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Frederick L. Klein
Frederick L. Klein

Beshalach: Taking the Long Way Home

Route of the Israelites in the desert. Courtesy of bible-history.com

The public intellectual and historian Francis Fukuyama at the end of the twentieth century wrote a very influential book, The End of History and the Last Man, which explored the rise of liberal democracy throughout the world, especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Fukuyama argued that with the rise of global scale economies and open markets, eventually the entire world would politically evolve to participate in this new free global order.  In essence, even if there would be minor setbacks, the road to liberal democracy was inevitable.  A little over a quarter of a century later, we realize that history at best is very unpredictable.  Freedom and democracy are not the only or even primary values that motivate people.  Parashat Beshalach bears out this uncomfortable truth, a truth that seems more relevant today than ever before.

The Jewish people have just been liberated from Egypt with miracles and wonders, and God is about to lead them to the Promised Land.  A collection of slaves is given a future of blessing and freedom under a Divine law, a law that will liberate them from their more basic instincts.  God ensures them if they follow these commandments, ultimately they will prosper in the land God has promised.  Yet, no sooner are the Jews liberated than we begin to hear a complaint that will arise repeatedly throughout the desert- the desire to return to Egypt.  In this week’s parashah alone, we hear this complaint three times (14:10-12, 16:2-3, 17:2-7). What motivation could these liberated Jews possibly have to return to their oppressors?  It seems so counterintuitive. To understand this, we need to understand the state of mind of these people.

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt (Ex. 13:17).

The ‘route of the Philistines’ is the main coastal road along the northern reaches of the Sinai Peninsula, leading to the region which would later become the land of the Philistines, the modern-day Gaza strip.   If you want to go to the land of Israel from Egypt, this is the fastest route.  The verse tells us that God led the Jewish people in a circuitous route towards the Sea of Reeds because of a potential for armed conflict.  What conflict are we speaking about, and why would there be any need for concern?  If God could defeat the Egyptian armies, certainly God could take care of any battle with the local inhabitants!  Indeed, only a verse later God informs Moses that by leading the Jews deeper into the desert, Pharaoh will be convinced they are confused, and will chase after them.  In other words, God seems to lead them specifically into the wilderness to lure Pharaoh and the Egyptians into a conflict!

There are various explanations given to explain these elusive verses, but I would like to share with you the insight of Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), known commonly by his acronym, Shadal.   Shadal argues that the Jewish people needed to take a circuitous route before entering the land of Israel, because they would immediately encounter the conflict with the native tribes of the land of Israel and would lack the strength and resilience to endure a period of battle following the traumatic experiences of slavery. As a result, they would simply return to Egypt.

However, Shadal goes deeper than this.  The goal is not merely to circumvent the coastal route, but to drive them into the wilderness where they will develop and mature as a people. In essence, the journey into the desert reflects a psychological insight that the people were simply not ready for the responsibility of nationhood.  He notes that “slaves that have suddenly thrown off the yoke of intense servitude” will falter at the first moment of challenge and will fail to guide their newfound commonwealth with “wisdom and understanding”.  Despite the fact that that they were armed (chamushim alu bnei yisrael) and were guided by Divine Providence, these alone were insufficient to provide them the means to enter the land of Israel and embrace their destiny.  To do that they will need to undergo an internal revolution.  In going the circuitous route, the “Sinai route”, the people will have time to educate themselves at Sinai, gaining the values upon which they will apply in their new land.  These values will culminate when they receive the Torah at Sinai, which for Shadal provides a framework for a just and holy society.

Thus, I believe Shadal is telling us that the circuitous route of the desert provides two purposes: the first one is apparent in the text- to release them finally from the trauma of their past through the drowning of their oppressor.  The second, however, is more revolutionary- to rebuild the people from the inside out through a period of education.  He notes that while the generation certainly did not need to be punished and languish in the wilderness over the course of forty years, nonetheless they did need the time required in collective reflection around Mount Sinai, internalizing the Torah and the commandments, and deepening their faith in God.  They would then be given the tools to create an enlightened society. The wilderness itself, a transitional space outside the boundaries of civilization, in a tangible way provides the ideal place for this education.  Freed from the responsibility of governance and with their needs provided by God, they could turn inward and upward, clarifying for themselves the meaning of their liberation.

