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Parshas Matos/Maasei - How Did I Get Here?    29 Tammuz 5782

07/28/2022 04:48:00 PM


Due to the necessity of security in our homes, offices and most places of worship, we are faced with a variety of push button locks necessary to gain entry. Here at Beth Jacob, we have different combinations for the gate entry to the property and the main door into the building. As I approach the gate/door, I by routine push the sequence of buttons; sometimes the gate opens on the first try, and at other times it does not. The fact that it did not open was not due to a jam or the need to reset the system; it was because I had used  the wrong code. I no longer “think” of the numbers and sequence; I just do it. This kind of action is called “muscle memory”, the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired through frequent repetition of that movement.

There is something in our brains called the Default Mode Network or DMN. Scientific investigation has now shown that our DMN takes over when we are undertaking familiar activities such as tying our shoelaces, playing a musical instrument (once a level of skill has been developed), driving a familiar route, or performing a repetitive task. Research shows that once our brains are familiar with an activity, they ‘switch off’ and go into ‘autopilot mode’, allowing us to undertake tasks without thinking about them. In everyday life we’re probably in DMN much more than we realize. Cooking, washing the dishes, taking a shower, mowing the lawn, and so forth, are all familiar tasks we undertakes mainly while in this Default Mode Network.

DMN may be okay when it comes to mundane acts and even more strangely, studies show that the brain seems to perform such tasks better and with more accuracy when in DMN than when in ‘switched on’ mode. But when it comes to spiritual and religious acts, we need the ‘kavana’, the purposeful, focused direction and proper concentration, not just performing routinized DMN. If we only rely on muscle memory, then when a situation slightly changes, we won’t be able to do the task correctly. If we are engaged in the actual process by going through each step with care, we will remember things better, openly working our cerebral muscles rather than relying on muscle memory.   My support for this idea is rooted in the details of the Torah’s description in a few places. As we know, the Torah does not waste words. Nothing in the Torah is superfluous, as we will read this week.

In this week’s double Parsha of Matos and Maasei, the Torah, in the beginning of Maasei  states in Bamidbar 33:1 " אלה מסעי בני ישראל אשר יצאו מארץ מצרים לצבאותם ביד משה ואהרן" “These are the journeys of the Israelites who had left Egypt in organized groups under the leadership of Moshe and Aharon”. This begins the listing of the forty-two locations during the forty-year journey of wandering through the Sinai desert. The Madreigas Ha’Adam says these verses are necessary to inform future generations of the greatness of the One whom we say created the world. To remind us that it is Hashem who nourished and sustained all the needs of six hundred thousand men ( a total of approximately three million people) in the desert. The desert was a place far from any civilization. There was no water, no vegetation, no protection from the elements. If someone expressed disbelief, then here is a clear listing of those places where each event occurred. Unfortunately, even if we could go back to those places, we wouldn’t see the miracles. Nevertheless the mentioning of these places is crucial to the everlasting memory of what was. If only the miracles that took place in the desert were mentioned, they would be forgotten, but by mentioning the places with the miracles, the history and events were cemented in our minds. This belief is summarized by the Rambam in his sefer Moreh Nevachim (Guide to the Perplexed III 50), quoted by the Ramban on the first passuk in Maasei. The following is an excerpt from the Moreh Nevuchim 

“It is also necessary to note the following observations. The view we take of things described by others is different from the view we take of things seen by us as eyewitnesses. That which we see contains many details which are essential and must be fully described. The reader of the description may believe that it contains superfluous matter, or useless repetition, but if he had witnessed the event of which he reads, he would see the necessity of every part of the description. When we, therefore, notice narratives in the Torah which seemingly have no connection to any of the commandments, we are inclined to think that they are entirely superfluous, or too lengthy, or contain repetitions; but this is only because we do not see the incidents which make those narratives noteworthy.

The enumeration of the stations the Bnei Yisrael traveled in the desert found in Bamidbar 33 supports this fact. At first sight this enumeration appears to be entirely useless. To obviate such a notion Scripture says, "And Moshe wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of the Lord." Bamidbar 33:2. It was indeed most necessary that these enumerations should be written. Miracles are only convincing to those who witnessed them; future generations, however, who know them only from the account given by others, may consider them as untrue. But miracles cannot continue, cannot last for all generations; it is even inconceivable [that they should be permanent]. Now the greatest of the miracles described in the Law is the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years, always provided with a daily supply of manna. This wilderness, consisted of places "wherein were fiery serpents and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water" Devarim 8:15; places very remote from cultivated land, and naturally not adapted for the habitation of man, "It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates, neither is there any water to drink" Bamidbar 20:5; "A land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt" Yirmiyahu 2:6. All these miracles were wonderful, public, and witnessed by the people. But God knew that in the future people might doubt the correctness of the account of these miracles just as they doubt the accuracy of other narratives. They might think that the Israelites stayed in the wilderness, but it was  in a place not far from inhabited land, a place where it was possible for man to live in the ordinary way; a place like those deserts in which Arabs live at present, or that they dwelt in such places in which they could plow, sow, and reap, or live on some vegetable that was growing there. They may declare that manna came always down in those places as an ordinary natural product, or that there were wells of water in those places. To remove all these doubts and to firmly establish the accuracy of the account of these miracles, The Torah enumerates all the stations, assuring that coming generations may see them, and learn the greatness of the miracle which enabled human beings to live in those places forty years.” Chaza”l intentionally arranged the reading of this parsha to always coincide during the three weeks of mourning so as to illustrate the ability and resilience of the Jewish people to survive and thrive under the most difficult conditions.

So, next time you have that startling ’How did we, the Jewish people, get here’ feeling, you’ll know why. It’s because of Hashem’s kindness and purpose of Am Yisrael’s destiny in the world!

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784