A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
February 3, 2007 / 15 Shevat 5767
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS
Parashat B'shallah witnesses the triumphant redemption. Freed by the wonders of God and the leadership of Moses, the Israelites leave their Egyptian surroundings en route to the Promised Land of Israel. And while one would expect God to have mercy on these newly liberated children, guiding them along the shortest route possible, the parashah opens with a curious statement:
And it came to pass that when Pharaoh sent the people on their way, God did not lead them through the land of Philistines because that is near, for God said, "The people might change their minds when they see war in front of them, and then they will turn back to Egypt." So God made the people take a round–about way, the way of the wilderness of the Reed Sea. (Exodus 13:17–18)
How are we to understand God's strategy? To what extent did God's plan benefit the newly freed Israelites? What was God's fear and great concern? Rashi illuminates the phrase "the people might change their minds." He explains, "[God was concerned] lest the people begin to harbor thoughts about their departure, and they let their hearts be swayed and regret their decision." Masterfully, Rashi places himself in the sandals of the newly freed Israelites. Human nature is at once capricious and predictable. When one sets out on a life–changing experience or journey, it is natural to second–guess one's self.
The Israelites were no different. Faced with the prospect of battling their way to the land of Israel, in all likelihood the Israelites would run, not walk, back to their Egyptian taskmasters.
Amos Hakham, the Israeli Bible scholar, complements Rashi's explanation by elaborating on the divine psychology behind God's strategy. Hakham points out in his commentary Da'at HaMiqra that the reason Torah tells us that the Children of Israel were "armed" as they came up from Egypt is "to show that God's fear concerning the people changing their minds at the sight of war was a result of their depressed emotional and physical state." Hakham explains that the Israelites were a people enslaved, used to a life of oppression. And so, the people did not fear war because of a dearth of arms; rather, it was a lack of gumption and bravery. Accordingly, God lengthened the journey to Israel so as to embolden their spirit as a free people (Amos Hakham, Da'at HaMiqra, 238).
Human nature and divine care work in harmony. God realizes the fragile state of these former slaves. If we think back to liminal moments in our lives, the biblical narrative suddenly resonates in our hearts. We often become enslaved to routine patterns in our lives, and we often crave solely what we know. We long for our comfort zones. We need only think back to making a decision as to which college to attend, deciding on an appropriate career path after university, or choosing a life partner, to summon feelings of anxiety and unease. We often second–guess ourselves. Such second–guessing typically makes us weak–kneed and compels us to return to the safety of the known. Yet, the lesson taught in this week's parashah is one of trusting ourselves and God. We must journey forward. And it is often the journey that is the longest and most difficult that strengthens us and allows us to ultimately reach the Promised Land.
Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz