Parshat Mas’ei starts by mentioning the 42 stations that the Jewish people made in their Journey through the dessert. The fact that all the Meforshim struggle to explain the reason for mentioning these places indicates the fact that the Torah left this reason obscure – not telling us why it is counting and naming the places.
Rashi brings two Medrashim that give explanation. One Medrash says that the travels were mentioned to show us the mercy of Hashem. He punished the Jewish people by making them wander in the dessert for 40 years. Nevertheless, they only made 42 moves during the 40 years. This includes many of the ‘masaot’ that were done in the first year before the sin of the spies. That means that for much of the time the Jewish people stayed put and this is the Chessed of Hashem. What is the message to us? It seems that even in periods when the Jewish people are being punished by Hashem, we can expect that he does so with a certain measure of mercy. We must search for this point of mercy and ‘capitalize’ on it. For example, Chazal say that the Torah was given to ‘eaters of the Mana’. The fact that there was ‘mana’ to eat in the desert and the Jewish people did not have to work for their food enabled them to learn much Torah. Similarly, if they would have been wandering a lot, they would not have time to immerse themselves in Torah either, as Chazal say that the Torah is not found in frequent travelers as they have no time to learn. (Today’s frequent fliers may be different as they can learn on the plane…)
The second explanation Rashi gives is beautiful but seems at first, incomplete. Rabbi Tanchuma explains: it is compared to the son of a King who was sick and his father took him a long distance to the doctor. On his way back (after being cured) his father showed him all the places they went through on their way and said: here your head hurt, here you were cold, etc. Rashi does not explain how this explains the Jewish peoples travels and what we are to learn from this. Ohr Hachayim adds an interesting question. Why do we count the trips – ‘masaot’ and not the stations – ‘chanayot’. We should have counted the places that the Jewish people dwelled at like in the parable. I would add another question: Why is the parable about a King and his son? Why not any person and his son who would do the same thing? (Indeed Hashem is our King and our father. However, if Kingship is irrelevant to the parable, the Medrash would not mention it!)
Perhaps we can based on what the Sfas Emes says. The Sfas Emes explains what the Passuk means when it says that Moshe wrote down their exits of their travels. He says that the great thing of the travels is that they left the Gashmiyuth behind and moved on. In contrast, Ohr Hachayim builds on the fact that it mentioned that these travels were carried out by the Jewish people that left Egypt ‘Letzivotam’ – in their forces. This indicates the four camps that the Jewish people traveled in – they were a big nation of 600,000 people that required division into 4 camps. The mission in these travels was – according to Kabala to extract the sparks of Kedusha from all these desolate places that man does not frequent. This was done in the most effective way by the Jewish people in full force of numbers. So according to the Sfas Emes the main reason is to leave behind these places, and according to the Ohr Hachayim the main thing was to amend and bring ‘tikun’ to these places. Both are according to Kabbala. Do they disagree?
The answer is that they complement each other. The purpose was the arriving – camping in the places and leaving them afterward. That is why the Psukim repeat again and again ‘Vayisu, Vayachanu’. They traveled and they camped – they left, they arrived. The Jewish people needed to arrive in these places and to extract the sparks of Kedusha that were there by fulfilling Mitzvot there. However, once this was accomplished, there was nothing more to achieve in these places and it was time to move on. This was the next challenge. To recognize that the mission here was accomplished and despite comforts and conveniences of the specific place, to be able to leave all that and move toward the next place – the next task. (We could compare this to the laws of Shabbat where ‘hotzaa’ moving and object – is defined by uprooting it and then putting it down. Otherwise one has not transgressed on the laws of Shabbath as depicted in the first Mishna of Massechet Shabbath.)
Maybe now we can understand the parable of the King and his son. Only a King would have the ability to take a long trip to cure his son of illness. In those days a common person would be working every day from dawn to dusk and would not be able to make the journey. However, a noble would also be able to make the trip. Nevertheless, only a King has the option to stop and make camp anywhere along the way for as long as he wants to make his son comfortable!
The ‘Nimshal’ is the Jewish people. On the way there the purpose of the trip is to get to the doctor. The ailments of the child were only a hindrance to that goal. However, the fact that the son went on anyway and overcame his uncompfotableness is the accomplishment on the way back. Had he complained bitterly, his father may have gotten involved in making his child comfortable where he is and not continued quickly to bring the child to where the ultimate cure is. The message is – here your head hurt but we continued anyway. This is the idea of the Sfas Emes that the trial was to leave the places once you got to them.
Every person is confronted sometimes with the dilemma presented by the story of the King and the sick son. We know our ultimate goal which is to serve our lord. However, sometimes, even in the course of doing so we get bogged down by making ourselves comfortable and not knowing when to let go of ‘gashmiyuth’ and continue on our path to Hashem. Let us learn from the trips of the Jewish people to keep our ultimate goal in mind all the time and not forget – ‘Shiviti Hashem Lenegdi Tamid’. We must hold the image of Hashem opposite us at all times.