Bamidbar, 33:1: “These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went forth from the land of Egypt according to their legions, under the hand of Moshe and Aaron.”
Rashi, Bamidbar, 33:1: Dh: Eileh:…VeRebbe Tanchuma expounds a different teaching: It is analogous to a King whose son was sick and he took him to a distant place to heal him. When they were returning, his father began to enumerate all the journeys: He said to him, ‘here we slept, here we were cold, here you had a pain in your head…”

The Torah lists the 42 encampments of the Jewish people during their forty years of travelling from Egypt into the land of Israel. This information does not seem to be of the greatest significance, yet the Torah spends a considerable amount of time telling us every stop. Why did the Torah go to such great lengths to outline a seemingly irrelevant historic event?

Rashi, citing the Midrash, offers an analogy of a King whose son falls sick, and the King takes him on a distant journey to get healed. The son recovers, and on their return journey, the King shows him the places that they passed on their initial journey and reminds him of various events that happened in each place, generally focusing on unpleasant incidents, such as when they were cold, or when the son felt particularly unwell. Rashi does not cite the end of the Midrash when it compares the analogy of the King and his son to the Jewish people: “So said the Holy One, Blessed be He, to Moshe, enumerate for them all the places where they angered – that is why it says, ‘These are the journey of the Children of Israel.” This indicates that the main point of the recounting of these events was to focus on unpleasant incidents and to remind the people of their mistakes.

It seems that we learn two important lessons about how to view past events from the Torah’s enumeration of all these journeys and their accompanying travails. The first is that one should not shy away from his mistakes, and the second is that one should look at difficult past episodes after they have ended. Why are these two approaches of importance?

With regard to looking at one’s past mistakes, a person should not simply repent and move on, rather he should strive to learn lessons from them so he can avoid the same mistakes in the future. A well-known phrase in the study of history is that: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” God was teaching the people that they should not forget where they erred and how they came to sin, so that they learn for the future.

Rabbi Yissachar Frand offers another reason why it is important to look past errors:

“The reason the Torah catalogs the 42 encampments is to teach us: Yes, there were moments in your past in which you fell down, but you were able to bounce back from those moments. Yes, there were moments in your history in which you did not act properly, but you were able to pull yourselves out by your strength of character. Those are important lessons that a person has to know. A person is the sum total of his experiences — good and bad. To have an attitude “I just want to forget about the past” is going to doom a person to failure again.”

Seeing that a person made serious mistakes, but moved on and grew from them, serves to encourage a person to continue in his efforts.

The second lesson that one can learn from the Torah’s recounting of all the places and events that took place in the desert is brought out by the following story told over by Rabbi Frand.

He knew someone who had a child who had a very difficult time becoming engaged and married. Needless to say, this was a very difficult experience. In the course of the several years that it took this person to become engaged, the person’s parents compiled a loose-leaf notebook of all the different suggestions for dating that were proposed and considered over the years. The completed notebook was a thick compendium. The person said to himself that when his child finally becomes engaged, “I am going to burn this notebook.”

Rabbi Frand told him that he did not think that this attitude was the Torah approach. This is learnt from the lesson of the 42 encampments. It would be much simpler for the Torah to say, “They left Egypt; they came to Iisrael; it took them 39 years, but they finally made it.” However, instead the Torah writes each of the stops and alludes to what happened at each of those stops. We recall the troubles they had at the various stops along the way, their defeats, and the way they behaved. These events made the Jewish nation and a person’s own history makes him.

Therefore, Rabbi Frand advised this parent that in spite of the fact that there were painful moments associated with this notebook, the chronicles of the trying period in which his child was trying to find their destined partner is nevertheless not something that should be burnt. They should be stored and be available so that from time to time it will be possible for both the child and the parent to say, “Look what I went through and look from where I have come.”

In addition, it is often possible to understand why difficult things took place when looking back at them at a later time in the context of the subsequent course of events. For example, a failed shidduch (date) can seem like a tragedy at the time, but later on, when the person gets married, he can look back and see how that person would not have been a fitting spouse, and this can help him appreciate his wife to a greater degree.

We have seen the value of looking back at past events: Doing so can help a person grow for the future and internalize the fact that everything that happens is ultimately for the good.