As when we left slavery in Egypt, so today: a premature arrival can be dangerous.
Table for Five: Beshalach
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
It came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go, that God did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because God said, Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt. -Ex. 13:17
Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles
“God didn’t lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines ki karov hu.” “For it was near” is certainly a fair translation of “ki karov hu.” Daas Zekenim, a medieval commentary on Torah offers another reading. “Ki karov hu,” actually means, “because he (Israel) is [His] close relative.” They cite Psalms (148:14) “the Israelites, His nation, [His] close relative.”
The word karov means close, and means a relative. Because of God’s close relationship with Israel, He made an active and involved choice to direct their destiny in a way that it would not have unfolded otherwise without His involvement. When Pharaoh sent the nation out, teaches the Torah, it was not Pharaoh who was influencing the history of the Jewish people, but God himself, who is closely supervising the destiny of His beloved people.
This lesson is the very cornerstone of the Jewish Bible. There is a God, who is engaged in this world, and he has a people who, beginning with Abraham, were loyal to Him, and to whom he made a pact of loyalty. No matter how lost we may feel in our travels and exiles, we cling to the reality that if we have not taken history’s most direct route to the Promised Land, this is because God, with whom we are so exceptionally close, is directing our destiny. We eagerly await the end of the journey, when “He will raise up the pride of His people, the Israelites His nation, [His] close relative, Hallelujah.”
Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School
Normally, we understand this verse to mean that God chose to take Israel the long way home to avoid warfare that would frighten them into returning to Egypt. That is almost certainly correct. However, I would like to suggest another plausible reading of this verse.
The verse uses the verb n.ḥ.m. to mean “reconsider.” While this verb has precisely that meaning, the very same verb can also mean to be at ease, to become comfortable. Thus, we can re-render the concluding phrase, “Lest the people become comfortable when they see war and return to Egypt.”
In this reading, the concern is not that war will frighten the Israelites, but that Israel will become accustomed to war, become comfortable with it, and make it a way of life. If so, their first instinct may be to return to Egypt and take vengeance on their former enslavers in a Quentin Tarantino-style revenge fantasy. Therefore, God avoids war and leads them through the sea to make a clean break with their Egyptian past. This reading follows Judaism’s rejection of vengeance: “You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge” says the Torah in the very same breath it exhorts us to love our fellow as ourselves (Lev. 19:18). Justice is the cornerstone of civil society, but vengeance is seldom tailored to justice. For Israel to fulfill its destiny, it must leave Egypt behind. For us to be whole, we must learn from our past hurts, but move on to bigger and better things.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University
It was the most important journey of Jewish history – and yet G-d did something extremely strange from a contemporary perspective.
Our ancestors were finally escaping from the slavery of Egypt. Before them was the blessing of the Promised Land. It would seem that speed was of the essence. Hurry up, we would urge. Get moving. The faster the better. But G-d had other plans. He did not lead them by way of the most direct route. How was that possible?
Because the Torah teaches us a remarkable truth: The Jews weren’t ready to face the challenge. It was simply too soon. Had they been faced with the test of fight or flight they would have preferred servitude over freedom. And there are times in our lives as well when what is right needs to be deferred until the child, the student, the teenager or the not-yet-religious require patient waiting instead of being hurried into a situation for which they are as yet unprepared, for which the task would only spell defeat and total surrender.
As a rabbi I know what a spiritually guided life of Torah can add to personal joy and fulfillment. Yet when I guide others on the journey to a glorious Promised Land, I have learned that the key is not a speedy trip to total commitment and observance. Short cuts are most often short circuits to success. Spiritual growth, like the journey from Egypt to Jerusalem, is most often achieved when we recognize the wisdom of the longer way chosen by G-d instead of the more obvious and appealing shortcut.
Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Judaics Faculty
Have you seen our friend Mayim Bialik’s quirky new TV show, “Call me Kat”? Did you notice how her titular character sometimes turns to speak directly to the audience, breaking the fourth wall? This eccentric conceit allows the audience and Kat to feel as if they have shared a joke, like friends.
French Philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-1784) is credited with popularizing the idea of the fourth wall during the Enlightenment, but could God have actually been the first to use this technique? To whom is God speaking in our verse if not to us, the audience? And what is the purpose of this gesture? If you know the next part of the story (as we do), you can’t help but wonder if this sudden insight into the Divine mind is a kind of heavenly sarcasm: “Oy, these Israelites! I don’t have the highest hopes for them. So, I guess I’ll take them by way of the Red Sea. That should be better…”
It’s funny, in a dark way, because we know that the challenges keep coming for the Israelites. And this is true: Life is difficult, as we know well in these endless days of pandemic and social unrest. But maybe we can take a page from God’s playbook and get through this time with a bissel humor, remembering faithfully that God can turn around our troubles in a moment, just as God soon drowns the Egyptians in the raging sea even as it seems that all hope is lost.
Rabbi Michael Barclay, Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village
The great magician Ricky Jay z”l taught that “Magic is all structure…from the ordinary to the extraordinary to the astounding.” The concept, demonstrated in the film “The Prestige,” is that to be impactful there must be setup and eventually an astounding payoff.
Ricky Jay understood this as a performer, and God sets up this process for the ancient Hebrews in this verse.
Although it often seems that God takes us through difficult journeys instead of making it easy on us, we can usually see in retrospect that the challenging journey was to teach us lessons, and/or help us appreciate God’s magnificence.
Rabbi Chananel (990-1053 Tunisia) taught that this is actually the deeper reason for God’s choice of a circuitous route. The Hebrews had already seen extraordinary demonstrations of God’s power through the ten plagues. Now as they were leaving Egypt, God took them on the longer route that would ultimately be filled with more dangers than just war with the Philistines. But each time the people see God’s miracles of splitting the Sea, providing a well, daily manna and more, their relationship with God deepens… as does their gratitude and awe.
Slavery was ordinary; the exodus was extraordinary; and God’s constant miracles in this longer route were the astounding teachings to remind us forever of God’s greatness.
May we all be conscious as we go through challenges that these trials are simply a way to deepen our relationship with the Divine; and may we all accept these challenges with gratitude and grace.
With thanks to Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Nili Isenberg, and Rabbi Michael Barclay.
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