This week’s parsha is a double portion, Matot-Ma’sei, and with it we conclude the book of B’midbar (Numbers). This is the final account of the Israelites’ wanderings before Moses begins his farewell speech in Dvarim (Deuteronomy). The second portion we read this week, Ma’sei, begins with a review of the Israelite’s travels and some major events, and then moves on to preparation for the Israelites entry into the Promised Land, laying out the divisions of land between the tribes. It concludes with a return to the matter of the daughters of Zelophehad. These five women have already successfully petitioned to inherit their father’s portion of land (he died with no sons), but their kinsmen are concerned lest they marry outside the tribe and their land is inherited in another tribe; this issue is resolved by restricting whom they may marry.
As many of our sisterhoods do at this time of year, the Israelites in Ma’sei face a transition. Ultimately they will not only enter and receive the Land, but they will face a leadership transition as well; Moses will turn things over to Joshua. Change, all change, no matter how welcomed, can be challenging. It means adjusting to new ways of doing things and saying goodbye to the old. The Israelites must adjust to an entirely new way of life and a new leader at the same time. Happy though one imagines they must have been to finally enter the Land, it’s a big change!
Parsha Ma’sei has a lesson within it about how to manage transition. It does not begin with the preparation for the future. It does not start with a grand announcement of the (wonderful) change that is coming. Instead it begins, “These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 33:1).” It begins with a review of the past and acknowledgement of who was leading at that time.
I have been involved with sisterhood and WRJ for a long time, and I have seen transitions go well and transitions go poorly. It is key to learn the lesson of Ma’sei: acknowledge the past, thank those who led, and then, and only then, begin to describe the future. A new sisterhood leader who comes in and immediately announces that she is going to “fix” things or “we need to change everything,” may well be quite correct, but in presenting change without acknowledgement of the past she runs the very real risk of hurting the feelings of those who came before her. Change is both inevitable and good, but it comes not only with new horizons but also with loss, and we must acknowledge both. I will be the first to tell you that you should never say, “but that’s not how we’ve always done it,” but remember “how we’ve always done it” had value in its time and meaning to those who experienced it. To sweep it away unacknowledged only increases the pain and fear at its loss.
In addition, we can learn from the rest of Ma’sei. The continuing story of the daughters of Zelophehad warns us that, as things change, we may need to re-examine issues we thought were settled. Change can bring new challenges to old conflicts.
So, as we move through our season of transition, as new leaders get settled at the helm, let us remember to remember. We must list our past wanderings and thank our past leaders. Then, ever mindful of the possible awakening of old issues, we can move on with our plan for the future. May all of us, and our sisterhoods, go from strength to strength.
Abigail Fisher is a member of the Executive committee of WRJ. She is a past president of WRJ Northeast District, a member of URJ’s Commission on Social Action, and chair of the Camp Council for URJ Six points Sci-Tech Academy. She is also a proud member of Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, MA and of its sisterhood.