The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.
"These were the marches of the Israelites who started from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Lord…." (Numbers 33:1-2).
Parshat Masei, the second of the two parashiot that we read this week, begins with the recounting of the Israelites’ itinerary, outlining their travels from Egypt through the desert. Many Torah commentators ask about the purpose of this listing. For a text that is so often terse and sparse on details, it seems strange that the Torah elaborates to list every stopping point on the Israelites’ journey. Why not simply leave it up to the reader to look back in the text and retrace their steps?
A midrash explains that God said to Moses: "Write down the stages by which Israel journeyed in the wilderness, in order that they shall know what miracles I wrought them." According to this approach, the travels are enumerated to emphasize and highlight God’s power, and to ensure that the Israelites recognize God’s strength.
The midrash, however, also offers a second explanation. It says that God commanded Moses to "recount to [the Israelites] all the places where they provoked Me." In other words, this view suggests that the detailed review will act as a rebuke to the Israelites, for according to the midrash, every place that is listed was a locus of sins committed by the Israelites.
Sforno, a medieval commentator, offers a third suggestion.In contrast to the second interpretation of the midrash, Sforno explains that the Torah’s listing acts to praise the Jewish nation.
Despite the tortuous route through which God led them,despite all of the stops they made along the way, the Israelites remained faithful to God. Thus, the list of their stopping points highlights the challenges they faced, and by extension praises their faith.
I’d like to suggest one more explanation for these seemingly extra verses. The interpretations of the midrash and Sforno each view the enumeration of the journeys as representative of something else of God’s might,of the Israelites’ failings, or of the Israelites’ faith.