Former Shaliach in Montreal
“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who left the land of Egypt according to their legions.” (Bamidbar 33:1)
Bnei Yisraelare finally coming to the end of their long sojourn in the wilderness – an era which begins with the miraculous Exodus from Egypt and concludes in Arvot Moav.
Just before he addresses the nation for the last time and transfers the leadership to Yehoshua Bin-Nun, Moshe is commanded to record all of Bnei Yisrael’s journeys in the wilderness. Since these locations appear in the earlier parshiyot, we are already acquainted with them. Nevertheless, Hashem orders Moshe to provide a brief review of each place. Our commentaries wonder about the reason for this extensive list.
Rashi argues that the primary goal is to demonstrate the Creator’s benevolence. Lest we mistakenly assume that the nation spent forty years traversing the desert without resting, the Torah teaches us that most of the travels took place during the first and final years. During the interim 38 years, however, there were only twenty expeditions in total.
The Midrash Tanchuma adopts a related approach and explains that HaKadosh Baruch Hu wants to enumerate all the miracles which occurred in the wilderness. After forty challenging years of travels and travails, these miracles could be forgotten, and hence, Hashem chooses to remind Bnei Yisrael about how He took care of them and watched over them throughout the years.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we recall how Bnei Yisrael left Egypt and followed Hashem in the wilderness – unconditionally and with emunah shlaimah (perfect faith):
“Your following Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” (Yirmiyahu 2:2)
Indeed, the Sforno holds that the journeys are recorded as praise for Bnei Yisrael, who willingly followed Hashem and are therefore deserving of inheriting Eretz Yisrael.
A look at the psukim reveals yet another explanation. The list of journeys is introduced with the words:
“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who left the land of Egypt.” (Bamidbar 33:1)
Meanwhile, the list ends with the pasuk:
“Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan.” (Bamidbar 33:51)
Why does the Torah tell us where Bnei Yisrael are headed? After all, we know that Eretz Yisrael is their final destination.
Thus, Rashi clarifies:
“However, Moshe said to them, ‘When you cross the Jordan on dry land, you shall cross for this purpose. And if not, water will come and wash you away.’”
They must be completely and constantly aware of the ultimate goal.
Similarly, the list of journeys serves to inform us that the goal of the Exodus from Egypt was to reach and take possession of Eretz Yisrael. Throughout their protracted stay in the wilderness, Bnei Yisrael never forgot where they were going.
The Torah states:
“Moshe wrote their starting points according to their journeys at the bidding of Hashem, and these are their journeys according to their starting points.” (Bamidbar 33:2)
Which takes precedence – the starting point or the journey?
I would suggest that Am Yisrael is divided into two factions. Some people emphasize the starting point; they dwell on the Exodus from Egypt and the slavery and terrible suffering which they endured there. In contrast, the second group focuses on the future goal: the journey to the Promised Land.
Moshe Rabbenu records the journeys in terms of the “starting points according to their journeys”. In other words, the starting point is no longer relevant. Now is the time to concentrate exclusively on Eretz Yisrael. Sefer Devarim – and Moshe’s final speech – revolves around Eretz Yisrael. The insistence that idolatry must be eradicated from the Land; the agricultural aspects of the Jewish festivals; and Eretz Yisrael’s depiction as a “land flowing with milk and honey” are all geared to instill a permanent desire to reach Eretz Yisrael in Am Yisrael’s hearts.