Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Closter, NJ. Originally from Skokie, IL, he attended Brandeis University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. A lifelong Ramahnik, Jeremy has been a counselor, Rosh Aidah, Program Director, Rosh Tefilah, Yoetz Tichnun (Educational Consultant), and most recently served as a scholar-in-residence in Kayitz 2019.
Location History: Reflections on Mattot-Masei
by Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg
I received a very odd email a few weeks ago, encouraging me to take a ‘privacy checkup’ on my digital life. In the middle of that checkup, I was asked about my location history, and specifically, if I wanted my phone to continue to digitally log all of the places I’ve been in the past few years. Before I clicked ‘turn off,’ and deleted the thousands of entries made since Google had been collecting that information, I spent a few minutes reading through some of the more interesting entries. I wondered if I really needed to know that on 8/31/16 I took a bus to work, walked to a kosher Mexican restaurant for dinner and took the subway home. On 5/14/13 I was in Jerusalem and spent time in Mamilla, the Old City, Nachlaot, and the city center. But do I still need to know that? It was also very sweet, if unsurprising, to see that I’ve spent every June 16th from 2000-2019 at either 6150 E. Buckatabon Road or 3390 Ramah Circle. While there are certainly some nice memories associated with reviewing those locations I have other ways of remembering delicious dinners with friends, walking tours of Jerusalem, and time spent walking the garbage trail. Digital prudence suggests that few need such an invasive itinerary.
At the halfway-point of this week’s double parashah, Mattot-Masei, the Torah states אלה מסעי בני ישראל – eileh masei b’nai yisrael – These are the journeys of B’nai Yisrael (Num. 33:1), and then proceeds to tell us every stop the Israelites made during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. They traveled to places like the Sea of Reeds, where we know they crossed on dry land; and Sinai, where they received the Torah. Many of the locations are familiar to those readers who have been paying attention to the story. But the Torah also lists plenty of places on the journey that are not mentioned anywhere else, like Mitka or Harada. These places are pit stops on the itinerary, but unlike the more famous points on the map, there is no record of what happened there.
Why record the location if the Torah won’t tell us whether anything noteworthy happened there? There is a wonderful parable that compares the detailed location history of the Israelites to a queen who had an ill daughter. The queen took her daughter very far away from home to get special medical treatment. When they returned they realized that the daughter had been so sick she didn’t remember any of the journey. So the queen pulled out a map and showed her each location adding, “Here was where we slept, it was very cold there, here is where you had that bad headache.” With these details the queen taught her daughter about the journey and about the stages of her recovery along the way. Every location worth listing has some important event associated with it, even if it’s just the place where a child got a headache or recovered from a cold. So too in our parashah, every location listed has some important history, even if the details are not included in the Torah.
Camp is empty this summer – but to me that’s not the saddest part about the cancellation of the 2020 season. There is a beauty in the stillness of a camp-less Ramah that is hard to describe. The tragedy this summer is that the place, while beautiful, won’t be utilized for its correct purpose: a place for growth and development. I can think of no better location for people of all ages to wrestle with the challenges of the day. Shabbat discussions on the kikar would coalesce around the pressing issues of the day: our relationships with, obligations to, and questions surrounding justice, Black Lives Matter, anti-Racism, and privilege; thoughtful discourse on anti-Semitism; annexation, and the prospects for one- or two-state solutions; and how best to grapple with the anxiety and uncertainty of the coming school year. That Ramah is one of the best places for these conversations is part of its history, which infuses each summer with the energy to tackle the most important of issues in age-appropriate ways. Yet this summer will not feature growth, learning, or memories made at camp. This summer the location, like those forgotten stops in the wilderness, will be divorced from its history.
Perhaps then the best thing we can do this summer is remind ourselves of what happens at camp. Like the queen and her daughter in the parable, we should look through each stop on our itineraries at camp and in the broader world, and retell the stories of growth and development that took place there, even when it can be difficult to remember. Where were we when we realized how important Israel was to us, or first recognized our privilege, or first experienced anti-Semitism? These locations are important places on our travels, important sites of our memory. By revisiting them (virtually) this summer, and retelling ourselves the stories of those places, we make sure that the most important parts of our location history are never forgotten.