In the beginning of Parshat Masei, the Torah spends a number of Pesukim listing the Jews’ journeys during their 40 years in the desert. This list appears to have no bearing on the flow of the story, nor is their any apparent Mitzva being transmitted in this section. What possible benefit can we get from knowing each and every place Bnai Yisrael camped?
Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch offers the explanation that perhaps the Torah was being pragmatic in this listing. He reasons that over the course of 38 years, numerous personal experiences occurred to each member of Bnai Yisrael – not significant enough to be mentioned in the Torah, but worthy to be recalled by those affected, their families, and their descendants. Since these experiences were not recorded, their memories must be kept alive through oral tradition. This listing in our Parsha was meant to serve as an aid to help remember the personal experiences at each rest stop.
Rambam takes a different approach and notes in his philosophical work Moreh Nevuchim that this listing is vital – it substantiates all the miracles performed in the desert. How so? The desert was described by the Torah as a place of “fiery serpents, snakes, and scorpions” (Devarim 8:15). It cannot support life as it is “a land where no man passed through and where no man dwelt” (Yirmiyahu 2:6). Although these miracles were witnessed by multitudes of people, they had only a temporary impact. Hashem knew that future generations would doubt the validity of the Torah and its miracles. They would think that the descriptions of “desert” and “wilderness” were only an exaggeration. In reality, Bnai Yisrael lived on habitable terrain and had ample water. To refute these claims, Hashem listed every rest stop – so that future generations could visit these places and appreciate the miracles that happened there and acknowledge Hashem’s greatness.
Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan, quoted by Rashi, agrees that this list serves as a means to praise Hashem, albeit a different attribute of His. Although Hashem had decreed that Bnai Yisrael must wander for 40 years, they moved less than 30 times in 38 years. In fact, most of those years were spent at one campsite. Is this considered wandering? According to Rashi, this list illustrates Hashem’s characteristic of Chesed and has a vital place in the Torah.
Rav Hirsch cites these three reasons in his commentary to Chumash. There are, however, countless more explanations of this list. Some reasons are pragmatic, others symbolic. Whatever the reason, the effort expended in providing an explanation highlight the important principle of there being no extra word in the Torah.