There are parts of the Torah that we all love, with fond memories of the wonder of learning them for the first time, like the Creation story, Avraham’s first encounters with God, the Ten Plagues, and Sinai. Some parts are a little less exciting, like the Mishkan’s design-build, the laws of sacrifices, and the 42 locations in the wilderness the Jewish People visited on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land:

אֵלֶּה מַסְעֵי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְצִבְאֹתָם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן – These were the journies of the Jewish People who departed in their configurations from the land of Egypt, under the charge of Moshe and Ahron. (33:1)

It’s worth asking what the point of this is. The Torah is not a history journal; it exists to teach all people for all time. Here we are, 3000 years later, tediously reading about rest stops. Why does it matter at all?

In a sense, it’s the wrong question to ask, and it betrays the kind of thinking we are all guilty of.

We have this expectation and perception of linear progress, consciously or not, that our lives should be a straight road, leading directly and smoothly to our destination. What’s more, we are relentlessly focussed on the outcome, where we are going. And then we get frustrated and feel sabotaged when invariably, it doesn’t pan out that way!

But this is a stiff and unrealistic view of not only progress but life itself. Progress is incremental and organic, not linear or mechanical.

If you’ve ever driven long-distance, there are a few things you just know. You can’t go straight as the crow flies, so you know you’re going to have to follow the signs that guide your way carefully to get to the right place. You know you will probably miss an exit when you’re not paying attention, and it’ll cost you 15 minutes rerouting until you are back on track. You know you will need to stop for gas and bathroom breaks. You know there will be long stretches of open road where you can cruise, and there will be times you will get stuck in traffic. You know you will have to get off the highway at some point and take some small unmarked local streets. We know this.

We trivialize the journey, and we really mustn’t. Sure, there are huge one-off watershed moments in our lives; but the moments in between matter as well – they’re not just filler! While they might not be our final glorious destination, the small wins count and stack up.

The Sfas Emes notes how the Torah highlights each step we took to put Egypt behind us – מַסְעֵי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם. We might not get where we’re going so quickly – but if Egypt is behind us, then that means we must still be moving forwards. As we get further away from our point of origin, we should keep it in the rearview mirror to orient us as a reference point to remind us that we’re headed in the right direction. However long it takes to get where we’re going, and however bumpy and curved the road is, it’s important to remember why we got started in the first place.

The 42 stops along the way were not the optimal way to get from Egypt to Israel. It doesn’t take 40 years to travel from Egypt to Israel. But it happened that way, and the Torah tells us this for 3000 years and posterity because that’s the way life is, and we can disavow ourselves of the notion that progress or life should somehow be linear. The process is not a necessary evil – it is the fundamental prerequisite to getting anywhere, even if it’s not where we expected, and it’s worth paying attention to.

We put Egypt behind us one step at a time. We get to the Promised Land one step at a time. Any step away from Egypt is a substantial achievement – even if it’s not a step in the physical direction of the Promised Land, it truly is a step towards the Promised Land.

The journey is anything but direct, and there are lots of meandering stops along the way. It might seem boring and unnecessary – I left Egypt, and I’m going to Israel! But that’s the kind of thinking we have to short circuit. It’s not a distraction – it’s our life.

Life isn’t what happens when you get there; life is every step along the way.

Before entry into the land of Israel, the people are warned that it is not like anything they have experienced:

וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּהּ כִּי הַדָּם הוּא יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְלָאָרֶץ לֹא יְכֻפַּר לַדָּם אֲשֶׁר שֻׁפַּךְ בָּהּ כִּי אִם בְּדַם שֹׁפְכוֹ – Do not deceive the land in which you live, for the blood corrupts the land. The blood which is shed in the land cannot be atoned for – except through the blood of the one who shed it. (35:34)

The word חניפה means flattery, deception, corruption, and obfuscation. The term may seem highly odd in the context of land – these are distinctly human characteristics. But the land of Israel is no ordinary land.

R’ Moshe Feinstein draws a major distinction between contemporary international politics, and Jewish law. People concerned with saving the world will go to war, leaving incredible collateral damage and destruction in its wake. This is יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ – the world has taken precedence over man. If people die are dying wantonly, the sanctity of life is being seriously underrated.

The only ideal to uphold is how precious every human life is – the prohibition of murder extends to every soul on earth, no matter what the circumstance. If a life must be taken, it must be precise. We know all to well that countries are scarred for years after being a battleground. This is not the way of the Torah.

The Torah tells us that the land is always secondary to man – the land is worthless if the people on it aren’t good people. חניפה is the disconnect between reality and an ideal – we must always know that we have to be honest with ourselves, always trying to improve. This is what the pasuk means when it says וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּהּ.

We must focus attention on our own actions and behaviour.

The Torah teaches that a man who kills someone accidentally – manslaughter as opposed to murder – is relocated to an עיר מקלט – a city of refuge. He must remain there for the rest of his life or until the Kohen Gadol dies. A relative of the victim is appointed to pursue the murderer, and if he ever meets the killer outside the עיר מקלט, he is meant to avenge his relative and kill the man.

The Steipler Gaon explains that the עיר מקלט saves the man, but is still a punishment.

The עיר מקלט saves the killer from being hunted down by the person who sets out to avenge his family member; but even under circumstances where the avenger would not kill him, he must still flee anyway as part of the punishment. He needs to stay there until he dies, and is buried there. Being buried there and not where his family choose is also part of the punishment – independent of someone chasing him.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin records that if no relative is willing to avenge the deceased, then the Beis Din must appoint someone, a stranger. Clearly then, this law is not predicated on revenge either.

The cities of עיר מקלט were publicly owned – it is where people of Levi lived – the teachers of Bnei Yisrael. Being confined there specifically would mean he would learn from them, and correct his life and mistakes that caused his predicament. If he ever left, he would not be the same man who walked in – he would emerge enlightened.

The Beis Din needs to ensure an avenger is appointed because people, and society must always be held accountable for actions. No one can get away with crimes. The Torah is explicit that he cannot bribe his way out – the killer will stay until the end. There must always be fair justice.