In Parashat Masei, we read of all the places where Bnei Yisrael traveled during their forty years of wandering in the desert. An obvious question, therefore, arises: if the Torah does not waste even a single letter, why does it go into such detail as to where the Jews traveled? After all, if the ultimate goal of Bnei Yisrael’s journey was to reach Eretz Yisrael, why can’t the Torah just say that the Jews wandered, camped, and settled in many places over the course of forty years? How are the specific places to which Bnei Yisrael traveled so important that the Torah needs to spend a large amount of a Parashah describing the exact places where they camped?
A possible answer is that the Torah here is teaching us a very important lesson. While it is true that the ultimate goal was to arrive in Eretz Yisrael, each and every step along the way was important to the development of the young nation. Each place along the journey, in some way or another, played a part in shaping the Jewish nation. Therefore, by listing every place where Bnei Yisrael camped, the Torah is teaching us the importance of the journey in addition to the goal.
In fact, one reason why Bnei Yisrael needed to stay in the desert for forty years, in addition to the punishment for Cheit HaMeraglim, was to allow time for a learning process to take place. Bnei Yisrael proved that open miracles alone were not able to transform the people from bottom-dwellers in Mitzrayim, both in status and in purity, into a holy nation in the matter of a few months. They witnessed the Eser Makkot, the splitting of the Yam Suf, and even Matan Torah, the most awesome event in Jewish history, but they proceeded to sin just one month later, when they felt the slightest bit of fear that a tragedy might have befallen Moshe on Har Sinai. Even though they had just seen Hashem perform countless miracles, the people were still skeptical of Him, and they therefore created another god for themselves, the golden calf! Then, after a year in which they were able to get accustomed to Hashem’s presence among them, they turned around completely. Bnei Yisrael again failed to believe in the ability of Hashem, and they were persuaded by the spies that the people of Kena’an were too strong to defeat. Even though Hashem had just recently shown His great ability in destroying the greatest empire of the time, Bnei Yisrael still did not completely believe in Hashem, turning against Him after the prodding of the spies.
That is why Bnei Yisrael needed to travel through the desert for forty years in order to be transformed into a nation which believes in the great power of Hashem. The punishment was not simply to force Bnei Yisrael to pay for their unwavering doubt in Hashem, but also to make them grow to love Hashem and acknowledge His true power. By listing every place, the Torah teaches us the importance of each and every step along this journey.
Unfortunately, even in modern times, not everyone has been able to grasp the message conveyed in Parashat Masei. After the Six-Day War, in which Israel achieved an unbelievable victory, Yitzchak Rabin, then the Chief of Staff of the IDF and a secular Jew, said that on that day he was the holiest man alive. Of course, the next day, just like Bnei Yisrael in the desert, Rabin returned to his old ways and strayed from the religion. The reason for this is that open miracles of Hashem can be a source of inspiration to a person, but they do not have the power to transform him completely. Only daily activities can truly change a person, in the same way that the Jews needed forty years of journeying to become a different nation.
The importance of a process is stressed not only in service to Hashem, but also in the study of Torah itself. Every morning we say the Birchot HaTorah, which begin with, “Baruch Atah Hashem…VeTzivanu La’asok BeDivrei Torah,” “Blessed are you, Hashem,…who commanded us to involve ourselves in items of Torah.” What does inolving ourselves in items of Torah mean? Why can’t the Berachah more simply state that we are commanded to study Torah? An explanation arises from the nature of the Mitzvah itself. The Mitzvah of Talmud Torah does not just include acquiring the knowledge that is gained through study, but it also encompasses the learning itself and the commitment of spending time to engross oneself in learning. We refer to this process of learning each morning when we say “La’asok.” The importance of the process of Talmud Torah arises for the same reason as the process in other service to Hashem. Merely obtaining facts from Torah, while certainly important, does not help one achieve a growing relationship with Hashem, but becoming involved does. The process of learning is for us to change as people. We need to take the lessons of the Torah and apply them to our lives, which can be accomplished only through repeated process. Hopefully we can use the lesson taught by the Torah in Parashat Masei to realize that we cannot hope to change instantly at some point in our lives, be it because of some great miracle or an epiphany of some other ilk. The process must be a long and consistent one, so we can grow slowly into better people.