Tribes & Journeys: Parshat Matot-Masei | Camp Ramah Northern California

Tribes & Journeys: Parshat Matot-Masei

by Rabbi Shalom Bochner

This week we chant and study the double portions of Matot (“Tribes”) and Mas’ei (“Journeys”) that conclude Sefer B’midbar, the Book of Numbers, the fourth of the five Books of Moses. 

Matot focuses on vows and oaths, a battle against the Midianites, and the request of the tribes of Rueben and Gad to remain on the far eastern side of the Jordan where they can pasture their flocks.

Mas’ei details the itinerary of the Israelites’ travels through the wilderness, the boundaries of the land of Israel and the division of the land for the individual Israelite tribes, instructions involving accidental manslaughter, and intertribal marriage. 

The Book of B’midbar (“In a wilderness”) ends with the verse: “These are the mitzvot and the judgements that God commanded the Israelites through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho” (Numbers 36:13). The book ends with our ancestors camped on the edge of the promised land and we add “Chazak chazak v’nitchazeik – strength, strength, may we be strengthened!” as we do at the conclusion of every book of the Torah. 

As I walked through Ramah Galim this week, thinking about this Torah reading and seeing the camp in action, I kept thinking about the travel itinerary at the beginning of Mas’ei. Forty-two place names are mentioned to recall the places that the Israelites encamped between Ramses in Egypt and finally at the Jordan River near Jericho. The Torah doesn’t just list these places, but describes each one with the phrase “And the Israelites set out from … and encamped at…” Before they arrived at the next location, they took their leave of the place they were in. Each place was significant to them, each place was sacred and powerful, and each place helped them on their long journey from slavery to freedom, from a land of constriction to our homeland, the promised land.

Camp offers our children and teens a similar experience of journeying with intention and meaning, and being nurtured as they move forward. Each part of camp is significant because of what happens there, and each person is valued as part of an authentic and holy community that is formed each summer. About 15 months ago my own family was discussing how we would know when we were mostly through the pandemic. My younger son’s statement was powerful in its clarity: “I know we’ll be mostly through this when I can be back at camp.” 

As our world still struggles with the very real challenges of this virus, we are able to return to the magical promised land that Ramah Galim represents for so many – a place of thoughtfulness, compassion, kindness, appreciation, and connection. This is a a place that one doesn’t just go to, but a place that truly changes those that attend, strengthens them, and makes them better people for having been there. 

Rabbi Shalom Bocher is a visiting rabbi at Ramah Galim this session. He is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Modesto.