Parshas Masei - Significance of the Masa'os
Parshas Masei commences with a detailed, step-by-step run through of the travel and encampment sites of B'nei Yisroel from the time they left Mitzrayim until their stop at the Plains of Moav. Rashi (33:1) quotes the Tanchuma which compares the Masa'os (narrative of the Jewish People's travels) to the story of a king who took his sick son on a distant journey to a physician. Upon their return, the king pointed out the places which they had passed during their trip to the doctor and reminded his son about what had transpired at each locus. ("Here is where your head was hurting you", etc.)
What is the meaning of this moshol (parable)? Moreover, why do the Masa'os appear at the end of Sefer Bamidbar altogether?
Following the Masa'os, the Torah addresses the borders of Eretz Yisroel and the appointment of leaders for conquest of the Land. The Torah then introduces the mitzvah of Arei Miklat (Cities of Refuge) and stipulates that the Levi'im must have their own cities. From this context, it appears that the Masa'os were recorded as an introduction to the final preparations for entering the Land (selection of military leadership for conquest, delineation of borders and geography). This is why, "al pi p'shat" (according to simple interpretation), the Masa'os appear at the end of Sefer Bamidbar, so as to provide a full historical span, from the departure from Mitzrayim to the conquest of Eretz Yisroel.
Still, why was it necessary to present the Masa'os at all? The history of the previous travels of B'nei Yisroel was already known. Why was there a need to repeat it?
B'nei Yisroel were finally reaching the 40-year goal of their journey to the Promised Land. The generation which entered was not that which was liberated from Mitzrayim, for that generation (its non-Levite men) had already died as a punishment for the Chet Ha-Meraglim (Sin of the Spies). Tens of thousands of Jews were then killed at Ba'al Pe'or due to involvement with idolatry and heathen women, and the ranks of B'nei Yisroel had been decimated by the thousands as a result of other misdeeds as well. In short, the Jewish People was extremely scarred, and only a remnant of it had survived the journey toward Eretz Yisroel.
The Masa'os served to imbue B'nei Yisroel with a sense of appreciation for how far they had come - both as beneficiaries of God's miracles and graces, as well as survivors through the harshest of tribulations - so as to approach entry to Eretz Yisroel as the pinnacle of the journey. Pessimists could have viewed arrival in Eretz Yisroel as the anti-climactic end of a rough 40 years. The Masa'os affirm that all which occurred was part of a pattern to prepare the people for inherence and conquest of the Land. It was a period of growth pains - not attrition. The Jews were charged to look back and realize that all which occurred was necessary in order to set the stage for entry to the Promised Land. Just as the king's son, as he passes each place upon his healthy return, can now appreciate his good health, as contrasted with his sickly state when he initially passed the same sites, so too were B'nei Yisroel to be positive, thankful and optimistic about their position, realizing that the events which they experienced were necessarily geared toward the climax of their journey.
On a deeper level, the Masa'os appear at the conclusion of Sefer Bamidbar due to their motif of change and transition, for they span the history of the Jewish People in the Desert and the occurrences at each stage. The entirety of Sefer Bamdibar centers around the metamorphosis of B'nei Yisroel from B'nei Yaakov and the Dor Deah to a generation of projected settlers of the Holy Land (as elaborated upon in the first d'var Torah on Parshas Bamidbar in this series). The Masa'os are the review and culmination of this theme, and they therefore appear at the end of Sefer Bamidbar.
Common custom is to chant the Masa'os as a song. The Masa'os' string of travels and all that transpired with them is well understood as bearing the message of a shirah (song), for shirah unifies seemingly disparate themes into one grand formation, such that all which occurred was orchestrated with an underlying system and goal. (Rav Gedaliah Schorr on Parshas Ha'azinu) The many steps of the Masa'os comprise a purposeful program of preparation for entry to Eretz Yisroel.
May we soon personally realize that all of Jewish history, including its suffering and celebrations, is part of Hashem's master plan for our return to our Land in the final Ge'ulah.