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My Meaning and Theirs

07/31/2019 04:05:34 PM


Shabbat Mattot-Masei

Over the last few decades, the way we take pictures has changed. I often find myself tricking the people who are the subjects of my photos by taking multiple pictures AS I count to three, and not just one single click at the culmination of my counting. I then sift through the handful of digital pictures, laugh at some of the goofy action shots, choose the one I’ll share with my family, and let the rest backup to the cloud. I am no longer a slave to the limit of exposures, nor to the frustration of wasting a picture from an accidental shot, or God forbid a stray finger I had covering the lens. I can take a picture of everything, and later decide what is worth adding to my online albums. And what I enjoy most is that I don’t need to remember to grab the photo album off the shelf, since my phone will automatically prompt me to view photos of my memories from the past every now and then. Thus a large portion of my life is captured, and I can “relive” more of the past through this digital accretion.

This week’s portion of Mattot-Mas’ei similarly provides an opportunity for the Israelites to relive their past. In the first chapter of Mas’ei, the Torah lists about 40 places the Israelites had camped since their departure from Egypt. This list is accented by a splattering of details about what happened at each of these places. It was after leaving Ramses that the Passover sacrifice was offered (Numbers 33:3). It was at Rephidim where they had no water to drink (Numbers 33:14). Mount Hor, we are told, is where Aaron died (Numbers 33:38). This splattering of details might have inspired our tradition to claim that all these places are mentioned to remind the Israelites of all the miracles and wonders God had performed for them in the Wilderness (Numbers Rabbah 23:1). To us, some of these places don’t have significance. What exactly happened at Zalmonah (Numbers 33:41), or at Oboth? (Numbers 33:43), or many of the other places the Israelites camped? To us, these place names are just names. But the midrash supposes that the names of each stop evoked specific memories for the Israelites. In the same way a picture of random strangers might not mean much to you, a picture of you and your closest friends is infused with memories.

It is a hallmark of our society that we are able to preserve and remember our past. And it is a feature of our culture that we can preserve our experiences for the generations to come. I can only wonder what meaning our descendants will derive from the troves of our digital data. Will this picture of that fancy anniversary dinner we ate once have meaning for our great-grandchildren? Or will it seem like the list of places in Mas’ei that seem to have lost their excitement and become just another picture of food? I can imagine it going either way. But perhaps a third option is possible. Maybe it is enough that later generations will know that these were things we wanted to remember, even if they themselves don’t appreciate the context. And in a similar vein, perhaps we can appreciate the Israelites’ journey and all of their stops since they were meaningful to them, even if some of that meaning is elusive to us nowadays.

Shabbat Shalom

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784