Skip to main content

Why the Journey Is So Long and Hard

The Torah relates: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer.” (Exodus 13)

Why? Why not take the more direct route? Why lead the Israelites on a 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, an area 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 Nachmanides concur.

On the literal level this makes sense. Then again God parts the Sea of Reeds. 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 God has cast into the sea; and the pick of his officers are drowned in the Sea of Reeds.” (Exodus 15) So why would God not fight the battles with the Philistines as well?

Perhaps the stated reason does not offer the more important lesson.

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 these former slaves. Only after taking these lessons to heart will they be able establish their own nation.

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 gifts.

What is truly priceless is that which we craft with our own hands through struggle and sacrifice. That is what we most prize!

And it is about these we most often sing God’s blessings: “Mi chamochah ba-eilim, Adonai! Who is like You, O God, among the gods that are worshipped? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders? (Exodus 15)