Coming in from the outside – Matot-Masei 5781

Isn’t it wonderful to be inside together!

Comfortable chairs! The beautiful sanctuary! Air conditioning!

It has been a long slog. Surprisingly, much of the last year already is starting to feel like a distant memory.  It was not long ago that I was rolling out of bed on Shabbat morning to go to shul in my family room.

As life continues to return to normal – at least for those of us blessed to live here in well-vaccinated San Jose, I wonder what from the pandemic will stay with us?

This morning’s double Torah portion, Matot-Masei, concludes the Book of Numbers. To make sure we do not forget, it reviews every single stop in the wilderness at which the Israelites have camped over the previous forty years. It is important to remember everything that has transpired before the Israelites are allowed to reach their home in the Promised Land.

As the parashah begins, however, there is one final piece of action that requires attention. 

At God’s instructions, the Israelites go to war against Midian.  This is the conclusion of a long, drawn-out engagement that began back when King Balak tried to get the Prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. Now, finally, the conflict comes to an end with battle.

One thousand men from each of the twelve tribes are selected to go to war.  The Priest Pinchas joins them, equipped with the sacred vessels and the silver trumpets.

The Israelites achieve a great victory, devastating the Midianites and their towns,  slaughtering men, women, and children, and taking vast booty.

I do not want to focus on those parts of the story, however.  I would draw our attention to the return of the Israelites warriors to the community.

Moses instructs the soldiers:

You shall stay outside the camp seven days; every one among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall cleanse himself on the third and seventh days.

Numbers 31:19

On the seventh day, they wash their clothes and can then reenter the camp. 

Why is there such a long and drawn-out reentry into the camp?  If I was a soldier, the last thing I would want to do after returning home from war would be to wait outside for an extra week.  I would want to return to my family as quickly as possible.

The answer has to do with holiness and purity. After so much contact with death, the soldiers are all presumed to be in a state of ritual impurity. If they return to the camp and mingle with the rest of the Israelites, they run the risk of passing along that corpse-contamination to others. The impurity could eventually spread all the way to the Tabernacle, which would then become unfit for God’s Presence.

And so, for the good of the entire nation, the 12,000 soldiers remain in quarantine outside the camp for one week, which is the length of time required to become pure again after a person has come into direct contact with a dead body.

Despite their overwhelming victory, I imagine these soldiers are still traumatized. 

What would it feel like to reenter the camp? They have gone through the trauma of war. These seven days of quarantine, of physical and spiritual cleansing, give them a chance to make a transition to normal life, to heal. Only then can they come home.

We have a sense of what that feels like. After sixteen months away, we are now back inside our sanctuary for the first time.

It has been a traumatic year for so many. Isolation, disruptions in school and work. Some of us have gotten sick. Some of us lost family and friends to Covid.

For the sake of keeping each other free from contagion, we have had to be physically isolated from one another.  For me, personally, it has been inconvenient. But I try not to forget about who has borne the brunt of this scourge. From increased rates of illness, to worse outcomes, to slower vaccination access, and increased unemployment – it is the same people who are always at greatest risk: the poor and marginalized.

Now here we are.

The Israelite soldiers returning from war partook in rituals to mark their return to the community. It is appropriate for us as well.

Birkat Shehecheyanu seems especially fitting at this moment. There are laws for when we are supposed to recite the Shehecheyanu. Basically, we recite it when we are doing something for the first time, or the first time in a long time.  Here are some traditional occasions for Shehecheyanu:

When we eat a “new fruit” which we have not eaten in at least a year. 

When we perform any mitzvah that has a fixed time and is not common, such as blowing the shofar or dwelling in the sukkah. This is why there is a shehecheyanu at the beginning of each holiday. There are those who recite shehecheyanu over a new article of clothes, but this really only applies to something special. If one buys a new house, one should recite Shehecheyanu. When we see a friend whom we have not seen in at least thirty days, we recite Shehecheyanu.

These are all traditional moments in life for reciting this prayer. What do they have in common? These are all moments of joy, whether we are talking about reaching a momentous occasion, seeing someone special to us, or performing a joyous mitzvah.

I suspect that we do not always think closely about the meaning of the words themselves when we recite it.

“Praised are You Eternal God, sovereign of the universe…”

  • Shehecheyanu – who has given us life. Simply being alive is a gift. We often forget that. 
  • V’kiy’manu – who has sustained us. This is about flourishing.  Not only do we have life, we have been blessed with the ability to flourish. The ability to do something new and exciting brings us above the level of mere living.
  • V’higianu lazman hazeh – And who has brought us to this moment. Judaism places more value on time than on space. All of our ritual mitzvot are oriented towards sanctifying time, recognizing the specialness of each moment.

Shehecheyanu, with its many opportunities for recitation, brings these three aspects of gratitude and awareness together. We acknowledge and praise God as the source of life, as the one who grants us the ability to flourish, and as the one ultimately responsible for enabling us to enjoy sacred moments.

This moment, when we are back in our sanctuary after sixteen months away, is an especially appropriate opportunity to say shehecheyanu. We have survived. While difficult, we have had opportunities to flourish. And while we have begun to enjoy life returning back to normal, these experiences have given us a new appreciation for how blessed we are in this, and every, moment. 

.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

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