By Rabbi Irving A. Elson
Growing up, certain phrases uttered by my dad always struck panic in my family:
“Yeah, I think I can fix that!”
“This doesn’t seem so difficult.”
Of all the phrases my father used, though, the one that always brought unbridled terror to my sister and me was this one: “Don’t worry, I know a shortcut!”
Hearing those words, we knew, meant hours of aimless meandering around on small roads eventually ending up right where we’d started, pulling out a map, and beginning again.
I often am reminded of that wandering when I read this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Beshalach (Exodus.13:17-17:16). In it, Pharaoh has acquiesced, his firstborn is dead, and Moses finally is leading the Children of Israel to the Promised Land.
Looking at a map, we can see clearly it is a straight shot from Egypt to the Promised Land. Maybe a week or two of travel—at the most—and they are home.
But that was not meant to be.
In a verse, reminiscent of my childhood, I can almost hear the Almighty say: “Wait, I have a shortcut!” In fact, the Torah says: “When Pharaoh sent out the people, God did not lead them by the road of the land of the Philistines. | וַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֮ אֶת־הָעָם֒ וְלֹא־נָחָ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא כִּ֣י”
כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא | ki karov hu
There are two possible translations for this phrase, both pegged on the word “ki.” Ki can mean “because” or it can mean “despite.”
God didn’t take them the short way, ki karov, because it was near, or God didn’t take them the short way, ki karov, despite [the fact] that it was near.
How could God not have taken the Children of Israel the shortest way possible? What reason could God have had for doing otherwise?
Moshe David Cassuto, a 19th-century commentator, gives the following explanation: “God did not lead them by the land of the Philistines, because it was near, and that would have brought the Israelites to the land of Canaan too soon.”
Moshe Cassuto picked up on something that my sister and I already knew all too well from our family road trips: “Sometimes, the shortest route is not the best route.”
Or, in the words of our rabbis:
“Yesh dereck ketzarah, she hi aruckha, veyesh derech aruchka, shehi ketzara. There are shortcuts that turn out to be long, and there are long roads that turn out to be short.”
God did not want the Israelites to get into the land of Israel too soon. They had to learn to live as a people first; they had to endure hardship as a people first; and they had to receive, learn, and live the Torah before they entered the land of Israel.
Perhaps one of the greatest lessons we learn growing up is that there are no shortcuts in life. We know this to be true. But so, too, with our faith. In Judaism, we see the advantages of taking the long road—a road of continual practice, constant study, and deep introspection. Reaping the fruits of Judaism takes effort and commitment. Judaism doesn’t come in a box, and, if you truly want to realize all its many benefits, it cannot be ordered through a microphone, picked up at a drive-through window, or eaten quickly in the car.
In one of the final scenes of the movie “Rudy,” the story of Notre Dame football player Rudy Ruettiger, the coach ends a locker room pep talk with a prayer, immediately followed by the words “Now do the work!” I pray that this week’s Torah portion inspires us to avoid shortcuts, and “do the work” for a life of faith, goodness, and success.
Rabbi Irving A. Elson is a vice president and the director of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council® at JCC Association of North America.