Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4
In a first encounter with a new person, we tend to ask fact-finding questions. “So, where do you work?” “Do you have any children?” “Where did you grow up?” “Have any fun summer plans?” The answers to these questions are simple, and while we begin to see a basic outline of the person with whom we are speaking, the picture lacks color and depth. The best way to really understand a person is to hear the stories of his or her life, the details of their journey.
This week we read the last few chapters of the Book of Numbers. Nearly all of chapter 33 is devoted to a list of the places the Israelites encamped during their 40-year journey through the wilderness — a summary of their wanderings in the whole of the Book of Numbers. Maimonides (Rambam), in his “Guide for the Perplexed” (III:50), bravely writes what so many of us may only think to ourselves as our eyes glaze from reading the many-times repeated formula, “They set out from … and encamped at …” The Rambam writes, “Apparently this is an enumeration that is quite useless.” In other words, why do we need to know about the wanderings of our ancestors in such great detail?
Of course, it is not useless at all, and Maimonides goes on to write, “But the need for this was very great. For all miracles are certain in the opinion of one who has seen them: however, at a future time their story becomes a mere traditional narrative, and there is a possibility for the hearer to consider it untrue.” I would add to the Rambam’s explanation by suggesting that when a story becomes “a mere traditional narrative,” it risks a fate worse than being considered untrue. It risks being forgotten altogether.
In case we needed any more evidence of the importance of knowing the details of a story, we read that the recording of the details of the encampments in chapter 33 was commanded by God. “Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Eternal” (Numbers 33:2). The enumeration is divinely mandated, because, in order to really understand a person — or, in this case, a people — we must learn the details of the story.
We often joke that many Jewish holidays can be summed up by saying, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” But if we just left it at that, we would miss so much. We would miss the bravery of the Maccabees, whose story has much to teach us about valuing our tradition, even when we feel like outsiders. We would miss the courage of Queen Esther, whose story reminds us that we are all powerful beyond our own imagination. And we would miss the emergence of our people, since the story of the Book of Numbers is not just the story of a journey from Egypt to Israel and the encampments along the way, but the story of a journey from slavery to freedom. This is the story of how thousands of individual slaves came to be called the People of Israel. In retelling and reliving the details of this story, we learn about who we are.
This is the reason that so many of us can recite the details of the story of our parents’ first meeting. This is the reason that every family has its oft-told stories, phrases of which are recited verbatim by different tellers across generations. This is the reason that we each have stories from our own childhoods that we find ourselves frequently retelling, word-for-word. The details of our stories matter. They give color to our personal histories, and they help us not only to understand ourselves, but to understand one another.
Alvin Fine wrote, “Birth is a beginning and death a destination; But life is a journey. A going, a growing from stage to stage; From childhood to maturity and youth to old age.” As we get to know people, we learn the details of their goings and growings. We learn the details of their journey. As we move forward into the Book of Deuteronomy, we can reflect on all we have learned about our people from the details of the journey of our ancestors in the Book of Numbers. In so doing, we will go from strength to strength.
Rabbi Rebekah Stern of Peninsula Temple Sholom is filling in for Rabbi Daniel Feder, who is on sabbatical.