Before they arrive at their final destination, the Jewish people must retrace their steps. But these are not the aimless wanderings that have defined their last 40 years. These are the travels of a new people taking ownership of their past.
We see many of the significant stations of the journey repeated, but with a twist. Instead of Moshe and Yehoshua leading the battle against Amalek, it is Israel as a whole who makes an oath to God and goes to battle against the desert dwellers, here called ‘Canaan’. Instead of Moshe calling forth water from the rock, it is the Jewish people who sing to it. Instead of Moshe sending messengers to request passage, again, it is the nation.
This rehashing of history is not enthusiastically embraced by the nation, at least not initially. Having tasted war, defeat and victory, they feel ready to finally enter the land. Their complaint sounds similar to the murmurings of the past, but this time there’s no nostalgia for Egypt, only impatience. “Were we brought out of Egypt to die in the desert?” There was a purpose to the exodus, and we’re ready to realize it. We’re tired of the manna- we want to make our own bread!
The people may not realize it, but this misstep is also a new step, and a redemption of past sins. For the first time, when they suffer the consequences of their complaint, it isn’t Moshe or God who immediately intercedes on their behalf. First, the nation takes responsibility for their misdeed, they repent, and only then do they enlist Moshe’s help.
That Jews will complain is a given, a part of our birthright. But when we are able to then own our complaints and grow from them, we can suddenly see our journey in a new light. No longer exhausting and monotonous, at the end of chapter 21, the Jewish people sing each station on their journey as part of a song that rises and falls and rises again, “And from Matana, Nachliel, and from Nachliel to Bamot. And from Bamot, the heights, to the valley in Moav country, the top of peak, looking out on the desolation”.