The '80s sitcom "Cheers" details the goings-on inside a Boston bar replete with a bizarre mix of characters not found in most local pubs. The entire philosophy of the show (if there is such a thing as a sitcom philosophy) is stated in the show's theme song, which says:
Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go, where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
A sense of place gives us grounding and a feeling of security. In turn, this gives us room to grow and become more fully aware of our potential and ideally realize it. A sense of space also allows us to explore our personal and collective history, discovering meaning and sustenance by learning that our past has meaning – in essence showing us how far we have come.
This week's parsha, Masei, the last one in the Book of Numbers, records the 42 camping sites our Israelite ancestors stayed at during the course of their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The beginning of the parsha, for the most part, is just a list that duly details each place, sometimes with a more extensive note if something significant took place there. What is the Torah's purpose in taking up an important piece of textual real estate with seemingly inconsequential details?
Torah scholar Nehama Lebowitz points out that "the Torah itself prefaces the chapter with the portentous words 'Moses wrote their goings forth, stage by stage, by the commandment of the Lord.'" God wanted the Israelites to remember each stage of the journey to the Promised Land. The question remains, why?
Medieval commentator Rashi thinks the Israelites need to remember the good and the bad that had happened to them during the wilderness journeys so that they will have a degree of perspective when they reach their new home in Canaan. Knowing how they had successfully come through many trials and travails would give the Israelites a sense of accomplishment and security.
Immersing oneself in the immediacy of a particular event oftentimes does not give us the space to derive personal significance from it. We cannot put the episode, whether happy or sad, frightening or invigorating, into any particular context. It is only when we have the time and space to reflect back upon our experiences are we able to find meaning. By helping Jewish students discover the collective history they all posses, essentially showing them the stages the Jewish people have traveled through, we can help them create a safe space in which they may grow not only as Jewish individuals, but also as human beings. This is not to say that every Jew must understand and relate to Jewish history and experience with a similar perspective; rather, Jews must be able to find the means to articulate how this collective experience influences our personal Jewish journey.
We have the opportunity to create both a "place where everybody knows your name" for the Jewish students on campus as well as a space to get away and reflect on our collective experiences as people and as individuals. As Woody Allen was wont to say, "80 percent of success is showing up." The emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual space we provide can give our students the tools they want to experience the growth they seek.
Prepared by Jonathan Willis, senior associate, Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Masei at MyJewishLearning.com.