Thursday, January 24, 2013

Beshalach

“God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer…” (Exodus 13:17)

Why?  Why not take the more direct route?  Why the roundabout path?  The commentators debate this question.

Many suggest that God’s concern was practical.  If the people traveled through what is today the Gaza Strip, the land then controlled by the Philistines, they would most assuredly confront war.   This of course might give them pause.  They might have a change of heart and want to return to slavery.  The Torah agrees: “…God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’”   The medieval commentators Rashi and Ramban concur.

On the literal level this makes sense.  But God parts the Sea of Reeds in this week’s portion as well.  The sea is divided so that the Israelites might escape the advancing Egyptians.  In the beautiful poem “Song of the Sea,” that includes our Mi Chamocha prayer, the Israelites exclaim: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea; and the pick of his officers are drowned in the Sea of Reeds….” (Exodus 15:4)  So why would God not fight the battles with the Philistines as well?  Perhaps the stated reason is not the more important explanation.

The commentators Ibn Ezra and Maimonides offer more interesting explanations.   Ibn Ezra suggests that the Israelites first had to sense freedom before claiming the land of Israel as their own.  They needed to live as a free people, wandering throughout the wilderness, before establishing freedom in the land of Israel.  Maimonides, on the other hand, suggests that the Israelites needed to take this roundabout route so that they might experience hardship.  The hunger and pain, rebellions and complaining, offer important lessons for the former slaves to become one people. 

The easy path rarely offers the greatest lessons.   When things are given to us without struggle, or even suffering, we do not always appreciate them as we should.   What we earn through hardship and pain is sometimes more meaningful than even the most valuable of gifts.

What is truly priceless is that which we craft with our own hands through struggle and sacrifice. That is what we prize!  For these we more often sing God’s blessings. 

Had God led us from Egypt directly to the land of Israel we might not appreciate the blessings that would come to flourish in that land—then as well as today.

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