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On the Path to Freedom, It's One Step at a Time
When the Israelites leave Egypt, God does not allow them to take the short, direct route through the land of the Philistines. Rather, they are sent by way of the Sea of Reeds. The reason God gives is: "The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt."
Medieval Jewish commentators offer a number of explanations for the circuitous route. Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir), faithful to the literal meaning of the text, claims that God diverted them so they wouldn't immediately be engaged in battle with the Canaanites in an attempt to conquer the Promised Land. God fears they would turn tail for Egypt.
Similarly, Abraham ibn Ezra writes that this people was inexperienced in war and still had a slave mentality, which ill-suited them for armed opposition.
Maimonides views the long route as part of God's grand plan for the desert wanderings. God wants to accustom them to hardship in order to toughen them for the eventual conquest of Eretz Yisrael. Had they been confronted with the task of conquest, they would not have been capable. People cannot be suddenly freed from persecution, and then fight enemies. There needs to be preparation.
Rabbenu Chananel takes a different approach.
God wants them to take a longer route so that He can have more time to display signs and wonders, like manna from heaven. The further they are from civilization, the more they are dependent on miracles for their survival and the greater the manifestation of God's power. The implication is that despite all the miracles that God had already performed for the Israelites, they needed more spectacular deeds to cement their faith.
What can we learn from these commentaries?
From Rashbam and ibn Ezra, we can deduce that if we engage in major endeavors without the proper psychological, intellectual and spiritual preparation, we may be domed to failure. Too often in life, we seek shortcuts to a goal without being willing to lay the necessary groundwork. We are like novice runners, who attempt to run a marathon without weeks of training. And God is not always going to save us from our folly or inexperience.
This lesson from our Torah portion is especially on target in an age of infomercials telling us how to get rich quick, lose weight fast and look like a movie star even faster. In life, as in our ancestors' wanderings, shortcuts are fraught with danger.
An Entire Generation
Maimonides adds to the first two commentators an important political dimension. And that is that an oppressed people cannot just be expected to move easily to freedom, nor be able to defend their freedom. They need a period of recovery, and a second period in which they can be steeled for adversity. The transition for the Israelites took an entire generation. For some nations, it can even be longer.
Rabbenu Chananel's insight teaches us that faith does not come easily. If the Israelites, who witnessed so many miracles in Egypt, were slow to trust in God, then it's not surprising that we contemporary Jews often have a hard time believing in God. While we have the modern-day miracle of the birth of Israel, we also have the fires of the Shoah to dampen our faith.
We are not likely to experience anything like being fed with manna or receiving water from a rock, so what will nurture us? To be a believer nowadays will require years of learning how to experience God in a different way than our ancestors, yet if this ragtag collection of former slaves could eventually develop faith, then so can we.
All told, it is the short road that often proves to be the longest way in life experience and in faith; and it is the longer, but ultimately shorter path, that we must follow.
Rabbi Alan Iser is the religious leader of Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn.