THE SHORTER LONG WAY
Rabbi David Walk
Waze has become my New York Yankees. It's as important to me to beat Waze as it is for my beloved Red Sox to beat that Evil Empire in the Bronx. We start out on a simple trip from Stamford, CT to Teaneck, NJ. My wife checks Waze to see which of the four (normal) approaches to the George Washington Bridge will be the fastest route to family and food in Modern Orthodoxy's version of Monsey. Then Rivka tells me the official ETA according to Waze. The race is on. The gauntlet has been thrown. It is imperative to beat that time, with or without Waze's help. I pride myself on my sense of direction and my road savvy, inherited from my truck driving Dad. So, how can I subordinate myself to this mere app? In any case, I often beat the time listed, but I rarely finish first if I choose an alternate route to the one mapped out by Waze. We all know the truth. The fastest route is based on traffic conditions, not distance. Waze has more info than I have. But what if the concern isn't speed? Perhaps I'm searching for the safest route or the scenic route or the cheapest route. Then entirely different factors come into play. Armed with this knowledge, let's take a look at God's itinerary for the Children of Israel at the beginning of this week's Torah reading.
Our parsha begins: It happened that when Pharaoh sent the nation forth, God (Elokim) did not guide them along the way of the land of the Philistines, which is close; because God said, "Lest the nation have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt. So God led the nation roundabout, along the way of the desert by the Red Sea; the Israelites left Egypt armed." (Exodus 13:17-18) God, the tour guide, decided that the shortest route would be a mistake. But there seems to be another factor involved here. Since Moshe's encounter with God at the burning bush, there has been an emphasis on God's four letter name, the Tetragrammaton, which denotes compassion. However, here God is referred to as Elokim, which implies power and often judgment. It seems we're working on tough love. The chosen route was longer and tougher (It included the desert.), because there was a more important factor than speed or ease of travel. It was permanence.
It was imperative that the Jews never return to Egypt. At the time that issue seemed like a non-starter. Who would want to go back to Egypt land of slavery, torture and death? Well, the Jews for one. It wasn't long before the Jews were saying, 'Isn't this what we told you, while we were slaves, to leave us alone? We said it would be better to be slaves to the Egyptians than dead in the wilderness (14:12).' I can even hear Edward G. Robinson snarling those sentiments. The Jews will sing this refrain throughout the years in the desert almost every time the nation set out to march. The whining usually included two factors: slavery is preferable to death and life in Egypt was better than travel in the desert (especially the food). But God requires that return to Egypt must remain unthinkable.
The Talmud (Yerushalmi. Sukkot 5:1) prohibits returning to Egypt in the following manner: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: There are three places in Scripture where the people of Israel are enjoined not to return to Egypt. Here, the verse states: 'for though you see Egypt today, you will never see them again (Exodus 14:14)'. Another verse states: '…God has said to you that you shall not return by this way again' (Deuteronomy 17:16). The third verse says that 'God will return you to Egypt in boats…' (Deuteronomy 28:68). So, the Torah prohibits us from ever returning to Egypt three times and, ironically, our Sages also list three times in which Jews really did go break this law. The first was under Chizkiyahu when he asked the Egyptians for help against Sancherev and the Assyrians. The second (recorded by Yirmiyahu) was an actual emigration from Israel to Egypt for permanent settlement. And the third instance mentioned is the famous Jewish community of Alexandria, which was destroyed by the Romans in 115 CE, after flourishing for over 400 years.
What was so wrong about Egypt? Since there are three prohibitions and three instances, there must be three problems. The first and most famous is that we considered Egypt very corrupt, especially their sexual mores. Also, Egypt is compared with Israel, 'The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden (Deuteronomy 11:10). The ease of farming in Egypt makes the worship of God more difficult. But most important is reason number three, and it's described by the prophet Isaiah, Woe to those who descend to Egypt for help (Isaiah 30:2). The Talmud allows going to Egypt for business or conquest (Sanhedrin end of chapter 10). We can't go to Egypt in a manner of submission. Because the greatest threat of Egypt is a return to slavery.
When we left Egypt it was with head held high (yad rama). We left armed and were paid generously for our services during those centuries. All of these factors are critical to the exodus experience. Because when we look at the verses describing the departure, the greatest concern was that we might go back, not just to the physical land of Egypt but to the mind set of being Egyptian slaves.
Now we can truly understand the way we left and the triple prohibition of returning. We had to see the former task masters drowned in the Sea, because we must never waver in our abhorrence to ever return to a slave identity. Our worship of God requires us to be free of all other encumbrances. Before we could stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai, we had to hear Moshe's stirring words at the Sea, 'Go forward!' We can never go back.