One of the causes of distress and anxiety is insecurity about where one should be. Should I stay in my place or leave my place and move forward?
Should I conform to my situation or never conform? Which is better: ambition or conformity?
Is what I have enough? Is what I do enough? Can I take a rest without guilt?
We find an interesting answer implicit in the set of names of this week’s readings, Matot-Masei . Due to considerations connected with our calendar we read two portions this week: the first, Matot, which means “tribes” and the second, Masei, which means “journeys”. The first one opens with Moses addressing Rashei Hamatot, the chiefs of the tribes; the second reading opens with a summary of the forty-two journeys that the Jewish people made during their forty years in the desert, on their way to the Promised Land.
Before getting to the contents of the two readings, the contrast between their juxtaposed names is in itself striking and instructive.
There are two terms that the Torah uses to refer to a tribe: Mateh (pl. Matot) and Shevet (pl. Shevatim). Both Hebrew words also mean “branch”, with the difference that Shevet implies a branch connected to the tree or recently cut and still soft and pliable, whereas Mateh denotes a branch disconnected from the tree, hard and dry.
Would not the juxtaposition between a name denoting dryness and immobility and one denoting constant movement, seem somewhat incongruous?
Herein lies the key to deciphering the question we asked earlier. There is no contradiction between stability and movement; to the contrary, one depends on the other. Stability should not be confused with stagnation, and progress has nothing to do with instability. Rather, it is stability that allows for true growth, as opposed to continuous movement and indefinition that does not allow for stability nor growth.
This apparent “conflict” very often arises when one believes that he or she must choose between adhering to our traditional values and those of the modern and more advanced world. Many see this as a choice between stagnation and progress: “Do I cling to the traditions of the past or do I adhere to the modern codes of the present and future?”
Is it really so? Does staying true to our age-old traditions prevent us from growing, progressing and advancing? Do I have to disassociate myself from my past in order to be able to be part of the future?
The composite name of this week’s reading gives us an answer: not only do they not contradict, they complement each other and are even interdependent. True progress is possible only when one has a strong foundation. One who does not have a strong base cannot progress; he floats. He might have the sensation of movement, but in reality may be quite stagnant; it is the currents that moves him. The movement is merely the result and reflection of what is happening outside of him and not of what he or she is generating.
There is an interesting Halacha  that comes to mind that serves to illustrate this concept.
For the meat of an animal to be Kosher or fit for consumption, it must come from certain species and before and after slaughter one must ensure that the animal is healthy.
There are many halachic criteria that determine whether or not the animal is healthy enough to be considered Kosher. One of the criteria comes into play if the animal falls from a certain height. In that case, we are concerned that the fall may have affected it to such an extent that it is no longer viable, that is to say it cannot live for twelve months, and is therefore not Kosher. In the case of a mammal or a fowl, we must ascertain that it can walk a certain distance without much difficulty. In the case of a duck there is an additional system of verification. The duck is placed in a river. If it swims upstream, it is healthy enough to be considered Kosher. It is also Kosher if it swims downstream but moves ahead of a branch floating next to it, as this proves that its movement is propelled by its own strength.
The application of this Halacha to the topic at hand is: The real sign of progress is when one can move forward propelled by his or her own power. Movement caused by external currents is a symptom of personal immobility and stagnation.
We must not confuse “closed-minded” with “clearly defined”. Having clear definitions of things allows one to listen to others without fear, to learn and to grow. Those who do not have a defined position very often end up adopting a closed-minded position as a defense mechanism in the face of their vulnerability due to a lack of definition. I have seen many times how —paradoxically— “pluralistic”, “open-minded” individuals are not willing or able to listen to those that think differently while “orthodox” and supposedly “closed-minded” people have no problem listening and understanding those that think differently.
So the tool of the week is: work in two areas: 1) strengthen the connection with your essence and 2) work to develop and express the gifts that are unique to you.
P. S. After having finished writing this article I experienced something “insignificant” that serves to illustrate the ideas expressed here. I got into the car in order to go visit a friend. My smartphone battery was low and I plugged it into the car’s charger in order to turn on the GPS. Horror of horrors! The wire didn’t work! Luckily I had another one, and I was able to continue the journey. The point? You need to have a strong, functioning connection to your source of energy in order to be able to get anywhere.
- Numbers 30:2-36:13
2. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 58:7