In the second of today's two portions, we read a long list of the various places where the Israelites encamped during their forty years' travel in the desert. A few of these place names are recognizable, but for the most part we do not know where these places were, or whether they still exist.
So what, we may wonder, is the purpose of this long catalogue of names? We know that the Torah never wastes a word; if a word somewhere seems redundant, there are usually pages of commentary to explain that one word. Here we have what seem to be a few redundant pages!
I think the answer is that, even if we cannot recognize the individual places, the Torah wants to show us the extent of the Israelites' travels through the desert. The manner of these travels has been described in an earlier parsha, Behaaloscha. A cloud would either rest on the Tabernacle, or rise up and move, and accordingly the children of Israel would either stay in one spot or move, following the cloud. It also describes how there was no regularity about the cloud's behavior -- it would move for short or long periods, and rest for short or long periods, in any unpredictable combination.
The Gemara records how, just as the children of Israel had finished unpacking in one spot, the cloud might start moving again, and off they had to go! And if the cloud reached a beautiful oasis, it might stop there, or it might just as easily go on, and stop in an unexpected place. What was the reason for this apparently erratic behavior of the cloud?
According to the Ramban, it was to train the Jews for their future wanderings in exile. In fact, according to the Vilna Gaon, everything that has happened to us in the past two thousand years in exile was represented somehow in the forty years' wandering in the desert. And by training us for our wanderings, I do not mean making us seasoned jet-setters like Henry Kissinger, who knows how to pack an overnight bag efficiently or fall asleep in a plane.
The purpose is to train us to tarry, or move, so as to carry out G-d's will. When we think we are settled somewhere, we may suddenly find that we have to move on, and while we are busy traveling, we may suddenly find ourselves settling somewhere. And what is more, we may not know the reason for our moving or stopping, or it may not be the reason we think. And when we move on from some place where we have been settled, it may be because our work there (which may or may not be known to us) is finished. It is all in G-d's hands. As the Torah says: "At the L-rd's commandment they encamped, and at the L-rd's commandment they journeyed" (Num. 9:23). The Sforno explains this as meaning: They encamped even if they did not like the place, and journeyed even if they did.
I recall a true story of the saintly Rabbi Shachna Sohn, who flew by plane to Israel for the High Holy Days. He overslept in the airport, and by the time he woke, the next place he could disembark was Bangkok in Thailand. What was Rabbi Sohn going to do in Bangkok for Rosh Hashana? He asked around, and found out about an American Jewish Army officer, stationed in Thailand. He contacted him, and discovered other Jews in and around Bangkok, on business or vacation. in this way he was able to organize a prayer service for the Holy Days. Continuing in this way, he managed to organize a minyan in Bangkok, one that continued to function after he left, and lasted for twenty years!
Here is another story, a favorite of mine. Rav Gifter, the great Rosh Yeshiva of the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland, flew one day, with a number of his students, to a wedding in Baltimore. They had to change planes in some city on the way to Baltimore. While they were waiting at the airport there, there were so many delays with the arrival of the new plane that Rav Gifter suddenly realized that, even if there were no further delays, there was no way they could reach the wedding in time. So he decided to return, with all his students, to Cleveland. But first, he decided, they should "daven mincha" (recite afternoon prayers) at the airport where they were, for otherwise it would be too late for mincha if they first flew back to Cleveland.
Since it was obviously preferable to pray in a private room, Rav Gifter signaled a passing janitor, with a large bunch of keys in his belt, and asked him if such a room were available anywhere in the airport. The janitor replied: "Sure, follow me!" and strode through the airport, followed by Rav Gifter and his students. The janitor arrived at a room and unlocked the door, and the company davened mincha.
Afterwards, the janitor approached one of the students and asked him if he would help him recite Kaddish! Rav Gifter, hearing about this, came over and asked the janitor about himself, and The janitor told the following story. "My father was a Reform Jew, and I am non-practicing. My father died one week ago. Last night he appeared to me in a dream and said: `Say Kaddish for me!' I answered: `But Father, You never taught me anything. I don't know how to say Kaddish, or where to go to find a minyan!' He said: `Don't worry -- I'll bring the minyan to you!'" What happened here? Rav Gifter though that he and his students were traveling to a wedding in Baltimore, but actually they were traveling to bring a minyan -- one of the most prestigious minyanim in the America! -- to this janitor, just to enable him to say Kaddish for his father!
We should realize that the reason that we may arrive at a certain place, or leave it, may not be the reason we think it is, but to fulfill G-d's purpose -- whatever that may be.