Today, we are in a wilderness; not in the wilderness of Sinai but, as Ezekiel calls it, “the wilderness of the peoples” (Ezek. 20:35) – in exile.
We have been wandering in the wilderness of the peoples not for forty years but for more than two thousand years, and the length of each one of these journeys has been multiplied several times over.
Each station in our history corresponds to a station in the wilderness of Sinai.
The Torah says that in the wilderness of Sinai, we “remained in Kadesh for many days” (Deut. 1:46), which may correspond to the many days that we resided in a certain place – three hundred years, four hundred years, or six hundred years.
Jewish life stays and concentrates in one place for a certain time, and then it picks itself up and begins to move about from place to place.
All these journeys, like the other points of passage in the Torah, have one thing in common:
Each one of them signifies a transition point, a point of stopping and change.
But the distances and the travel time between them are not the same.
During the forty years of travel in the wilderness, the People of Israel experienced forty-two journeys, but the time between each journey was not always a year.
Sometimes a year would pass between two stops, while at other times only half a day.
Thus, when we travel through the world on our journeys through history, we do not know our present station; what is more, we do not know how long it will take until we reach the next station.
We are in one of the books of the Torah, but we do not know which one.
Are we in Deuteronomy or in Leviticus?
We proceed from station to station, but we do not know which station is which.
Sometimes many years go by until we have an idea where we are in the narrative, and sometimes we will never know our location.
This is the meaning of the verse, “Its courses wander; you cannot know” (Prov. 5:6).
There is a course or path that runs through the ages, and this is the course of the journey from exile to redemption.
It is a course whose number of steps is unknown; neither the distance between the stations nor how much time is spent at each station is known.
Sometimes it appears as though we are now approaching the Land of Israel, but then it becomes apparent that although we are truly very close, there are still many more stations to go.
The individual, too, experiences these journeys and travels on this path.
“These were their stops along the way” – the stops of all people, only that we do not know what the stations are called.
“And they journeyed from Mount Shepher and encamped in Haradah” (Num. 33:24) – when does a person move between these two stations?
The names of these two stations are easy to understand.
When is one in a beautiful mountain (bar shefer), and when is one in a state of trembling (Ziaradfl)?
When is one in a low station, and when is one in a lofty station? This is the meaning of “Its courses wander; you cannot know.”
–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz