Parashat Masei begins with a list of Benei Yisrael’s forty-two journeys during the forty years from the Exodus until their final encampment before crossing into the Land of Israel. The Torah painstakingly lists all the stations where Benei Yisrael encamped along their route to Eretz Yisrael, and different explanations have been offered for why the Torah found it necessary to list these stations. Rashi, citing Rabbi Moshe Ha-darshan, explains by showing that twenty-two of the forty-two journeys occurred in the first and last years of this forty-year period. This means that in the interim thirty-eight years, after God decreed in response to the sin of the spies that Benei Yisrael would remain in the desert for a total of forty years, they journeyed only twenty times. This list was presented, then, to demonstrate that although God severely punished Benei Yisrael, and had them remain in the desert, He did not force them to constantly move about, and they experienced relative stability during this period.
Malbim offers a different explanation, noting that the Torah introduces this section by stating, “These are the journeys of the Israelites who left the land of Egypt…” (33:1). Rather than describe this list as a list of stages undertaken en route to Benei Yisrael’s destination – the Land of Israel – it instead speaks of these journeys as the stages of Benei Yisrael’s departure from Egypt. Malbim explains that these journeys marked the stages of not only Benei Yisrael’s geographic progression, but, more importantly, the profound spiritual process which they underwent. They needed a lengthy period of transformation, in order to successfully dissociate themselves from the pagan beliefs and culture which they had absorbed over the course of the centuries they spent in Egypt. The forty-two stations are significant, according to Malbim, not as simply geographic landmarks, but rather in emphasizing the numerous stages that were needed for Benei Yisrael to rid themselves of the ideas and behaviors which they had taken with them from Egypt.
According to Malbim, then, the Torah presented this list to instruct that change requires a lengthy, difficult process. We cannot expect ourselves, or others, to rid ourselves of our faults and vices overnight, or even in a day, week or month. Change happens little by little, with occasional setbacks along the way, just as Benei Yisrael’s progression was not without numerous obstacles and failures. We must focus on trying to becoming just a bit better each day, realizing that the process of “leaving Egypt” is a lengthy, difficult, complex process that takes time, patience, strength and resolve to complete.