Elim, Alush, Rithmah, Mithkah, Punon . While these places may not seem important to us, the Torah obviously thinks otherwise. It devotes fifty verses to listing the forty-two resting places visited by the Jews as they wandered in the desert. What uplifting message is contained in these names? What moral imperative is there for us to emulate?
Some commentaries explain that, while it is true that our sojourn in the desert was a punishment, G-d continued-like a father punishing his son-to love us, and thereby mitigated the effects of our chastening. Over a forty-year period, there were only forty-two stops; fourteen of those happened before the sin of the spies, and eight occurred in the fortieth year after the death of Aaron. The excess wandering was, in reality, 20 stops in 38 years, which isn't nearly as harsh a fate as wandering aimlessly for forty years. Furthermore, the listing of these places reminds us of the miracle of our survival in the desert. Though we were in a place "wherein were fiery serpents and scorpions and drought, where there was no water", over two million people were provided with food and drink, clothing and shelter. This is a message we often neglect to absorb. While we may not be blessed with all that we desire, we should be thankful that we have food to eat and a roof over our heads. More important, we have the opportunity, through the performance of mitzvoth, to help make life better for others.
On a national level, despite the many tragedies of our history-which we contemplate as we prepare for Tisha B'av- we truly have triumphed. G-d sent us into exile as a punishment; yet how much do we in Canada really suffer? If this is G-d's way of punishing us, imagine what it will be like when G-d rewards us, as He will when our commitment to the full range of Torah life improves!
The notion of G-d's benevolence towards us in the desert has, as its corollary, the lessons the Jews had to learn as they angered and aggravated Moshe and G-d over the forty-year period. Mentioning only the names of the places and not the events that transpired is a polite way of reminding the Jews of their many sins and displays of small-mindedness as they wandered in the desert, when they were not yet up to the challenge of settling the land of Israel.
Yet at the same time, some commentaries see the glass as half full. A group of slaves, cut off from the heritage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had the courage to follow two old men into a barren desert. They set out on a long and hard journey towards a promised land that was so far away, not just in geographical distance, but in the psychological landscape of their minds. In fact, these Jews were the cream of the crop, as four out of every five Jews chose to remain in Egypt . They were not even interested in accepting the challenge of becoming the Jewish people. Yet the committed Jews who left Egypt lovingly accepted the Torah, built a mishkan, and faithfully followed their leaders in the desert when the going was tough. "By the way of the Lord they encamped and by the word of the Lord they journeyed".
The book of Bamidbar chronicles the reasons that this generation could not enter the land. Nevertheless, they displayed their faith in G-d as they continued marching towards Eretz Yisrael, thus laying the groundwork for their children to enter the land. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the book of Bamidbar ends with the laws pertaining to Tzelafchad's daughters' inheritance of the land. These five daughters yearned to have their own home in Israel , and we must emulate their example. The book of Bamidbar begins with a count of the Jewish people as they readied themselves to enter the land of Israel , and ends with them encamped on its borders, eagerly awaiting entry. True, there were some detours on the way; but the continued faith of the nation despite trying circumstances is what enabled us to reach our destination. May that faith continue to inspire and strengthen us.