Forty years in the desert was deliberate

Numbers 33:1-36:13
Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4, 4:1-2

“These are the journeys of the Jewish people… and they journeyed and they camped.” (Num. 33:1-35) Forty-two times the Torah stresses “and they journeyed … and they camped.” The Torah doesn’t have a superfluous letter, let alone an extra phrase, so many scholars have analyzed and commented on this apparent reiteration. Various reasons are offered, each to teach us something.

The Midrash Tanchuma compares the situation to that of a king who took his sick son to a faraway land for a cure. On their way back, with the prince recovered, his father lovingly reflects on all the experiences they had gone through at each place they had stopped. For him these places represented stages in his son’s journey to health and were invested with an atmosphere of gratitude and love. In the same way, the names of the campsites at the beginning of Masei is a loving memory of recovery and healing.

The Torah commentaries state that the 40 years in the desert were a period of spiritual growth and development necessary to prepare the Jews for entrance into the Holy Land. The enumeration of their journeys is an account of their spiritual progress. The same people who were lacking in faith in G-d manifested by the golden calf and the episode of the spies needed a long course in spiritual development under the guidance of Moses.

Each encampment represented another step in this process. At one point the Israelites actually regressed and had to retreat for eight encampments. (Rashi, Num. 21:4) Rashi explains that the purpose of recounting all the journeys and encampments is to publicize the loving-kindness of G-d, Who for 40 years kept the journeys and encampments down to a relatively small number to avoid overburdening the people.

Maimonides in his “Guide to the Perplexed” opines that the record is to stress that there was order and planning of the itinerary during those years. The Jews were not lost in the desert. We are to understand that once “Plan B” came into effect and the Jews were to be delayed in entering Israel, Providence led them with purpose, while miraculously providing for them. Maimonides teaches that “wandering” in the desert should be replaced with “the travels and journeys of the Jewish people in the wilderness.”

The Sforno suggests a different reason. He says that the purpose of the precise record is to teach us of the Israelites’ deep faith in G-d and the discipline they showed when they were ordered to leave one place and proceed to another. These orders may have seemed at times unreasonable. The Torah tells us that the time the Jewish nation stayed in one place varied from less than 24 hours to days, months or even years. Even if they were happy in a particular place, if they were ordered to move on, they did.

Although the book of Numbers, which we complete this week, is full of examples of improper behavior and a rebellious spirit on the part of the Israelites, their character had another side, one of abiding faith and trust in their Creator. It is on this positive note that Numbers ends and it is this side of the picture that the prophet refers to when he says, “I remember for you the kindness of your youth … how you followed Me in the wilderness in an unplanted land.” (Jeremiah 2:2)

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of the Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.