The second of this week’s double parasha starts with a list of the journeys of בני ישראל:
If you think about it, the second pasuk is very hard to understand. Why does the Torah need to tell us that Moshe wrote something in the Torah? We know Moshe wrote the Torah, that’s an article of faith:
The answer seems to be the timing. Moshe wrote the Torah down at the end of his life; this was written a month and a half before that, when בני ישראל arrive at ערבות מואב. Moshe is about to start his last series of speeches, ספר דברים, but first he writes down their itinerary to this point.
And what does על פי ה׳ mean? Ibn Ezra claims it refers to the journey:
But Ramban disagrees. The על פי ה׳ refers to the writing:
So why is writing these down, now, so important? The Netziv just gives up:
But Rashi gives two reasons:
The Rambam expands Rashi’s first explanation, that the list teaches us ה׳'s mercy (this is Ramban’s translation of the passage from מורה נבוכים):
Rashi’s second explanation is that it is common, after a long journey, to review the details of all the places they stayed. We will have to expand on that later.
Why does Rashi bring two explanations? Sometimes he given different explanations because neither one is really satisfactory. But here I think it is because he is answering two different questions: למה נכתבו המסעות הללו in the course of the narrative: why did he write (or why did ה׳ command him to write) this list, before writing the entire Torah? The answer has to explain why his audience needed this list. And, secondly, למה נכתבו המסעות הללו, why write this list down in the final compilation of the Torah? The answer has to explain why we, 3500 years later, need this list.
Rashi’s second answer is Watsonian. Within the chronology of the narrative, Moshe writes down the list of the journeys because he is about to give a speech that starts with a historical overview. This was the source sheet, the outline, for the speech he was about to give.
This reading helps explain why there are some details in this list and not others:
Did anything important happen in מדבר סיני? Why mention the palms of אילם and the waters of רפידם? But that is the idea: The speeches of ספר דברים will talk about מעמד הר סיני. This outline only mentions events that are not going to be dealt with later.
Rashi’s first answer is Doylist. The list is included in the Torah because we, the future readers of the Torah, need to learn it. The Sfas Emes says that the journey is symbolic of our journey through life:
Rabbi Sholom Riskin points out another question on the pasuk: the second half repeats the first half, but reversed: מוצאיהם למסעיהם followed by מסעיהם למוצאיהם. מוצאיהם למסעיהם I understand: Moshe wrote the places they left to go traveling. But what does it mean that they traveled to the places they left? That’s backwards; they traveled from the places they left.
Rabbi Riskin proposes that it is meant as a matter of mindset: they were traveling to the places they had left. They were going back home. In the first Egyptian exile, Avraham did this literally:
And, מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, בני ישראל did the same thing (though not literally) when they left Egypt. And, even more מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, that is how we should view the long journey of the Jewish people over the millenia.