This week we end the Book of Numbers (Sefer Bamidbar) with the double portion Matot-Masei. It is an exciting and profound selection of Torah, touching on community, solidarity, and commitment, keeping promises, and a genocidal war the Isralites wage on the Midianites including enslaving their women and children.
In the midst of all of this is a seemingly boring list of all the places the Israelites encamped during their forty years of wandering in the desert, for at the end of Numbers the Israelites are poised on the east side of the Jordan ready to enter the Land of Israel. It is the type of list that is easy to pass over, one place name after another, seemingly boring Torah, like the lists of generations.
And yet, as a nation we are engaged in profound debate over our history and the meaning of that history. Should statues of soldiers and politicians who fought to maintain slavery and dismember the Untied States be allowed to stand? Is the Confederate battle flag a symbol of Southern pride or of racism and white supremacy? Should military bases named after Confederate generals be renamed? This debate has emerged as a new battle ground in the so-called “culture wars.”
Perhaps another way to rephrase this question is what kind of a nation do we want to be. One that includes and values all its citizens or one that gives greater value to some citizens at the expense of others?
In Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” America has never truly reckoned with its history: of slavery, of conquest, of murder of native peoples, and of discrimination.
This week’s Torah portion reminds us that we must continue to study and know our history. To come to grips with the painful and wrong parts of it, as well as the good and noble, if we are to understand ourselves.
Human beings are flawed creatures. That is how God created us. We can only become better if we confront our past with honesty and courage. That is something for us to think about as we enter our penitential season leading up to the High Holy Days.