For the past century, we have been perfecting the art of highspeed travel. We can now get from any point on the globe to another in a matter of hours. But apparently for some the journey is still not fast enough - they want to get there within minutes! So where are we headed at such breakneck speed? This week’s double sedra completes the book of Bamidbar, and – among other topics – summarises the forty two journeys and encampments of Israel during the desert years.
Initially, it seemed that the Jewish people, having left Egypt, were likewise on an express track. But matters played out quite differently, and they were destined to spend 40 years wandering in the desert, journeying from place to place. Had they settled in the Land of Israel immediately, something would have been missing.
The Jews would have missed out on an important process of soul-searching and self-growth. They needed a transition period to shed the habits that had grown on them during more than 200 years of slavery in Egypt. They needed to process all they had been taught at Mount Sinai. And they needed to do it through their own efforts. From this perspective, an express trip to the Promised Land would have done them no favours.
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov teaches that the forty-two "stations" from Egypt to the Promised Land (“and they journeyed from … and they camped at”) are replayed in the life of every individual Jew and represent a different stage of life. We all pass through these stages on the way to our personal “promised land.” Pauses, interruptions and setbacks are an inevitable part of the plan, and how we get through them is up to us. The journey in the desert evolved, and the Jews didn’t know what they would encounter on the way. Similarly, our lives are an evolving journey. Whilst we are unlikely to make a trip that lasts 40 years, we are all in the process of “journeying from” or “camping at”.
To me, the Torah is saying that there is an inherent value to journeys and to life experiences. Whether they are triumphs or failures, they are, of themselves, important. For every individual, every family, and every nation, our collective experiences create who we are and what is meaningful to us.