Place yourself in the shoes of one of your ancestors on the day we were freed from slavery in Egypt. After hundreds of years of bondage, you have seen God punish your oppressors with 10 miraculous plagues, completely destroying their once-great civilization. Moshe has said that God is leading you on a three-day journey to Israel, where you will now live in peace and tranquility. Overcome with excitement and gratitude, you and your nation finally exit Egypt and begin your long-awaited journey to freedom and sovereignty.
Shortly after exiting Egypt, Moshe says, “God has instructed us not to take the direct route to Israel, because we would need to pass through the land of the Plishtim. He is concerned that if they try to attack us, we will become afraid and run back to Egypt. Instead, we will take a longer, roundabout route to Israel.”
If I heard this, I would have been extremely confused. I would have thought, “God just overturned the laws of nature multiple times in order to force the mighty Egyptians to free us, because He wants to bring us to Israel. Now, after performing all of these huge miracles, God is worried about the Plishtim? Why can’t He just make one more small miracle and allow us to peacefully pass through their land without them noticing? Shouldn’t this be easy for Him compared to everything He did to actually get us out of Egypt?”
Examining the wording of the first pasuk in Parshat Beshalach can help us understand why God told our ancestors to take this roundabout route. The pasuk says that God did not lead the Jews by the Plishtim, “ki karov hu.” The simple translation of this phrase is “for it was near.” This creates the difficult-to-understand sentence of “God did not lead the Jews by way of the Plishtim, for it was near” (Shemot 13:17). Presumably, the Torah should have written, “God did not lead the Jews by way of the Plishtim, although it was near.” Indeed, Rashi explains that the word ki means “although” in this case. However, the pasuk’s simplest translation indicates that God didn’t view taking the quicker route as an advantage, but specifically as the reason that He did not want the Jews to take it. Why would He have not wanted to lead our ancestors to Israel as quickly as possible?
Throughout their servitude in Egypt, the Jews were emotionally and spiritually downtrodden. It’s impossible to think about one’s own personal growth when your every minute is spent working under pain of torture and death. Now, having been suddenly freed, the Jews’ whole self-concept changed. They could control their own destiny and were free to make their own good or bad choices. This liberating period makes you feel that you can take on the world, and that’s certainly how our ancestors must have felt. “Why not take us straight to Israel? We have seen God’s miracles and completely trust Him.” But God knew better. He knew that nobody is emotionally prepared to go from subjugation to bliss in three days. We had not yet built a strong national backbone by facing profound challenges in our journey to the top. An everlasting faith in God is cemented in believing that He is with us, even as we spend a long 40 years wandering in the desert.
This lesson is one we can all take to heart in our personal lives. Who has not had times when they felt as if they were just wandering through a barren desert? In our personal journeys, we all want to become the best version of ourselves as soon as possible, as if we could just turn on a movie montage and go straight from the bottom to the top in a matter of minutes. Well, if yetziat Mitzrayim was a movie, the montage would have started when we left Egypt and ended when we arrived in Israel shortly afterward. However, God knows that stable and lasting personal growth takes sacrifice and perseverance over a long period of time, as Chazal say, “A righteous man falls seven times.” On an individual level, too, we first need to learn how to properly deal with our failures in the desert, for if we try to reach our personal Israel too quickly, the Plishtim of the world may deal us an emotional blow we aren’t ready for, making us run back to our Egypt.
This message should be an inspiration to all of us when we face difficult times. When we experience challenges that seem as if they can’t be overcome, we should realize they are all part of the slow but steady process of growth. Instead of a foundation built on sand or mud, God is letting us experience personal journeys full of small victories and failures that will eventually create a foundation of stone. Instead of viewing our personal, emotional or spiritual setbacks as crushing blows, we can understand that they are all part of a bigger plan, directed by God, to make us into people who can reach our potential and be battle-hardened enough to face anything once we have gotten there.
By Eliyahu Spivack
Eliyahu Spivack is a Teaneck resident and undergraduate at Yeshiva University.