Israelites complained to God or to Moses: they were hungry; thirsty; fearful; even longing for the “good old days” of slavery in Egypt. But at some point along the way, Rabbi Twerski writes, the Israelites changed their perspective. They had no more or no less than when they complained, but they realized God had provided them with what they needed. They realized that they were indeed blessed and decided to be grateful for that with which they were blessed. Essentially, nothing changed about the Israelites and their sojourn … other than their perspective. But this change in perspective was significant enough to warrant mention in this week’s parashah.
One of the most important elements of Judaism is the multiple ways it seeks to help us gain perspective on life. From the legal and narrative elements of our Sacred Scripture, through the teachings of the rabbis and even into children’s stories such as “It Could Always Be Worse,” Judaism implores us to keep proper perspective on the depth of that which is troublesome, the height of that which seems joyful, and the extent of the tzurris in which we really are. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that a person should keep in each side pocket a piece of paper. On one should be written, “The world was created (just) for me”. On the other, “I am but dust and ashes”. The trick in life, the Rebbe taught, is to know when to take out which piece of paper. Perspective matters: it can bring us hope and comfort; it can also eliminate arrogance and egotism. In every case, maintaining proper perspective can help realize the extent to which we are truly blessed. And, indeed, each one one of us is blessed. We must just be willing to open our eyes to it and give thanks.
28,571 people per palm tree is hardly a desert oasis if you are seeking one palm tree per person. But when our ancestors realized they were blessed to have any shade or water at all, they finally knew enough to give thanks. This Shabbat of Parashat Mas’ei, let us take the time to realize how blessed we truly are, and let us give thanks for those blessings in our life.
Rebecca, Caleb and Ayal join me in wishing you Shabbat shalom um’vorach: a peaceful and blessed Sabbath.
-Rabbi Aaron Starr