As we end the book of Bemidbar, the Torah presents us with a list of Israel’s journeys on their way in the desert. At first glance the list appears exhausting, representative of the 40 years of hunger, danger, rebellion and punishment.
Rashi, however, provides a different picture: “Why were these encampments recorded? To indicate God’s great compassion. Do not think that they were in constant motion from one encampment to the next for the entire 40-year period and had no respite whatsoever. In fact, there are only 42 encampments listed here.”
Rashi goes on to point out that 14 of the journeys took place in the first year and the final eight took place in the 40th year. He concludes: “Thus, over the course of 38 years, there were only a total of 20 encampments [42–14–8 = 20]”.
Many read the book as one of endless catastrophe with the narratives of the people’s greed, the spies and Korah’s rebellion, among others, marring the journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel.
Rashi’s insight dramatically challenges this approach. True, tragic episodes occurred. But considering the book as taking place over the span of 40 years, these episodes were in fact relatively rare.
As Jeremiah tells it, when God looks back on the desert experience, He says to Israel, “I remember the kindness of your youth, your bridal love, how you followed Me in the desert, in a land unsown. “
Bemidbar should thus be viewed as a period of harmony and intimacy. There is a wider lesson here too: the Jewish world can at times fill one with despair. If we take a few steps back however, consider the wider picture, then like the prophet Balaam, we might just say, “How goodly are your tents O Israel”.