Rabbi Jesse HornThe writer teaches Talmud ("Brisker" approach) and Tanakh at the Hakotel hesder yeshiva in Jerusalem and lectures widely. He has a B.A. in Judaic Studies and M.A. in Jewish Education from Yeshiva University and Rabbinical degree from YU/RIETS.
The midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah, 23:2) compares Bnei Yisrael's (the Jewish Nation’s) travels to a prince, who, after suffering through an illness and a long period of recovery, accompanies his father, the king, on a journey through all the places where the prince felt ill.
How does this midrash shed any light on Bnei Yisrael’s travels? What depth is the midrash adding with its parable?
Perhaps, for a moment, it pays to look at the list of travels independently of the midrash. This will bring two questions to mind. Why list all of the places Bnei Yisrael passed through over the last forty years? What does the Torah gain by informing the reader of such seemingly tedious details? Secondly, why conclude Bamidbar with a list of travels? What points is Hashem making by ending the book with this list?
Presumably concluding Bamidbar with a list of places Bnei Yisrael traveled through could be designed to capture one of two things. Firstly, it could be symbolic of Bnei Yisrael's failure; Bamidbar should have concluded with Bnei Yisrael's successful entrance into Israel. The fact that they remain traveling in the desert reflects their failure. They belong in Israel, not the desert.
Alternatively, listing the travels at the conclusion of Bamidbar might reflect upon something more positive. Bnei Yisrael are now religiously and emotionally ready to enter into Israel. After all that traveling, they have arrived at their religious destination. True, before entering, they hear one more motivational speech delivered by Moshe, called the book of Devorim; but for all intensive purposes, Bnei Yisrael are now ready to conquer their land.
It is precisely this second approach which the midrash captures with its illustration. The king (Hashem), with an interest to show his son (Bnei Yisrael) all the places they had visited (the difficult steps along the way) is reminding them of the care and protection he provided them while ensuring their religious development.
With this parable, the midrash successfully answers both aforementioned questions regarding their travels. Firstly, listing all the places in such a long and drawn-out manner highlights just how much care Hashem displayed for us, and how he assisted us each step of the way, helping us develop into a nation ready to realize its national ambitions. Moreover, this is the perfect message to end Bamidbar with: “You are ready to enter into Israel,” and begin the next narrative, the book of Yehoshua.
It is always important to remember, but particularly at this time, that the steps to conquering and inhabiting a peaceful Israel are many and perhaps drawn-out, but Hashem helps and encourages us as a nation to achieve this goal.