In its concluding passages, the book of Numbers (chapter 33) lists the travels of the Israelites in the wilderness, noting all the encampments throughout the 40 year sojourn – all 42 stops. Commentaries wonder about the purpose of this long passage, and various insights are offered as explanations.
Rashi cites two important ideas, the second of which is found in the Midrash Tanchuma, a parable. A king travelled with his son to a distant region, to find healing for the child’s illness. After the child’s health was restored they returned home. As retraced their steps the king reminded the child of their earlier journey: here we slept, here we spent a freezing night when we couldn’t get warm, here your migraine got worse… The journey was therapeutic as well as bonding, and it illustrated the king’s devotion to the child through all the earlier travails.
It is not too different from parents looking at an old photo album with their children, reminding them of different memories from their childhood, laughing together and telling the stories relating to each event. Someday the Thai diving team will sit with the boys they retrieved from the cave and explain in detail the lengths they went to prepare for the rescue. Every rise and dip in the cave will be memorable for them. But this alone does not explain the Torah’s deviation from its terse style to include such a long, and seemingly extraneous, passage.
Several insights put more flesh on the bones of this explanation. The ultimate destination of the people was to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. This was their goal from the very beginning, but it ended up taking them a long time to arrive, 40 years. An entire generation was buried in the wilderness as they made their way toward this elusive destination. What became of all those hundreds of thousands who never made it, who didn’t survive the 40 year sojourn? Who would remember them? Who remembers the thousands of small Jewish communities in Poland and Lithuania that were wiped out during WWII? Those villages at least have an inscription on Yad V’Shem’s valley of communities, but the Torah wanted the lost generation to also have a legacy. The Torah therefore listed all the travels, the comings and goings of the people as they made lived out those years.
But there is a more positive and invigorating insight that we can derive from this long list of encampments. We tend to view any journey as a necessary obstacle before arriving at the destination. If we could do without the journey we would certainly skip it. Our global village has become adept at this. Technology allows us to have face-to-face meetings with colleagues and business partners from thousands of miles away. Distance education is a growing industry, and even social interactions are increasingly through our devices. In the last century travel has undergone a revolution. We no longer pass through regions on our journeys, we fly over them. It doesn’t take a week, a day, or even an hour to navigate through a city, we fly over it in moments, catching a glimpse of the lights below if it is not a cloudy night. The Torah is teaching us here that the journey itself is an important element of the undertaking. It doesn’t replace the destination, but the travel itself prepares us for the ultimate goal, and every step of the way, every marker and milestone, brings us closer to our destination not only physically but also conceptually.
In the Exodus from Egypt the Israelites were physically extracted from Egypt in a moment, but it took 40 years, and a whole generation of eating out of God’s Hand to extract them conceptually from ancient Egypt. During those 40 years, throughout their many encampments, the Israelites faced their fears, their weaknesses, until they had learned to overcome these. Through trial and ordeal they grew stronger and more resilient, until they were finally ready for their destination.
A third and final insight offers us a lesson in perspective. Too often we look exclusively ahead, focusing on where we need to go. We devote all our energies to getting there, and it matters not from whence we come. We need to be forward facing, but it is also important to have a rearview mirror. If we can only see the distance ahead we are easily discouraged. The road is so long, the obstacles so high. If we only can look back, and remind ourselves of the mountains we previously climbed, the obstacles we already overcame, we could forge ahead with more confidence in ourselves.
Our history is fraught with difficulties. It is a wonder that we are here today. One hundred times in the last millennium we should have perished. The challenges today are so small compared to the trials of our grandparents. It doesn’t get easier, but with some perspective of our past, where we’ve been and the ordeals we have survived and grown from, we can take steps forward with greater courage and confidence.
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