Geometry tells us that the shortest path between two points is a straight line. A glance at the geography of the Mideast shows us that the quickest route from the fertile plains of northern Egypt to Israel follows the Mediterranean shore.
But this week's Torah portion opens with a curious detail: Instead of seeking the fastest way out of a nation that enslaved them for hundreds of years, Moses and the Jewish people instead take a circuitous route through what we know today as the Sinai Peninsula. And then, they momentarily backtrack.
Can you imagine being a part of this epic exodus? Your moment of freedom arrives, you leave Egypt after a tremendous display of divine wrath in the form of the 10 plagues, deliverance is near, and then ... you turn around?
The Torah's explanation for why God took the Israelites the long way was that if they encountered war too close to Egypt, "the people may have a change of heart ... and return." God also had them stop and turn around as a tactical measure; the change in direction fooled Pharaoh, and caused him to pursue his fleeing slaves, only to be trapped and drowned in the Sea of Reeds.
The account could be seen as an amazing record of the awesome power of the Almighty. Such a view, however, would ignore one crucial element of the story -- the people themselves.
Far from being the direct objects of the events, the Jewish people are definite actors in the narrative. The people react strongly to what's happening to them -- from crying out to God and complaining to Moses when they see the Egyptians in hot pursuit, to singing songs of praise when they cross the sea on dry land and watch the waters crash down on their enemies.
Closer inspection further reveals that each step of the redemption was dependent on the people and on their leader, Moses.
The people's fearful cry to the heavens and desperate complaint -- "Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?" -- seems to indicate a lack of faith. The medieval commentator Rashi, however, offers a different view.
When the people saw the advancing armies, they prayed, emulating the examples set by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all of whom prayed in adversity. Their complaint, meanwhile, reflected the natural response of finding themselves in a dire situation.
Moses decides to pray as well. But this time, God stops him: "Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward."
The Midrash explains that the people, sandwiched between the sea on one side and the Egyptian armies on the other, split into four camps, each offering a reasonable solution to their predicament. The first advocated plunging themselves into the sea in a great act of self-sacrifice, content to die as free men instead of living as slaves. The second wanted to return to Egypt. The third argued that they should stand their ground and fight to the death, and the fourth said that the only option left was to pray.
One person, the leader of the Tribe of Judah, Nahshon son of Amminadab, jumped into the water, confidant that there was only one direction to go: across. In his merit, the sea split.
Despite our best-laid plans, the vagaries of life get in the way. As in this week's portion, the difficulties of this physical world are not so much an impediment, but a challenge to be overcome.
Sometimes, the only proper response is action.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: jrunyan@ chabad.org.