The Space in Between
July 13, 2018 / 1 Av 5778
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Chapel, Los Angeles, CA
This week we encounter the double portion of Matot-Masei in the Book of Numbers, and as the Israelites approach the Promised Land, the parsha quite literally coves a lot of ground. The itinerary of the Children of Israel’s journey from Egypt to Jordan is listed. The Israelites go to war with the Midianites. The tribes of Rueven and Gad determine that their interests will be best served by settling in the land east of the river Jordan because it is favorable for raising cattle. The Israelites prepare to conquer Canaan, and the boundaries of the Land of Israel are defined.
Now that the Israelites are on the verge of entering the Land, they also must attend to new considerations for their developing society. In this regard, Matot-Masei also covers a lot of ground. The laws regarding how the Israelites are to handle the spoils of war are presented. After hearing what must have been devastating news that Rueven and Gad did not wish to dwell in the Promised Land, Moses admonishes the tribal leaders to first provide for their women and their children before setting up their cattle herds. And the delineation of Israel’s boundaries, also includes the establishment of Cities of Refuge for those accused of manslaughter. To successfully dwell in the land, the Israelites must function together as a cohesive people.
Matot-Masei, therefore, presents two key elements for nationhood: a land and peoplehood. These elements are essential to the Jewish enterprise. But, despite their importance, a completely different aspect of the parsha speaks to me this week, and to see it we must turn to the Sefer Torah. In Numbers 32 verse 15 Moses is speaking to the chieftain of Gad who has told him of the Gadites’ and Reuvenites’ intention to settle on the east side of the Jordan river and not in the Promised Land. Moses’ voice is angry as he contemplates a divided Israel:
“If you turn away from Him and He abandons them once more in the wilderness, you will bring calamity upon all this people.”
It isn’t only the Gadites and the Reuvenites who may suffer; rather all of Israel will suffer if they do not enter the Promised Land as a unified people.
In his commentary on this parsha, Rabbi Vered Harris notes that something compelling happens in the traditional inscription of the Torah scroll. “Between verses 15 and 16 there is a space. Torah does not have any punctuation marks, but it does have regimented places where a line ends or where there is a noted gap between words. The gap does not necessarily have deeper meaning. But in the spirit of midrash, we can ask ourselves if we jump into the gap, what might we hear?”
Rabbi Harris suggests that this space in between the verses may represent Moses’ silence. Moses is rightfully distressed at what the Gadites and Reuvenites are suggesting, but how does he respond? Perhaps the answer lies in the space in between. Verse 16 continues:
“Then they stepped up to him and said, ‘We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children.’”
Rabbi Harris writes, “Perhaps having a silent space before responding to Moses gave those petitioning time to collect their thoughts. They did not lash back or become defensive. They laid out a plan to raise cattle and their families east of the Jordan, while sending shock troops to participate in the sacred mission of the larger community [conquering Canaan].”
These verses of Torah demonstrate the powerful moments in which we can choose to “mind the gap,” or notice the space in between. While the Sefer Torah visualizes these spaces for us, we can notice them in our own lives, if we want to. The space in between
and the next,
between each breath.
The space between illness or injury and healing
between brokenness and tikkun.
The space between beloveds.
between parent and child.
The space between each of us.
In these spaces we can encounter our hopes, our fears, our dreams. We may find that the Divine is with us, if only we can pause to notice.
 See https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/matot-mas-ei/changing-plan-holy-way