Parashat Masei, which we will read in a few weeks, opens with a long list of Masa'ot, the 41 encampments of the B'nai Yisrael as they wandered seemingly aimlessly through the Sinai and Paran deserts. Perhaps the most troubling question about this weekly portion is why the Torah saw fit to record the list of 41 encampments. (For further discussion, see R. Yehudah Nachshoni’s Hagut be-Parshiyot ha-Torah.)
Rashi maintains that this listing is shivho shel makom - in praise of the Almighty's infinite mercy. Of the 41 stops recorded in Masei, 14 were traversed in the first year and 8 in the last. Only 19 of the 41 stops actually occurred during the remaining 38 years. On average, they moved only once every two years – better statistics than some good Jewish families I’ve known. Sforno, on the other hand, suggests that the list is shivho shel Yisrael - in praise of the people of Israel, who followed Hashem blindly through the desert, generally without complaint and without challenge. Maimonides in Moreh Nevuchim suggests that the list of Masa’ot is important because it confirms the historicity of the events and various miracles described in the Humash. The Torah actually tells you how to get there.
I would like to suggest, however, that this list has particular relevance to our generation. After the sins of the “Golden Calf” and “Wayward Spies,” it became clear that it would be easier to take the Jews out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of the Jews. Forty years of wandering were needed to cultivate a nation which would appreciate the importance of a homeland. A travel-hardened people would be better prepared for the travails and hardships of conquest. Our Rabbis teach us that: Ein Eretz Yisrael nikneit ela be-yissurim - the conquest of land of Israel never comes easily. Indeed, G-d promised us "a land flowing with milk and honey", not a rose garden. A toughened generation was needed that would not be thrown by adversity and whose faith would be strong enough to weather the difficulties.
Our Rabbis have also taught us that Jewish history repeats itself; that the actions of our forefathers are an historical blueprint for their descendants - or in the oft quoted words of the Nachmanides: "Ma'aseh avot siman le-banim". After the destruction of the second Temple, Klal Yisrael was again destined to wander, but this time it would be for two millennia. And just as during the “40 years,” the route over the past two thousand years often led in circles, but inexorably closer and closer to the Land of Israel. During this period in exile all segments of the population, religious or not, would become sensitized to the central need for a Jewish homeland - so as to be in control of our history, destiny and culture. And Klal Yisrael would be hardened and prepared by the tribulations of the exile for the hardships and sacrifices involved in reestablishing a permanent presence in Eretz Yisrael.
Rav Nachman of Bratslav once said: "Lekhol makom she-ani holekh, ani holekh le-Eretz Yisrael" -- Wherever I go in the Diaspora, I am headed for the Land of Israel. Indeed, the fundamental lesson of Parashat Masei is that each of us needs to determine where he/she is headed or should be headed – personally, professionally and, above all, spiritually. And we should try to maintain our sights high - irrespective of how long it takes to attain our goal or the circuitous route often required. We pray that the words of Rav Nachman will resonate ever so much more clearly throughout the Diaspora in the coming years: "Lekhol makom she-ani holekh, ani holekh le-Eretz Yisrael".
Rabbi Dr. Aryeh A. Frimer is the Ethel and David Resnick Professor of Active Oxygen Chemistry at Bar Ilan University.