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Bemidbar - Mattot & Massai

The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus' paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object (like a ship) that has had all of its components replaced (over time every plank, nail, sail etc) remains fundamentally the same object.

Those who follow these weekly parasha thoughts might remember my ominous comments about Bemidbar being the darkest book of the Torah, in which a generation of men’s “corpses drop in the desert” - God’s punishment / consequence, following the botched incident of the spies. I promised to delve into it properly, and yet here we are, with the final two parshiot of Bemidbar, and the book has passed in the blink of an eye.

And maybe this is intentional - the ability of this book to hide the skeleton in the closet (well actually thousands of them). Bemidbar has a sleight of hand which eludes us, leaving us forgetting the darkness ever happened. As a psychiatrist I know said of our Covid years, “we have an immense capacity to forget pain”.

The final parasha, Massai, with its list of journeys from Egypt to the Steppes of Moav, leaving the people poised to enter the promised land, tricks us into thinking that this has been a smooth continuous journey, without significant interruption. There is no mention of the dead generation of males, of the macabre years stalling in a desert which locked them in.

And suddenly in these parshiot we meet a war-ready people. Both they and God are concerned with the effective conquering of the land as well as highly practical details for living in the land - apportioning it fairly, allocating cities for Levites and cities of refuge for at-risk people. By the end of the book, the people are ready.

The mystery of Bemidbar is one of continuity and change. Cognitively, we know that a generation has died - this took place at some point in parashat Chukat. We see a change of character in the people, who were once self-doubting ex-slaves and now are warriors full of self-belief and a thirst for their goal. And yet the rupture in the middle goes unmentioned. All we see now is a smooth list of journeys, and the end product.

If every part of a ship changes, is it the same ship? If every molecule of our body is replaced every seven years, are we the same people? (This isn’t a perfect parallel with the Israelites of course, because there was continuity of women who didn’t face the same sentence as the men - and that’s for another drasha)!

To turn the question a different way, are our traumas part of the story we tell of ourselves, or do we paint the bigger picture, blurring them into the unspoken background? Each of us is an entire world, with a story to tell - both the smooth version seen with the hindsight of time, and the hidden peaks and troughs version.

And perhaps this is a good opportunity to mention that I’m here for people in this community from a pastoral perspective, whether you’re in a place of rocky rupture, or purposeful journeying.

Shabbat shalom


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