Yom Shlishi, 25 AdarI 5781
Tuesday, 9 March 2021
Parashiot Mattot-Maasei 2012

Parashiot Mattot-Maasei: Rabbi Janet Burden
20th July 2012

I don’t know about you, but periodically, I have to force myself to go through my files of personal paperwork and chuck out a variety of bills, statements, and the like that I don’t need to keep anymore. I suspect that most of the things I hang on to in the first place are things other people get rid of immediately: television licenses for past years, old utilities statements and the like. My flat is a veritable storehouse of useless bits of paper. I keep telling my husband, Jon, that I come by this curious habit naturally. My maternal grandparents, and my mother in her turn, were absolutely obsessed with keeping records. My grandparents had a set of old brown ledgers in which they accounted for every penny they spent, from the 1920’s when they were first married to the 1980’s when they died. If you wanted to know how much a refrigerator or a pack of cigarettes cost in 1932, I could once have told you. Unfortunately, my grandfather insisted that all these ledgers be burnt after his death. I’m not sure why. My friend Tim, an economic historian at the LSE, nearly wept when I told him what I once had - and was obliged to destroy.

OK, so now you know one of my family foibles. We don’t keep much in the way of chatchkas or souvenirs of any kind. What we keep is records, accounts, lists. Like generations of my family, I sit on a personal Genizah of odd documents. I just can’t fight the habit. For example, I still have old credit card statements going back for the better part of three decades. I came across these recently on one of my purges, but I just couldn’t bear to throw them away. I was surprised at how much of my personal history I could reconstruct from them. And I don’t just mean from the purchases, either. From the changing addresses on the top of the statements, I traced some of the travels that shaped my life’s path: from Chicago, Illinois to Durham, North Carolina. From Durham, North Carolina to Kibbutz Ma’ayan Tzvi. From Kibbutz Ma’ayan Tzvi to Jerusalem. From Jerusalem to London. From London, back to Durham for a while, and so on. You will undoubtedly recognise some of these names, while others will be more obscure. Yet for me, each one is incredibly resonant. They aren’t just places on a map; they are storehouses of personal memories. Take Durham, North Carolina, for example. I remember the shock I felt when I first flew there in the frosty February of a Midwestern winter. Everything was covered with snow when I flew out of Chicago – but North Carolina was carpeted in green and the spring flowers were already peeking through. It immediately felt like a place I could stay for awhile.

I remember the house I lived in there while I worked on my Masters thesis – my housemates, our food co-op, our shul. Good times and bad, laughter and tears: all of it comes flooding back from a simple street address. I learned many life lessons in that sleepy Southern town – lessons I may share with you on another day. It was a good place to be until it was time to move on, time to set out for kibbutz life in Israel. Each place another leg in the journey….

I suppose my experience of going through my old paperwork is one of the reasons I have a fondness for this apparently dry list of place names that opens the final section of the book of Numbers. Although we cannot begin to reconstruct a fraction of the

rich history of our ancestors from this far removed point in time, I am certain that these are not just points on a map. Each journey from point A to point B represents a particular slice of the life of our people as they negotiated their way through the wilderness. Each place name carries with it a particular memory, or many of them. Some of them we recognise, of course – like going out from Ramses in front of all of the Egyptians. The elation of our people, the relief, the fear: all of these emotions are evoked by naming this leg of our journey. Other names are less familiar. We cannot know what happened in all of them. Many of places named in this section are mentioned nowhere else but here. Yet we do know that children were born, couples got married, friends and family members died. All the memories of a generation are here, locked in these place names.

If you can over this Shabbat, think about the various places you have “pitched camp” in your own life. Start out, if you can, in the place where you were living when you reached the age of bar/bat mitzvah. When you left there, where did you go? What was it that made you move when you did? How many places have you lived in subsequently? What memories do you have of those places?

May we, like our ancestors before us, be blessed in each leg of our life’s journey. May we feel a sense of the sacred as we continue to travel on our way.