Much of this sedra deals with the journeys of the Jewish People through the desert. “They joined from… they encamped in…” 42 times! On first reading, the list can seem rather tedious. Why do we need the details of each place they visited, how long they remained there and the length of the journey to the next stop?
A simple but important answer is that it is for our historical interests and understanding. One function of the Torah is to recount the facts of our past. However, we can find much deeper and more profound explanations for the Torah’s elaboration of such events.
Rashi provides two reasons. The first is to show us the extent of Hashem’s chessed (kindness).
When they left Egypt the Jews were supposed to travel in the desert for two years towards the Land of Israel. Following the sin of the spies, towards the end of those two years, they were condemned to walk the dessert a further 38 years. Rashi points out that of the 42 journeys listed, 22 took place in those first two years and only a further 20 were added over the extra 38 years. Hashem showed the Jewish People great kindness by limiting the number of times they were forced to move in the extra years.
In his second explanation Rashi gives an analogy of a King who takes his sick son to a far off place to find a cure. On the return journey the father spent the time pointing out earlier landmarks and milestones; ‘here we slept, here we felt cold, and here you had a headache. The child was sick, but at various stages there were little advances made in his cure. ‘Here we took this medicine, here you felt better.’ The king recounted the journey not only to recognise the recovery, but also to realise that each step along the way is an important part of his well being and recovery.
The same was true in the desert. After the sin of the spies the Jewish People suffered a huge blow to their relationship with Hashem. Not so long before, they had witnessed the giving of the Torah at Sinai, felt God’s immense presence and were amazed by His awesomeness. But now they were left “licking their wounds” in despair. The detailed account of their journeys in the desert demonstrates to us that this was not just a punishment; it was a journey of redemption. This would be the time to repair their broken relationship, to rehabilitate them to one nation, with one heart and one mission.
What comes out of this is a lesson we give our children from their first days at school – it is not the winning that counts but the taking part. It is not only the end result that is important but it is the journey we take to get there. When we get knocked down it doesn’t matter, but it is how we get up – we brush ourselves down and move to the next challenge. Can we live by these principles, can we realise our own journey and reflect maturely on our life and be a living example to our friends and family, constantly striving to do our best no matter what life challenges come our way.