Sefer Bemidbar Sinai is known by Chazal as חומש הפקודים, the Book of Countings. It is framed by countings in both its opening and closing, and many (including Netziv and Ramban) have commented on this particular structure, noting that it informs us of the very essence of the Sefer. If the counting at the beginning serves as somewhat of a “snapshot” of the people and the same can be said for the counting at the end, then the thrust of the book describes how and why that picture changed throughout forty years in the desert.
Assuming the above to be correct, we are presented with an interesting epilogue that follows the second counting. Indeed, the opening of this week=s Parsha, which is part of that epilogue, has raised more than a few questions. The Parsha begins with a detailed description of the travels of the Jewish People through the desert. Aside from the technical questions that most of the commentaries address, for example, that the account of the travels presented here occasionally conflicts with other accounts in the Chumash, there is the fundamental question of why there is a need for such a description in the first place. Why are the specific places of encampment important enough for the Torah to recount in such careful detail?
To be sure, many of the names used (which appear here uniquely and are never referred to elsewhere) are evocative of events or places that are described earlier. For example, מתקה is reminiscent of the tree Moshe tossed into the bitter waters to sweeten them, and הר שפר (literally, “good mountain”) evokes images of Mount Sinai (which, interestingly enough, is not mentioned explicitly in the list). In fact, there is an entire series of encampments that seem to be more descriptive of an emotional or spiritual journey than a desert trek! From their emergence as a Congregation (קהלתה) they moved to the Good Mountain (הר שפר); from the Good Mountain they went to Trembling (חרדה); from Trembling to a new Gathering (מקהלות), and so on. Reading the list of their encampments sounds much like a retelling of Bnai Yisrael’s experiences through the lens of geography.
Perhaps, then, that is the very purpose of the description. As the Jews are preparing to enter the Land after a forty-year period of transformation, the Torah tries to capture the essence of that transformation and its various stages, and through the poetic transmutation of events into places using appropriately evocative names puts the desert trek into a new perspective for the people. This is not a dry description of an itinerary or of motel stops, but a glorious retelling of the emergence of the Jewish People as a nation receiving the Torah and preparing to take their place in history in the fulfillment of Hashem’s promise to our forefathers. Each stop along the way represents another rung on the ladder of preparation for the ultimate mission.
There is an interesting custom to read these verses from the Torah using a special tune. Were these verses merely a travel plan it would be difficult to understand this custom; why highlight a dry description with a special tune? If, however, these verses are a poetic portrayal of the inner journey of a people, we fully understand the triumphant tone taken in proclaiming them aloud. The transformation of the people as framed by the two countings in the book is celebrated in song as we prepare for the final stages of that journey in the Promised Land.