Essayist and social commentator H. L. Mencken once wrote that driving with small children is like traveling fourth class through Bulgaria. One reason may be the constant question: ‘Are we there yet?’ that seems to be asked every ten minutes. Readers can only imagine how Israelite parents endured a forty-year trek through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. But according to Rabbi Jacob, the Maggid of Dubno (Ohel Ya’akov on the Torah), there was a different question asked back then.
The Torah teaches (Numbers 33:2) that with regard to the travels of the Israelites, Moses recorded “their goings out to their journeys” and then “their journeys to their goings out.” (The nuance of the strange phrasing and repetition is lost by the New Translation of the Torah that, in the name of precision, renders the Hebrew as “the starting points of their various marches.”) It would seem, since the point of the narrative is to delineate the route taken by the Israelites in arriving at their destination, that it is the journeying that is paramount. Consequently – assuming that the redundancy is necessary – “their journeys to their goings out” should have been mentioned first.
The Dubno Maggid explains the difficulty with a parable. Once there was a child whose mother died leaving the father to care for him. Unable to raise the child alone, the father marries. But the stepmother was not kind to the child. Time passes. The child becomes a young man and the father arranges his marriage to a young woman in a distant city. On the way to the wedding the mistreated stepson asks his father taking him to wed his intended bride: “How far have we gone from home?” The question on his mind, notes the Maggid, is not how close they are to their destination, but how far they have gone from the cruelty he has left behind.
Applying this insight to the text, the Maggid points out that for the Israelites leaving the cruelty and barbarity of Egypt, the first thing on their minds was how far they have gone. Only later, after learning to appreciate the beauty of their destination, do the Israelites ask how far to go.
The choice of question is more than a matter of direction. It is a matter of memory. If what you leave behind is painful and unhappy – like Egyptian bondage – than the Torah is correct to word things as they are.