Why does the Torah spend an entire chapter (Numbers 33) outlining all of the Israelites’ encampments in the desert?
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, says the reason is to show how much God loves the Jewish People). “It can be compared to a king whose son was ill and whom he took to a distant place to cure. As they returned, the king would recount to the lad all the experiences they went through… here we slept, here we had a cool resting place, here you had a headache.’”
Hence, these places are enumerated to teach that just as a parent cares endlessly for his or her child, so did God lovingly carry His children through the most difficult moments in our migration through the desert.
Sforno says all the places are mentioned to illustrate the Jewish nation’s love of God. In his words: “He [Moses, as per God’s instructions] wrote down…the details of their journeys because it involved leaving for a new destination without any previous notice, which was very trying.” Jeremiah recalls, as we read in the usual Haftarah for this week, God’s expression of love for the people of Israel who, despite all odds, followed Him into the wilderness (Jeremiah 2:2),
Considering that at this point in time the Jewish nation was just days away from reaching the Land of Israel, another approach comes to mind. When taking any major step in life – and certainly entering Israel constituted such a step – it is a good idea to carefully re-evaluate one’s past. The listing of each stopping place was an attempt to remind the nation of these historical events. It allowed for a moment of serious individual and national reflection and accountability.
No doubt some of these places evoked memories of the Jewish people’s rebellion and even betrayal of God. Rather than avoid recalling those more difficult moments, it is preferable they be remembered with the goal of learning from those mistakes and turning them into positive learning experiences.
And, bearing in mind that Am Yisrael was assuredly overwhelmed with enthusiasm, believing that the liberation of the Land of Israel would come in an instant, it was important that we be reminded that accomplishments come in small steps, much like the Jews’ gradual travel through the desert.
Hence the Torah dwells on our journey for an entire chapter. It teaches invaluable lessons for life: The importance of self-reckoning, the importance of changing misfortune into fortune, and the importance of realizing that any improvement that is lasting comes slowly rather than precipitously.
About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
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