Even if this was the intended plan, the text bears out that this education process was not easy.  Even after the drowning of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds, the people murmur and complain not less than three times, idealizing a past world, which while regimented, was at least secure.   Unlike the wilderness, Egypt was a world familiar to them.  The people exclaim, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you [Moses and Aaron] have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death (Ex. 16:2-3).”   That we never hear about these wonderful fleshpots while in Egypt is beside the point:  the moment God gives them the possibility of freedom is the moment that they weigh the value of freedom against a full stomach.  They choose the latter; they glorify an imagined past.  In Egypt, they could have lived out whatever life they had and died a natural death at the hands of God, but Moses and Aaron have ‘extracted’ them from this life of comfort and brought them to a place of deep insecurity.  Perhaps there was a plan, a promised land that lay ahead of them.  However, it was much easier to imagine what they already knew. They choose the certainty of a regimented past over the uncertainty of a glorious future.  A preacher during the American Revolution voiced similar fears when he spoke to his congregation.

How soon does our faith fail us, and we begin to murmur against Moses and Aaron and wish ourselves back again in Egypt where we had the comforts of life, which we are now deprived of? – not considering that….in any deliverance there are great troubles and difficulties.[1]

 In fact, there are many indications from the text itself that although Moses and Aaron told the people to be ready to be redeemed with a staff in their hands and their loins girded, the people themselves had other plans.  During the plague of the death of the first born, the biblical text alludes to the fact that the Egyptians expelled the people and they ‘could not tarry’.  The implication is that they simply were not ready to go, and if not for the Egyptians they might have stayed where they were (Ex. 12:39).[2]   To take the first steps into the unknown future is an incredibly challenging thing to demand.  The rabbinic tradition takes this hesitance much further.  While the text says they came out chamushim, which probably means armed with weapons or with supplies, the Midrash makes a surprising and sobering statement. Playing on the fact the root is the same as chamesh, five, only one fifth of the people left Egypt.  Another tradition says one fiftieth, and yet another one in five hundred.  Finally, Rabbi Nahorai incredibly states at most one in five thousand went up from Egypt.[3] What happened to the rest of the people?  They died in the plague of darkness, unbeknownst to the Egyptians.  Unable to make the psychological transition to freedom, they died anonymously in darkness, disappearing from the annals of Jewish history and destiny.

According to this reading, we must ask.  What of the select few that made it out of Egypt?  They may have had enough faith that night to take the first steps towards freedom and a more ennobled existence, but by no means did they not look back. Unlike the main road of the Philistines, the road of the desert was longer and more difficult to traverse.  For this reason, it was also more difficult to return to Egypt, and it was for this reason God sent them there as well, for time after time the people yearn to do exactly that.  With the sin of the spies, they will completely eschew the land of Israel, rebel against Moses, and even begin to organize a party to return to Egypt.  God will punish that generation with death over forty years in the desert, minus Caleb and Joshua.  Thus, if only a few merited to leave Egypt in the first place, out of the 600,000 who left Egypt only two would arrive in the land of Israel!  With all the murmurings in the wilderness, the rebellions against God, and the attempts to return to Egypt the fact that they ever made it to the promised land is a miracle.  While Shadal argued that some educational time was needed, the text bears out that the lessons of being a free and covenanted people under a law take a generation to internalize.  It is easier to leave Egypt that for Egypt to leave them.

This concern should give us pause today.  During times of heightened uncertainty and vulnerability, people seek security, often in some known or even imagined past.  There is no doubt we are living in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic and a cultural war; democracy is in retreat here and around the world. We are experiencing a world order which we thought we knew crumble.  Our faith in institutions and leaders has been shaken to the core.  It is during times like this that we need to remind ourselves of what we stand for and what our values are.  We cannot succumb to lies about our fellow citizens and we should do everything to strengthen the values upon which this country is built- liberty, moral and civic virtues, checks on political power, and respect for everyone.  We need to have the imagination to continue to look forward to the promised land, even in a time when that promised land is hard to see.

The temptation to turn back to Egypt persisted, blinding an entire generation that saw wonders and miracles. They even rebelled against Moses and Aaron, and on a more fundamental level, God.   They were ready to give up the Torah at Sinai for the fleshpots of Egypt.  Are we any less immune?

Wishing all a shabbat shalom.

[1] Quoted in Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (USA: Basic Books, 1985), p. 52

[2] Interestingly, the same language is used in connection to Lot being extracted by the angels in Sodom.  Lot was not sure if he was going to leave.

[3] Mekhilte D’rebbe Yishmael,  Beshalach, Masechet Vayehi, Petichta

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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