40 Years in the Wilderness — Reviewing the Encampments
This Torah portion begins with a listing of the nation’s encampments during the forty-year sojourn in the Sinai desert. Since each of these encampments had already been mentioned previously, Abarbanel questions the necessity of mentioning them again in this parsha. Abarbanel cites several reasons for G-d’s commandment to Moshe to repeat the list of encampments.
Firstly, the listing is a demonstration of G-d’s kindness to the nation, since during the entire forty-year period there were only forty-two encampments. The nation was not required to be constantly on the move.
Secondly, G-d wanted to emphasize that the Sinai desert that they encountered in their travels was unlike other desert environments which can support human habitation either because they are close to settled areas or have sources of water which can also support agriculture. Later on, in Sefer Devarim, Moshe emphasizes this point, “…the L-rd, your G-d… Who leads you through the great and awesome wilderness of snake, fiery serpent and scorpion, and thirst where there was no water.” (Devarim 8:15).
Thirdly, since each and every one of these places was utterly barren and uninhabitable, it was only due to G-d’s miraculous Divine intervention that such a large population of men, women and children could be sustained for such a long period of time. The prophet Jeremiah succinctly describes this miraculous reality, “…G-d… Who brought us up from the land of Egypt, Who led us into the wilderness, in a land of desert and pit, in a land of waste and a shadow of death, in a land through which no man passed and where no person settled.” (Jeremiah 2:6)
Finally, by repeating the list of the encampments the Torah is hinting at G-d’s presence throughout the various sojourns of the Jewish People in their future exiles. As the prophet Micah states, “As in the days you left the land of Egypt, I will show it wonders (Micha 7:15).” Furthermore, just as when they were taken out of Egypt they were brought into the wilderness, so too Yechezkel prophesies that in the final redemption from exile G-d says, “I will take you out from the nations and gather you from the lands to which you were scattered, with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath, and I will bring you to the ‘Wilderness of the Nations’, and I will contend with you there, face to face; just as I contended with your forefathers in the wilderness of Egypt.” (Yechezkel 20:35-36)
This may explain the repetitious phrase at the beginning of the parsha, “…and these were their journeys according to their goings forth” — i.e. "from their final exile." Another interpretation is that the phrase “their goings forth” could refer to the generations to come in the exile. Sometimes they will follow the crooked path — symbolized by the encampment at Marah (bitterness) — and sometimes they will follow the straight path — symbolized by the encampment at Mitkah (sweetness). This summarizes the experience of the Jewish People while they are in the “Wilderness of the Nations.”