The People and the Book: The only place that matters

The only place that matters spiritually is where we are at any given moment. The Torah portion Mattot is read on Shabbat, July 19.

The only place that matters spiritually is where we are at any given moment (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
The only place that matters spiritually is where we are at any given moment
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place... Nothing outside you can give you any place... In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.”
The American author Flannery O’Connor could have been describing the book of Numbers.
From beginning to end, Numbers is dominated by a sense of place or a loss of place. The landscape is impossible to ignore, pushing back on its weary ancient travelers as they try to advance. The wilderness is everywhere. We moderns sometimes forget about the significance of physical context because we live in climate-controlled spaces, work in cubicles with fabricated walls and attend conferences in rooms without windows where space becomes indistinct and unmemorable, the blur of artifice.
But in the wilderness there is no respite from its harshness or its beauty. “They are entangled in the land; the wilderness has shut them in” [Exodus 14:2].
When God threatened to punish the leaders who brought a negative report of Canaan in the mid-section of Numbers, the image of place is consuming: “As for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness…” One verse later, the image is repeated: “Your children will wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your backslidings, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness.”
It is not hard to conjure the scene. Vast expanses of empty land are dotted with skeletons of what promised to be a future hope. One modern scholar observed that there is not one birth recorded in the book of Numbers. We only die in the wilderness, again and again. We become part of the landscape, disappearing into its monotonous grasp, as wind and sand sweep over human remains.
These consuming encounters of place require preparation. We begin Numbers with a census and exquisitely detailed instructions to prepare for an uncertainty that cannot be prepared for. We are told in Numbers 1:51 that the Levites are to construct and take down the Tabernacle the same way at each encampment; strangers who encroach on the space face the penalty of death. If the constant is change, the variable must not be variable. The heart of the camp, the Tabernacle, will remain a stable, anchoring location amid the chaos of movement.
Yet as we near the book’s end and the journey’s end, we encounter a different sense of place: first, the naming and renaming of cities that come under Israelite control through war and conquest in Mattot and then the gentle reminder in Masei, the last portion of Numbers, of the locations and cities that the Israelites traversed in their long journey. One place after another is listed in the map-defying, circuitous route our ancestors once took.
Medieval commentators, aware that this list had spiritual significance, draw our attention not to place names but to the events that will become associated with each place – the joy and defiance – much the way we recall family vacations or professional trips abroad. Cities become place-holders for experience.
Mention the place, and memories surface. There are locations – real and mythic – that conjure magic: from East of Eden to West Egg. And then there are names of places that conjure only tragedy: Treblinka and Hiroshima.
In perhaps one of the oddest turns in Mattot, place becomes a subject of exchange and then triumph. In Numbers 32, the tribes of Reuven and Gad approached Moses and, as a result of cattle gained in war, wished to stay on the other side of the Jordan River with its better quality grazing land. The trade – one Promised Land for cattle pasture – must have struck Moses as absurd. But when Moses was assured that these tribes were not reneging on their wartime responsibilities, he permitted them to stay.
And then they did something unexpected that forms the last verse of Mattot. They built cities, conquered cities and renamed cities. They constructed a new sense of place that was not about where they had been but their vision of a wholly unexpected future. The very last verse of the Torah reading is about one such town. “And Novah went and took Qenat and its towns and called it Novah, after his own name.”
Adam inherited a garden that was named, but Cain had a child and then built a city named Enoch after that child. Since then, the act of moving into a place and naming it offers humans the illusion of possession. The wilderness taught us that space can never be truly owned.
The only place that matters spiritually is where we are at any given moment. What matters is where you are now and where you are going.
Dr. Erica Brown is an educator and scholar-in-residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her latest book is ‘Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers’