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Refuge and the Places We've Been: D'var Torah Mattot-Masei

We keep ticket stubs, photographs, those flattened pennies with state symbols stamped across them to remember our travels. My cousin searches for pictures and ship manifests leading to shtetl names and Yiddish to trace our family’s travels across time. My grandfather has a book in djudezmo north african script, that marks his wedding date and location in a little pencilled heart on the inside cover, my mother, if you ask her, will tell you that she’s been to 46 states, cuz she drove through them with my brother and I as we collected license plate sightings to see if we could catch all 50 states + DC and we did.

Humans love to remember the places we’ve been. To keep the good images alive, to trace our bloodlines across time, to continue reaping the fruits of the lessons + memories of our life’s travels.

In that way, the Torah is a book of tchatkis. A scrapbook with a pressed fig leaf from the garden we began in, a picture of us by the well in that bejewelled dream coat our father bought us at the shuk, the pages warped and water-worn from our trips down rivers and through seas.

It’s a story of travel, whose largest central apex is of a people enslaved and then freed, wandering then redeemed. It is a story told not just to record historical events - but because this is a holy scrapbook, the scrapbook of a god we’d like to think of as just and caring - it’s a story told to teach.

When talking about our exodus, what’s the main lesson we learn from it? If you could help finish my sentence “You were stranger in the land of Mitzrayim, so… you… will… “

Exactly - remember that you were strangers, and be kind to the stranger.

Our travels are a lesson in empathy. A connection to the wanderers and the stateless and those leaving their own oppression, who God knew we would come across in our travels, and so made sure we never forgot our journey with this souvenir in hand.

In the three thousand year cycle of parshyot, this week we come upon Mattot-Masei, the final chapter of the Book of Numbers, or bamidbar, meaning ‘in the wilderness’

There are many parts to this parshah. One of them is a long list of place names. One of them is a set of commandments calling us to build places of refuge.

The long list of place names is the first part of Masei, and lists out, in a numbingly long serpentine sweep, each one of the four dozen places we’d been to in our 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. ‘Al pi adonai - on the authority of hashem, we were commanded to pen down this path and the various names and regions and details of which it was comprised.

Some look at this and see yet another example of pointless and arcane Torah we read for no reason.

Rashi says this is to remind us of all the miracles and love God gave us on our travels.

I acknowledge both of those truths, and I see the text arc, like a dancer’s body, across the next few paragraphs of parchment, towards the penultimate section of the parshah - which begins “You shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge” - ‘Arei Miklat - cities of receiving, of protection, of asylum, of absorption - these cities are commanded into existence ‘al pi adonai, on the authority of god, to protect people who accidentally killed someone, and are trying to escape the immediate revenge of the victim’s incensed loved ones. We are commanded to create 6 such cities in the land of Can’a’an, which will serve both us and the ger toshav, the immigrant-stranger among us. “Thus it shall be, for all your generations, in all the places where you live.”

All your generations, meaning - then, and now. All the places that you live, meaning there, and here. Meaning this scrapbook wasn’t just meant to teach us how to live three thousand years ago three thousand miles away

Meaning that this parshah travelled millenia on its yearly cycle to this weekend, to this evening, to this shul, for a reason.

Because making cities of refuge, ‘arei miklat, then, means making cities of sanctuary, ‘arei miklat, now. Because protecting those fleeing violence, then, means protecting those fleeing violence, now. Because when God said to protect those who had accidentally killed someone, then, how can we interpret her as saying to cage and deport innocent children, now. How can we put a detention center in Richmond, now, do anything but block and disrupt the ICE buildings that prevent our cities from fulfilling this Mitzvah, now.. “For you and the stranger among you” “For you and the immigrant among you” and lest it fail to make itself clear, we have the 4 dozen places we just spent a generation passing into to remind us why cities of refuge are so necessary and holy.

This list is a commandment. It doesn’t sound like “for you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim” exactly - it’s deeper than that. It’s a receipt. Dues Owed. For when we forget the principle we have the actual ticket stubs that tell us why we are obligated to protect the stranger. It does not sound like a typical commandment, but it sounds like this:

Ramseis succot eitam pene-hahirot mareh eilima, yam-suf seen, sofkah, alush, riphidim, midbar sinai kirvot ha-ta’avah hatzerot ritmah rimon-paretz livnah risa kiheilata har-shapher haradah mahalot tahat tarah mitkah hashmonah moseirot vn’ei-ya’akan hor-hagidgad yatvah avronah etzyon gaver kadesh hor-ha-har tzalmonah funon ovot ‘iyim divon-gad ‘almon-d’valtayma harei-ha’varim ‘arvot mo’av

43 places, 3 fewer than my mother’s 46 states, 43 more than we should need to remind us to do justice

After the commandment god tells us why to construct these sanctuaries. She says “you shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and blood only begets blood, you shall not defile the land, because my presence abides within it”

Though the lesson is clear, and applies across all time and space, we know that the world has failed to keep god’s presence free from the stain of innocent blood

We know what it means to show up at intolerant shores, whose cities are of fear and hate, not refuge. 900 of us knew what it was like to show up on a boat, the St Louis, named for a city, they would never see. To be on a city on a water in 1939, looking for a city on land, and all the st louis could do was turn back to her wandering, from shores so devoid of Torah, and go back to the iron jaw of europe and fill the land with their blood, god didn’t want their blood, she wanted their sanctuary

Could those immigration officials have said they truly read and understood this torah. What if they heard our updated list of places we’ve wandered to and found home in, which we repeat like sweet dates on the tongue

Felshtyn, minsk, tehran baghdad tripoli alexandria saloniki córdoba rosario new york oakland vienna vilna odessa jerusalem cochin, amhara, lagos chicago atlanta - add more, scream more, please say more

Each name is a commandment. Do we hear tegucigalpa as a commandment? Do we hear ciudad de guatemala? Do we hear managua, or sinaloa, or honduras, do we know that these names are all commandments and that god cannot abide our silence and doesn’t want her land polluted in blood and craves a world with refuge for all?

This mattot-masei, let’s be frum, let’s be observant, let’s be orthodox about this mitzvah. Let’s not just build 6 cities of sanctuary but 600, 6000, let’s not just block ICE but abolish it, let’s commit that our memories and diasporas, our scrapbooks, will not serve as anything but inspiration for liberation. This tisha b’av, we will not let our traumas be passed on. From el paso to khan al-ahmar, from the mediterranean to el rio grande to la bahía to the bay. We stand for a torah of sanctuary. In all generations - then, and now. Everywhere that we are - there, and right here.

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