Parashat Masei begins with the Torah’s listing of the forty-two stations where Benei Yisrael encamped over the course of their forty-year journey from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan River. The Torah introduces this list with two verses which appear repetitious: “These are the journeys of the Israelites who left the land of Egypt… Moshe recorded the points of departure of their journeys by the word of the Lord, and these are their journeys by their points of departure…” The Torah twice says, “These are the journeys,” and in between it tells us that Moshe wrote down a record of Benei Yisrael’s journeys as God had commanded him.
Netziv offers a very creative approach to explain this otherwise repetitious introduction, suggesting that the Torah refers here to the three different phases of Benei Yisrael’s journey through the wilderness. The first stage consisted of their travels from Egypt to Kadeish Barnea (which is referred to as “Ritma” here in Parashat Masei; see Rashi to 33:18), where the sin of the spies occurred. During this phase, Benei Yisrael were focused on journeying directly to the Land of Israel – after first stopping in Sinai to receive the Torah and construct the Mishkan. After the sin of the spies, however, God decreed that the nation would wander in the desert for another thirty-nine years, during which the time the adult generation would perish. This second stage of traveling was not directed towards any particular geographic destination, and was merely intended as a punishment to the generation that did not trust God’s promise to lead them to victory over the nations of Canaan. The third stage began when Benei Yisrael reached the Tzin desert along the border with the Edomite kingdom, and they requested (and were denied) permission to cross through the territory of Edom to reach the Land of Israel. At this point, they traveled not for the sake of wandering, but once again for the purpose of reaching their destination and entering the Land of Israel.
Netziv thus suggests that the three segments of the Torah’s introduction to its lists of encampments refer, respectively, to these three stages. “These are the journeys of the Israelites” refers to their trek from Egypt to Kadesh Barnea; “Moshe recorded their points of departure…by the word of the Lord” speaks of the nation’s wandering following the sin of the spies; and “These are their journeys” refers to the final stage, when Benei Yisrael against journeyed towards the land.
Netziv here notes the significance of the Torah’s emphasizing specifically in regard to the second stage that it was recorded “by the word of the Lord” – because of God’s command. The first and third stages, Netziv explains, were clearly significant and worthy of being recorded, because they were geared towards an important and lofty goal – entering into the Land of Israel. The encampments of the second phrase, however, do not appear significant enough to be written, as Benei Yisrael traveled to these destinations not because they needed to be specifically there, but because they needed to wander. During this middle stage, God did not seem to lead Benei Yisrael to any particular destination, but just had them wander through the wilderness to wait until the next generation was ready to enter the land. On the surface, then, these journeys of the middle phase were not worthy of being recorded for posterity. The Torah therefore emphasizes that these were written down “al pi Hashem,” because God commanded Moshe to write them down, even though there did not appear to any compelling reason to do so.
The lesson being conveyed, perhaps, is that every station in life is significant, even those which we would have wished to avoid, and even those which appear to have no value. Even when it appears we are “wandering,” when we find ourselves in undesirable situations and in situations which seem to offer us nothing, there is what to be accomplished and gained. Our lives are comprised of many different stations, many of which we did not want and might seem to us bereft of any value, but they are, in truth, significant. The Torah here teaches us to make the most of every situation we ever find ourselves in at any point, and to find the opportunities for achievement in each and every station we arrive it throughout our lives.